About a year ago, the world’s one-time premier social news site, Digg.com, buried itself under an avalanche of crippling mistakes. Following a calamitous and ill-conceived redesign, the site’s downfall caused quite a stir online. Roughly 12 months later, the digital dust has almost settled. The citizens of the Internet have moved on, as they have repeatedly proven so willing to do.
If you look back, though, there’s much to be learned. This is because social news websites — places where people around the world can share ideas and discuss current events in real time — have become a critical component in the changing face of new media.
Digg launched Version 4.0 on Aug. 25, 2010. Prior to that, a number of Digg users (including myself) had been testing a trial version of the new site for a few weeks, hoping that some much-needed changes were on the horizon. They weren’t. It was clear from the outset that version four was a stark departure from previous, successful iterations of the site.
Instead of relying almost entirely on user-driven content submission, Digg version four allowed sponsors (most notably tech blogs like Mashable.com and TechCrunch.com) to automatically submit their content to the site. These stories were forced upon the users by way of a clumsy new homepage. Instead of being organized democratically based on the community’s input, Digg now functioned more like a Twitter or Facebook stream: users could “follow” certain people or companies and see only their corresponding content.
In essence, Digg neutered the creative, community-driven aspects of its platform, suppressing original “indie” content in favour of sponsored robotic spam. The backlash was immediate. Within days, reports were streaming in from statistics firms showing a dramatic loss in traffic (both to and from Digg). Long-time users were abandoning ship. New users were turning away.
Following a user-organized “quit Digg day” (Aug. 30, 2010), a massive horde of Digg refugees felt compelled to find a replacement site to sate their social news cravings. Many turned to what felt like the only real competitive alternative: Reddit.com.
Reddit was launched in early 2005, a few months after Digg. At its core, Reddit shares many similarities with Digg. Both are social news aggregators, both initially centered on strictly user-submitted and -rated content, and each compete for the other’s traffic. Yet for years Reddit lacked a certain level of widespread, mainstream popularity. It wasn’t until Digg version 4 launched that Reddit really emerged from the shadow of its competitor, becoming the successful and widely visited site that it is today.
In fact, Reddit’s rise to the top of the online social news scene can be directly attributed to the downfall of Digg — ubiquitous criss-crossing web traffic graphs vividly illustrate this point: as Digg’s traffic nosedives around Sept. 2010, Reddit’s traffic correspondingly skyrockets.
The Reddit administrators observed this shift in power while it happened, some having predicted it months beforehand, and reacted accordingly. In a humourous jibe at their floundering competitor’s expense, for a week following “quit Digg day” Reddit’s trademark alien logo was seen with a shovel in hand, welcoming ex-Diggers into the fold.
According to a recent blog post by Reddit’s administrators, the site has tripled in size within the last 15 months. Since last May, the site has grown “from 7 million monthly unique visitors to 21.5 million.” To top it off, their page views have quadrupled, “to a staggering 1.6 billion pages served per month,” meaning that not only are there more people using Reddit, but they’re also using it more often.
So, what sparked this massive influx in readership and page views? Digg’s downfall certainly set things in motion, but it is not the sole determinant of Reddit’s sustained success. Creativity and user freedom play a large role as well.
Reddit’s unique brand of social news revolves around not only user-submitted external content (news articles, YouTube videos, pictures, etc.), but also original content posted directly to the site itself. “Self posts” can be written by anyone in any of the site’s topic specific sub-sections — a feature that Digg lacked.
One of the more popular section of the site based primarily on original user-created content is “Ask Me Anything,” where celebrities, public figures or anyone with a stupid human trick or unique calling in life can take questions from an ever-expanding pool of users. Reddit has also become a potential spawning ground for comics, graphics, music, short films and occasionally even novels, serving as a jumping off point into a larger audience for aspiring artists. Nothing is off limits, and there is a specific place for every niche interest and fringe hobby imaginable. Saskatoon even has its own slice of the Reddit
It’s clear that Reddit’s success is directly tied to the laissez-faire flow of content. By fostering the creativity of its users and resisting any heavy-handed corporate sponsorship, the site has not only stolen Digg’s throne, but is on track to maintain its appeal for some time — barring any drastic interference by their corporate overlords Advanced Publications, a massive American media empire.
As the Internet becomes more privatized, corporatized and locked down, users will continually seek out relatively unrestricted spaces to congregate online. The rise of Reddit and the fall of Digg illustrates this: Digg sold out while Reddit stayed true to its roots and reaped the rewards. For now, this bodes well for social news. An open, creative platform has proven to be more successful than one forced to be structured on sponsorship and advertising.
The question remains, however, of whether or not Reddit’s approach will be sustainable five or 10 years down the road. As a website grows more popular, the cost of maintaining it shoots through the roof. This is often followed by pressure from owners or investors to further monetize the site. While this can sometimes be done effectively, it’s an enormously difficult task, and online communities rarely receive these realities warmly — just look at what happened to Digg.
note: Edited the Matrix to include a reference to Saskatoon’s subreddit.
graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf