Digg and Other Time Sinks

July 2008

I am ruthless. I have no regard for those of you who cherish your time and spend it wisely. I am here to tempt you with the most infamous of time sinks.

Well, maybe I exaggerate. But, darn, it’s hard to tear yourself away from Digg—perhaps the most popular “social media” site. Here’s how it works: people submit articles, videos, pictures, and podcasts that they find on the vast frontier of the Internet. As each is submitted, visitors to the site can vote for it (by “Digging” it) or they can give it a thumbs down (thereby “Burying” it).

What you have is an egalitarian filter on the billions of tidbits on the Internet, letting those items that are the most interesting, fascinating, or entertaining bubble to the top. The front page features the content that’s moving up fast in terms of number of Diggs and of comments.

You can view the most popular current items movers on the front page, or you can view the most popular (most Diggs) in the past 24 hours, 7 days, 30 days, or 365 days. You view according to media, such as news or video. And you can further refine that by category, such as technology, world news, gaming, entertainment, and sports.

So on my recent visit, I checked out the most popular videos of the past month, and 20 minutes instantly went down the drain. Be sure to see the video “I Think He Can Dance.” This guy is extremely creative and his moves endlessly entertaining. Another video was a very unflattering montage of John McCain, titled “McCain’s YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare.”

And therein lies the rub. Vox populi has the advantage of highlighting important, interesting, and creative content. But there’s no editorial judgment, so it’s hard to know whether the McCain video is an accurate presentation of misstatements and contradictions, or some artful editing.

Which is why Slashdot takes a somewhat different approach. While the summaries of articles that appear on Slashdot (along with a link to the original) are generally submitted by users, an editor decides whether each item gets posted on the site.

Slashdot is one of the most popular sites on the Internet for technology news, and sometimes web sites hosting the articles that are featured are overwhelmed by traffic — called the “Slashdot effect.”

Whereas there’s no Digg-style voting for content on Slashdot, part of its value lies in the interesting discussions of each item; and it’s here where Slashdot resembles Digg. Every comment is judged by semi-randomly chosen moderators, and those most entertaining or interesting rise to the top, and the vituperative and unintelligent receive low scores and can be hidden from view.

Digg also lets visitors evaluate comments. Just as one can Digg the items themselves, one can also give Digg or Bury comments. Those comments that end up with a negative rating are hidden from view. With both Digg and Slashdot you can set the threshold for viewing comments.

The result of all this is fascinating content that’s user generated, and a discussion that’s a bit more controlled than on many web sites. Social media sites have become so prominent, and the traffic they generate so sought after, that many web sites now post Digg and other social media icons at the bottom of each article, as you’ve likely noticed, making it convenient for you to Digg the article after you’ve read it.

There are now many such social media sites. Reddit may be the most popular after Digg, and the mechanics are largely the same: voting items up or down, and also evaluating the comments. Also popular, but taking a somewhat different approach are StumbleUpon and Del.icio.us.

As these sites have gotten popular, the biggies have taken notice. In February Yahoo launched its own social media site: Yahoo Buzz. Instead of Digging an item, you Buzz it. But other than that, mostly it’s the same. Except that so far there’s not much buzzing going on. An article that has a lot of Buzz might break a hundred, whereas the items on Digg typically can have hundreds or thousands of votes.

So what does it all mean? As a friend observed, these sites represent the democratization of news — what’s important to us. These and the ubiquitous blogs are overturning the top-down system of “mainstream media” and replacing it with a more democratic filter, and a more egalitarian dialog. The era of hierarchy and control is being replaced by the new era sharing and participation — the network.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen