Skip to content

The Rise and Fall of Digg: A Cautionary Tale of Crowdsourced News

The Early Days: Channeling the Spirit of Web 1.0 Rebellion

Long before terms like "aggregation" or "social news" entered the lexicon, similar concepts had been experimented on smaller scales as the commercial web gathered steam in the 1990s. Sites like Slashdot and Fark allowed readers to submit and rate links, but operated more as walled gardens centered around fixed topics and in-jokes.

Kevin Rose came of age as a programmer, animator and hacker during the heady early dot-com boom. While toiling at various Las Vegas technology startups, he observed the rise of portal giants like Yahoo! which organized the messy web into hierarchical categories [1]. He envisioned a more transparent and democratic platform – one that eschewed the elitism of legacy gatekeepers and let the users choose what mattered most.

Early Digg Homepage
Digg on launch day in 2004. A no-frills design highlighted community aggregated news. (via TechCrunch)

In many ways, Digg set out to bottle the anarchic early internet spirit of Usenet groups, listservs and BBS forums. The site launched in late 2004 with no outside funding beyond $6000 of Rose‘s own savings [2]. It featured pared down nestled text and notorious "Web 1.0" blue hyperlinks. But its contents were generated entirely by users submitting and voting up news links. Top ranked stories made the front page while lower ones were buried. The name itself conjured users unearthing hidden digital treasures.

The nascent community gravitated toward the hot topics of the times – emerging technologies, political issues, and internet memes. Digg tapped into an urge for readers to guide their own news and participate beyond passive consumption. Its surging early traction seemed to validate Rose‘s underdog ambition.

Scaling Up and Selling Out: A Delicate Balancing Act

Buoyed by glowing tech world buzz, Digg‘s traffic took off rapidly through 2005. But its shoestring infrastructure buckled under the load. Almost continuously playing catchup, Digg pushed out major site revamps adding essential features and new revenue streams to fuel growth:

  • October 2005 – Digg v2 introduced comment threads, friends lists and Google AdSense ads despite some ideological objections from purists [3].

  • July 2006 – Version 3 added specific content sections and publisher attribution [4].

  • August 2006 – Infrastructure woes led to extended crashing while traffic reached new highs [5].

Digg pursued a "grow first, figure out money later" ethos common among Valley startups. They focused relentlessly on user experience and community building on faith that the profits would follow.

Investors bought into the hype. In 2006, Digg secured $8.5 million in funding from marquee firms like Greylock Partners [6]. The injection let them stabilize infrastructure, but also start catering experience to advertisers. Native promoted posts debuted in 2007 alongside the site‘s firstprofits – over $1 million by year‘s end [7].

Digg entered 2008 at the apex of its power and buzz. It drove tens of millions of referral traffic to news sites and created breakout hits [8]. Top tech personalities like Robert Scoble and Leo Laporte fawned over Digg rankings as marks of prestige [9]. The company took on $29 million in fresh funding to scale staff to around 100 employees [10].

But balancing Digg‘s insider-rebel roots with its growing mainstream status and business realities soon saw it straying outside its core vision.

Uneasy Lies the News Crown

Troubling incidents through 2007 marked the first cracks in Digg‘s quest to democratize news distribution…

[Additional sections follow covering manipulation issues, criticisms of Digg‘s ranking model, declining traffic, sale to Betaworks and more].