Monday, May 07, 2007

The Power Of Digg: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

[Greetings: This is a blog entry about Digg, the social networking site. If you are looking for the homepage of my blog, "More Than Fine," click here.]

(From Flickr user Maqroll under CC)

The Power of Diggnation is growing each day.

First, three quick vignettes:

1) A few days ago, I saw this Digg story, "informing" people that Nancy Pelosi was conducting a poll to gauge support for impeachment. Thousands of people called her office, apparently unaware that there was no such poll, that someone had just posted up a general office number.

Later, this story went up, acknowledging the absence of an actual poll and advocating calling other major congressional representatives to demonstrate support of impeachment. I have no numbers on how many people actually made the calls, but I would guess at least dozens, if not hundreds, or maybe even thousands made these calls.

2) By now, this has been written about endlessly, so I'll just give it a quick mention: Users flooded with the HD-DVD code the other day, bringing the site to its knees. Here's my favorite picture, summing up the whole incident:
What's wrong with this picture?

Digg was faced with a choice: They could either continue to pull the key and incite its members even further, or capitulate to the users and risk legal action. I think they saw that without the cooperation of their users, there wouldn't be a at they chose the latter. The legal ramifications of this remain to be seen, but many including myself are watching it closely.

3) Last night, this story made the front page of, criticizing ABC for censoring posts that accused them of censoring posts. The link to the ABC forum page can be found here.

There has been a lot of criticism on Digg of media coverage of political candidates like Ron Paul and Mike Gravel (and rightfully so). People are really starting to get tired of how the mass media selectively controls information and in a world where Web 2.0 is becoming ever more pervasive, they are telling people that they won't take it anymore. Within minutes of the digg story going up, the ABC News site bulletin board was flooded with dozens more posts, creating a real headache for the ABC News webmaster. Would they delete the posts and look even worse? Or leave them up as a testament to their humiliation at the hands of Digg users?


So, what's the point of this blog post?

Right now, it seems to me that things at Digg are really coalescing. Diggnation has truly reached a critical mass of users and you really have the power to exert influence in politics and culture. The Digg front page is more than a URL; it's practically an organism. Any story that hits the front page simply explodes with growth.

Not only can you popularize a story, you've seen in the past few days that the stories that you popularize may actually be able to make a difference, and perhaps cause some real-world change. This is an incredibly exciting development. You've found that you can flood the office House majority leader of the United States of America with phone calls. You can embarrass a major network's news website. You can even bite the hand that feeds you and protest "censorship" on itself.

My point is simply this: With great power comes great responsibility.

The three vignettes I've listed show that many Digg users have noble intentions. I think it's good to want to hold our leaders to account. I think it's good to fight for a DRM-free society, where consumers aren't punished for wanting to be legitimate consumers. I think it's good to protest censorship in (almost) all of its forms.

But look more closely at the methods that have been used. Is it really a good thing to blindly propagate a false story about a political phone poll? To encourage Digg to be in clear violation of the DMCA? [Dave's Note: I actually really didn't like that ABC News article, but I link to it anyway]. To stage a big online protest against a privately owned website moderating its own forums?

I have my own thoughts on these questions, but I'm honestly willing to admit that I'm not sure 100% what the real answers are. Are you 100% sure?

In any case, my encouragement to all users is just to think before you Digg. As Digg grows ever stronger, its power will increase. Right now, I feel like Digg is at a crossroads, a "tipping point," if you will; and you, as its users, can either choose to help establish Digg as a credible, responsible force for progressivism in this country, or become drunk with power and succumb to the blind mob mentality, the results of which I don't even want to contemplate at this point. The choice is yours.

So as Digg enters this new stage, with a newly found influence and a new sense of purpose, I just want to say please, Digg responsibly. And thanks for reading.

[Update 1: My fellow blogger Devindra said that I should probably specify what the hell I'm talking about when I say "Be responsible." So here's a list of three things, that's not comprehensive, but I think it's a good start:

1) Make Sure Your Sources Are Credible - In order for Digg to become a credible source of good for the world, its users need to do their due diligence and make sure their stories are sourced and credible. When I first saw the post about Nancy Pelosi, I remember thinking to myself how far-fetched that story was (there was no source cited). It later turned out to be too good to be true.

Double-checking will take time, but in the end, I think it'll be worth it to make Digg more established and respected.

2) Be Judicious With Your Use of Power - It gives me a thrill to see Jane Bray'e e-mail posted at DailyKos, because I know that means she'll get a lot of criticism for Millersville's decision to deny Stacy Snider her teaching degree. But at the same time, I wonder if sometimes Digg users go to far with the causes they take up. The minute that Digg users get too frivolous with their power is the minute that Digg starts inspiring fear instead of admiration; indignation instead of support.

Causes like Iraq, Darfur, and Election 2008 are of vital importance. The way our country deals with these issues could potentially change world events. These are things worthy of our time and attention. And while I'm NOT saying all other causes are unimportant, I am saying that I think people should be reflective about what causes you throw your weight behind.

3) Be Nice - The late great Kurt Vonnegut once said:

What made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society. Perhaps some of you are or will become saints for her child to meet.

May we all try to be nice, no matter what the belief, what the issue, what the cause.


Geeks Are Sexy said...

I have a feeling that in the end of this controversy, if DIGG ever goes down because of the action of its users, it will be Kevin Rose and his partners that will pay the most. Sad isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. I think it all went a little too far with the HD-DVD code. I even created a T-Shirt during the mad couple of hours where Digg was completely overtaken by us/the users. But I removed it very soon afterwards as I believe it was completely stupid, exploitative and wrong. I think the DRM schemes have been a little too intense lately and thus it reached boiling point. The Digg situation did help to clear the air a little bit though and I think we now need to go back and examine what happened and discuss the issues. There have to be better ways to tackle these kinds of issues.

Anonymous said...

I think what you refer to as blind mob mentality is just what makes Digg and other socially-powered sites (like Reddit) particularly useful in our political climate.

What you call for is political moderation and compromise, and this is exactly what plagues our own political system here in the US.

At Digg it's different. Digg owes much of its success to not being Slashdot, which is NOT socially powered but very moderated. Now that Digg is established, perhaps it would like to be more like Slashdot because perhaps there's more money and "success" in being more like Slashdot. Well that's all good and fine if you work for Digg, but if you're just a user it would lead you to use another site.

Just my thoughts on the matter.

adb said...

That was me that posted the Nancy Pelosi story. I am indeed disappointed that it turned out to be based on false pretenses, and I apologize for not doing any more fact-checking beyond a cursory Google search.

That said, it became evident in the comments that many of those who called were aware that there was no such poll, yet chose do to so anyway. The story, although admittedly misleading, opened many users' eyes to their ability to effect political change (or at the very least, to have their voices heard). Too many people lack the motivation to participate in direct political action, even if it's something they care very passionately about.

You may argue that a mob like Digg has no place in the political process, and you may be right -- I feel a rant coming on, so I'll cut it short here -- but suffice it to say that every single digg, up or down, made it worthwhile.

J-Ro said...

My blog was responsible for the second call to political action, asking people to call other Democratic leaders and ask for impeachment. I don't know how many called, but I'm glad some did. These leaders were conducting no poll, but it is their job to listen to the American people. If our post caused people to express their views, then I am happy.

Nitesh said...

Great compilation of digg effects. Digg has been responsible for providing such a great platform for users all over the world. You are right that now it is responsibility of users to go with submitting verified information. After all, it is user driven platform.

But there should be some mechanism in place at DIGG which can blacklist users submitting wrong articles for multiple times.

live52 said...

You wrote: "Is it really a good stage a big online protest against a privately owned website moderating its own forums?"

In this case (ABC censoring posts supporting Ron Paul) the answer is "yes."

ABC, like all broadcasters in the US, is licensed by the FCC. Part of the licensing agreement states that broadcasters must perform some form of public service and be impartial in reporting the news. Not so long ago broadcasters had to give equal time to each candidate. Editorializing is allowed but distorting poll results and deleting news or comments that do not enhance ABC's corporate agenda is a violation of their FCC license.

There is a lot at stake here. ABC, and the other five corporations that control 90% of our media, want us to hear only THEIR version of the news and the object is control.

There is simply too much at stake for us to be nice.

Motorcycle Guy said...

I don't see how digg can continue to survive as it gets more users. Imagine if the mainstream public used digg? you think people voting on something without reading it is bad now? What about then? Digg really needs to remain a niche site in my opinion. It is an extremely good niche site, but I don't know how it's venturing into political news will turn out.

Fred said...

Nice observation, thanks.