Digg's Rose and Adelson Talk About Diggbar, New Features

AUSTIN, Texas -- Social news-sharing site Digg is one of the web's top crowdsourcing success stories. By letting its users vote up content that interests them, thereby deciding what belongs on the front page and what doesn't, Digg has rewritten the rules of news gathering and information sharing on the web. The site has also earned a reputation as an excellent resource for breaking news -- whatever story, blog post, video or photo is currently burning up the web, chances are you saw it on Digg first.

SXSW_2009But much has changed since the site first launched at the end of 2004. Though the Digg army continues to grow -- there are 4 million registered Digg users -- other, more immediate methods of sharing news have emerged. Twitter is faster for sharing links, and messages are short and sweet, making the flood of updates easier to scan. Also, more and more users are turning to Facebook to spread links, photos and videos to their friends.

So how does Digg plan to stay relevant? We got the chance to ask founder Kevin Rose and CEO Jay Adelson this week here at South by Southwest Interactive. We talked to Digg's head honchos the morning after their Bigg Digg Shindigg, the massive event at Stubb's that was one of the hottest parties at SXSWi.

Jay and Kevin talked about the new technology they're rolling out, like a new Digg toolbar, integration with Facebook Connect and OpenID, an updated search tool and more customization features.

Wired.com: First of all, what should we expect from Digg in 2009?

Jay Adelson: We're concentrating on things that are involved in engaging the user on and off the site, like Diggbar, Facebook Connect and other identity integrations for other platforms. That also involves scaling the site to handle that next wave of growth. We're going to do a total overhaul of your ability to search on the site and we're rethinking how we do customized pages for users, with customized feeds and so forth. That's already a Herculean list, but a lot of stuff is going on.

The first one, the Diggbar, is a pretty major deal for us and how people consume the site.

Wired.com: Yeah, tell us about the Diggbar.

Kevin Rose: It's not out yet, but it's coming soon. Basically, it's a small, framed bar, it's not software you install.

It turns Digg into a short URL provider, so now all of our links will be, for example digg.com/8357. When you go to one of these shortened URLs, it draws a really thin bar across the top.

You get the full destination site underneath it, but you also get this thin bar at the top that allows you to Digg it, to see the hot comments on that story, to see related content to the article you're viewing beneath it. There's also a "random" button that gives you Stumble Upon-type functionality that takes you to random sites around the web.

If you want to create a Diggbar, just go into your browser's address bar. Leave the full URL in there for the site you're currently browsing, and just type "digg.com/" in front of that and hit Enter. We take that entire URL, process it, turn it into a short URL, then bring you back to the page with the Diggbar and the full original site beneath it.

You get redirected to the short URL, so you can grab it and copy it. We also have icons on the Diggbar to post to Facebook and Twitter. It's just a great way to spread our content to the most popular microblogging services.

Digg founder Kevin Rose.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Wired.com: It's great for publishers, too.

Adelson: Oh sure. It keeps you on their site. And it will actually take you deeper into their site because the bar shows you related stories from that site as opposed to having to go back to Digg and do a search there.

Rose: Yeah if you click on "Related Stories" in the bar, rather than bringing you back to Digg, we just slide down a little tray and show you other content from that source.

Diggbar Wired.com: If there's no other content on Digg from that site, does it just pull in related Digg headlines from other sites?

Adelson: That's the idea, exactly. It's actually smart enough to know whether or not there's enough in the system.

Rose: It also provides analytic information, so you can see how many times the link has been visited. Maybe it has 4,000 Diggs, but how many times has this article actually been viewed?

Wired.com: Probably about twenty.

Rose: (Laughs) Actually, you'd really be surprised. I've seen stories that had 3,000 or 4,000 Diggs that have been viewed 75,000 or 100,000 times. That's insane, so we thought it would be great to expose that.

Plus, when you create the short URL in the Diggbar, you want to be able to send it around to your friends and see how many times your friends viewed it. You can see what impact you had by spreading the link around Twitter.

Wired.com: How do you handle the friend tracking? Is it just Digg friends, or if the user is logged in through Facebook Connect, will it track the activity of their Facebook friends as well?

Rose: Initially it will be just Digg, but when we launch Facebook Connect a few weeks later, we'll be able to show you that activity as well.

Adelson: Yes, Facebook Connect is coming soon.

Wired.com: And what about OpenID?

Adelson: Coming soon as well. One of the decisions we made pretty early on in the Facebook Connect adoption was to put a lot of work into our sign-on engine being applicable to a number of different identity systems. So, if we want to add another system down the road, it will be phenomenally less difficult than if we had to start from scratch.

It also means we can exponentially increase our registration base overnight, and make the barrier to entry to Digging from a remote site really low. If you're already logged in through Facebook Connect somewhere and you want to Digg a story, you don't have to leave that page. We're overhauling the Digg buttons as well to make it so you don't have to leave the page.

Wired.com: What's the audience overlap between Facebook and Digg?

Adelson: There are 4 million registered Digg users and about 35 million monthly visitors. Compare that to Facebook, which has over 100 million registered users. But Digg has mostly early adopters, about 58% male, they tend to be well-educated with a higher income. I think that Facebook is 100% mainstream, so it skews the web's entire demographic. We're more focused and narrow.

Wired.com: When will Diggbar launch?

Adelson: When it's ready. We're testing everything internally right now and as soon as we feel like it's locked down, we'll put it out.

We really want to get out of the formality of product launches. If you worry about hitting a certain date, you can miss the point of making it a quality release. Take your time.

Digg's Jay Adelson.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Wired.com: You mentioned changes to your site search. Can you tell us more about that?

Rose: It's going to be awesome. I feel like I'm going to finally be able to say that we have a real site search tool.

Right now, it's easy to search by headline keyword or by source, like to choose "Wired.com" and do a search. But if you're looking for a certain topic or something more general that's not source specific, that's where it breaks down today. That stuff is what we're overhauling.

Wired.com: One of the things I've always been most fascinated by on your site is the Labs stuff like the data visualizations you did with Stamen Design. Do you still have a relationship with them?

Adelson: We do. It's definitely evolved a lot. With Stamen, it's always been more than just a design relationship. We literally stood in front of white boards and came up with these ideas with these guys. Now there's a lot less time for that.

I want to tell you there will be more this year, but maybe only one or two. We want to expand the Labs section. We're talking about releasing things that aren't as polished, some more experimental projects.

Rose: And more things we can incorporate on the main Digg site. I want to do it more like how Gmail Labs works, where you can just enable or disable features and it effects your entire product. We want to do that as well, so people can turn things on and off and change their view of the Digg front page.

Wired.com: Kevin, tell us about WeFollow, your new Twitter directory.

Rose: I just wanted to see what would happen if you let people organize themselves in a directory based on Twitter "@" replies. So, you just Twitter @wefollow and add three hash tags you want to be listed under, and you're automatically categorized under those tags on the website. Each tag is sorted by most followers.

It's no business. It's just me coming up with an idea.

Adelson: It kind of gives you some insight into how Digg began, actually. It was pretty much Kevin playing around with an idea on weekends.

Kevin: Yeah, I literally built it in a week. It's taken off, too. It's been up a day and we've added close to 10,000 users to the directory already. Google added themselves to the directory, which is awesome.

Wired.com: What are your own tags?

Rose: Mine are #tech, #digg and #tea.

Wired.com: Kevin, how much time do you spend on Digg during the day? Is it the first site you hit every morning?

Rose: Yeah, it's my home page. It's a problem, because I get sucked into it like everybody else does. I try not to spend too much time -- I glance at the top 10 list and I'll look at some of the recently submitted stories. After that, I have to close it and go do actual work, because otherwise I'd sit there watching cats do crazy shit all day long. It's like working in a candy store.

Wired.com: The diversity of links on front page has really improved over the last couple of months. Why is that? Is it organic, or is it something that's engineered?

Adelson: It's both. What we needed to do is make sure it's fair. We haven't changed the fact that every Digg user has an equal opportunity to make it to the front page, but we have thrown some more components into the algorithm to help increase diversity. So, it is harder for somebody who has a really strong following of the same group of Diggers to get something on the home page.

We also have to balance out that filtering, because some of those guys who make it to the front page a lot are the absolute best content discovery guys out there. There's a reason why they've done so well -- it's because they're awesome at it. You want to give them the same opportunity.

We've also thrown a bunch of knobs and sliders on the system now so we don't have to do a new code push every time it needs adjusting.

Wired.com: So it's the kind of thing that's constantly changing day to day?

Adelson: Yeah. For example, the dupe detection algorithm we use is going to be significantly improved in the coming months. That's going to have a huge impact on Digg counts, how hot stories are submitted, and giving credit to whoever submitted it first. When that update happens, we'll have to tweak everything again, because one change has all sorts of ramifications.

Wired.com: Do you spend time studying other social news sites like Reddit, Stumble Upon or Slashdot?

Rose: No, that stuff doesn't really interest me that much. I'd rather look at the new ways information is spreading around on the web. I'm much more interested in looking at Twitter, or how URL shortening services are becoming a big deal. That's the stuff I want to make sure we're on top of.

I don't think I've ever seen a competitor to Digg to date that I've ever been worried about per se, because all of them just offer something along the same lines of what we do. I think if there's ever going to be any serious competition, it's going to be from a completely different direction that we're not expecting.

There's enough humans out there to go around. I don't feel like those other sites are taking anything away from us. In fact, we all need to become larger. There are 4 million registered users on Digg. I want to see a world where we have 50 or 100 million users.


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