I know a little bit about how this works, having gone through a lot of drama with Digg myself and having talked to Kevin Rose several times to resolve it. For some time I was also convinced that Digg was saying one thing in public (“Digg is a community-driven site”) and another things in private (banning users and entire sites without warning or reason). I’ve since come to see things a different way, and the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle.
I’m an owner of a site called Blogcritics: this site. We’ve had a number of articles submitted to Digg. Some by random readers, but many by our own editors. For some time we instituted a program we called “Red Alerts,” where articles we thought would be a good match for Digg (and several other sites) would be submitted by an editor and then the URL listed on the article page so that registered Digg users could more easily vote for the article.
We also sent out emails to our writers via a group we use for site-related communication, inviting them to read the article and vote for it if they found it worthy. I personally voted for many, but not all, of the articles “red alerted” in this way. I’m not entirely sure how many votes it takes to reach Digg’s front page, but I’m quite certain we never bullied our way on to it.
At most I believe we had around a dozen people I recognized as site members voting for articles, and it takes at least three times that to make it on to Digg’s front page. What those votes from multiple people did do, however, was raise the profile of the submission in Digg Spy, which is where a lot of people look to try to filter through the tons of submissions. Every time someone votes for an article, it pops up in Digg Spy, and people scanning the list get another chance to click and check it out for themselves. Most of the articles we submitted never made it to the front page, but some did.
Then came a series of articles from an exuberant young writer about two prominent companies well known among tech blog readers. While his first article was clearly speculative and interesting and not unreasonable, subsequent articles in the series (there were four) took the writer increasingly farther out on a limb. I protested the red alerting of the last one entirely, but — and this is an important point — even as a site owner, I don’t have control over everything that happens related to the site. It was red alerted, some people voted for it, and because it involved two popular companies, lots of people completely unrelated to the site also voted for it. All four of these stories made it to the front page, infuriating many people.
I should stop here and make sure that people understand that nothing we did was or is against the Terms of Service at Digg. We never created fake accounts, we never voted using other people’s accounts, we never did anything but vote for articles we liked. I’m personally a Digg user anyway, and read and voted for lots of articles that had nothing to do with Blogcritics, but some people didn’t. That’s their choice, and again, not against the rules then or now. Whenever you allow voting, you will eventually attract “voting blocs,” and while we weren’t the most organized or consistent of blocs when compared to, say, Congressional caucuses, we did tend to vote in groups.
Here is where things get interesting: People assumed the worst – not Kevin Rose, not Digg staffers, but commenters and readers: Digg users. They accused the writer of those articles of attempted stock manipulation, prompting him to add disclaimers to the articles that he didn’t stand to profit in any way and owned no stock in any of the companies involved. Many people refused to believe him even then.
Digg users generally misunderstood the function of Blogcritics.org as an online magazine with more than 1200 writers, and seemed to believe that Blogcritics was the personal blog of the writer of those articles. Digg users noticed some of the same names showing up among the first twenty or so diggs on each of the four articles and assumed that zombie accounts were being used (they weren’t), and that the votes were fraudulent (they weren’t). And here’s the important part: they acted. They reported the articles as Lame and Inaccurate and Spam and any number of other things.
Digg seems to have been in the process of developing some of these features just as this was happening, so for those of us who had been Digg users for a while and had never seen submissions disappear before, it appeared to be censorship. When Digg staff investigated and saw widely divergent IP addresses and voting patterns and so on, they quickly realized that nothing untoward had been happening, but Digg users didn’t believe the public statements of Kevin Rose and Jay Edelson and others when they stated that there had been no violation of Digg’s TOS. And as a result of the negative reports on the article, the article disappeared. I wasn’t too concerned about that article, because I wished nobody had ever submitted in the first place, but I was very concerned about what happened next.
Shortly after that, someone submitted another Blogcritics article and sent out a Red Alert email, and some of the usual crowd read the article and liked it enough to vote for it. While Digg staffers considered the previous issue resolved and felt we had done no wrong, Digg users felt differently, and reported the article, the site, and all users voting for it, getting each banned.
Please note, I believe Kevin Rose when he assured me that this was all automatic and all driven by the users of the site. He seemed genuinely sympathetic to our plight, and un-banned the site and all users upon request, but stated that because Digg is a community-driven site, our challenge was to convince Digg readers not to report us and trigger the automatic bans.
That remains our challenge today, and since I wasn’t particularly impressed by the perceptiveness of many Digg users then, I’m not sure I have a much higher opinion today. Many, even most, Digg users are extremely intelligent people, but it only takes a few people reporting an article, site, or user to trigger a ban.
So I certainly don’t know that there was no fraudulent voting going on with the articles from A List Apart, and I understand that the lock-step order of the votes raises alarms, but it is easily for me to believe that it is coincidence. Unlikely? Sure, but that’s the nature of coincidences.
It is also easy for me to believe that the banning of ForeverGeek.com and all users who voted for stories from ForeverGeek.com was driven by users and not Digg staff. I didn’t believe it at first when it happened to me, either, but subsequent conversations with Kevin Rose changed my mind. A certain unknown number of reports results in an article being “buried.” A certain unknown number of articles from the same site being “buried” results in that site’s URL being banned. Users who have voted for a certain unknown number of “buried” articles (and perhaps haven’t for a certain unknown number of balancing un-buried articles) are automatically banned. And so on.
Digg’s challenges, as I see them, are three-fold: The first Kevin Rose has already addressed, and it is transparency. Since submissions are currently buried without notice, and sites and users banned without warning or indication, people can easily assume the worst.
Secondly, the problem is with Digg users. As I’ve just mentioned, many of them seem to assume the worst. Or the best. Like a herd, they vote by the hundreds, even thousands, for articles based on titles alone, then turn in a moment to report the same stories without thinking any more than they did in the first place. They make many assumptions, good and bad, and act too zealously to protect Digg’s reputation (and their own) at the expense of transparency.
That leads to the third problem, balance. As things stand, spam and inaccurate stories can be buried by users, but there is no check or balance for deliberate attempts to bury perfectly good stories. Voting blocs for a story (or site) can be countered, but voting blocs against a story (or site) cannot.
Digg can solve the first problem, and maybe the third, but the second is, I think, inherently an issue with community sites. They can never rise above the level of the community, and communities are like very large committees: it is mediocrity that ends up being celebrated most.