It's one of the darlings of the internet, a site that typifies the Web 2.0 revolution and many people's first port of call for news. So why did Digg risk it all by turning its back on its roots and pulling a story recommended by readers? In May Digg, which operates a news aggregation site that lets users determine the importance of stories, found itself at the centre of a test case on who has control over user-generated content on social-networking sites.
What happened on Digg was described as an internet riot by many bloggers and online posters. And the outcome was clear: the rioters won.
The uproar started when Digg staff began removing posts that contained a software key for cracking the encryption technology of HD-DVD and Blu-ray Discs. Digg, which took action after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the technology's developer asserting that the posts violated its intellectual-property rights, also started deleting the accounts of users who were posting the key.
The moves outraged many Diggers, who repeatedly posted the key until company founder and chief architect Kevin Rose relented and put a stop to the deletions.
Dianne Lynch, dean of the communications school at Ithaca College in New York, says the online street fight “tested the validity and integrity of a social community”. Digg saved itself from failing the test when it decided to return control to its users, Lynch adds.
“If you're going to turn [the site] over to the community, you can't decide to change your mind without having serious implications,” Lynch said. “User-generated content means users will make a collective decision about what is and isn't appropriate.”
But Barry Parr, an analyst at Jupiter Research, said media companies and web-publishing organisations have to openly acknowledge that editing in moderation may be necessary for user-created content.
“There are lots of people in the world and not all of them are people of goodwill,” Parr said. “[Digg] doesn't seem to understand that there is a middle ground between a tightly edited product and a riot.”
Michael Arrington, editor of the TechCrunch blog, commented that it was an understatement to call Digg users' response a revolt. “The users had taken control of the site. And unless Digg went into wholesale deletion mode and suspended a large portion of its users, there was nothing it could do about it.”
The San Francisco-based company tried deleting at first. In a blog entry, Digg CEO Jay Adelson said removing posts containing the decryption key was a necessity. “In order for Digg to survive, it must abide by the law,” he wrote.
But hours later, Rose said in another blog post that after reading thousands of user comments, the will of the community was clear. Digg would stop the deletions and “deal with whatever the consequences will be”.
The key at the centre of the controversy is a 128bit integer with 32 digits that unlocks content on HD-DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, nullifying encryption AACS (Advanced Access Content System) technology. The decryption key leaked onto the internet in February and the AACS consortium has been trying to bottle it back up. Initially Digg wouldn't identify the source of the cease-and-desist request but later confirmed that it came from a lawyer for the consortium.
In an interview, Adelson said Digg responded as it does to every such request - by taking down the posts in question. “It was difficult for us, because frankly we are aligned with the users [on the copyright issue],” he said.
Adelson said he wasn't surprised that the deletions of the posts containing the key triggered a pushback from Diggers. But he didn't expect the continual-posting tactics that the users employed to get their message across. “They were saying, ‘We are the community that you built. You have given us this power and you can't take it away on this issue.' We listened,” he said.
But Rod Carveth, an associate professor in the communication arts department at Marywood University, Pennsylvania, questioned whether anyone can moderate or edit such websites. “Communities that develop on sites such as Digg, Slashdot and others form their own social norms,” he said. “When they feel they are violated, they use their own sanctions. Administrators be damned.”
Q&A with Digg's CEO Jay Adelson
Allowing users to submit articles democratises the web, but also allows for a mob mentality that could result in users filling a site with crude content. How can this be addressed?
The interactive web is a democratic republic, but you have large groups of people who are much more passionate about a subject being the ones who drive that particular subject on Digg.
In terms of the mob, it is never an inertia that can't be stopped. Even when a story has been promoted to the front page, passionate users will bury that as well. There is always the check and balance of groups of people. There is no such thing as a single mob in the Digg world. We have never seen [a correlation between] the difficulty of a subject and what is popular on Digg. A story that may be more difficult for an American to hear is something you are more likely to see on Digg than the traditional media.
Did the user revolt change your views on the potential dangers of the mob taking over?
The tools we have for the users to moderate themselves are enough to prevent this from happening most of the time. Digg's success is a testament to that. The method they were using - we're definitely going to look at that in the future. How do we allow the users who don't agree with [the posting of certain content] to have a voice too? We have to be sensitive to all our users.
You have been quoted as saying: “A lot of companies are afraid to touch their original technology, to reconsider the premise on which they started the business. But when you stop doing that, that's when you get lapped.” What are examples of companies that have refused to do so?
If you look across the internet landscape, you see plenty of carcasses on the side of the road. The most famous ones are Friendster and even Digg lookalikes. In the world of the web, you have to be willing to take risks. Yet the largest of the media companies out there tend to be the most risk-averse. They are publicly traded and have a conservative approach that isn't the speed at which the consumers need an internet company to move.
What are some risks Digg has taken and then pulled back on?
The top-users list we put out when we launched Digg - a list of users who had the most [story] promotions to the front page. At first that made sense because it created a competition and users liked it. Later, we decided to remove that because it had become a target for spammers to solicit these individuals for money to submit stories. It created a certain lack of confidence in the promotions system.