Digg has undergone a number of revisions and feature additions over the years. Nothing, however, has been quite as major as the relaunch that took place recently, which saw the public release of what Kevin Rose — who has stepped down as CEO in favor of former Amazon executive Matt Williams — calls Digg v4.
The redesign has caused a major revolt among hard-core users of the service and is yet-another sign of how fickle social media can be. But more importantly, the episode indicates how vital proper communications between a network and its users are when undertaking changes and redesigns on the scale of Digg’s. The cold reception also points to a problem many services face as they attempt to expand their reach: How do you appeal to new users without irritating and losing the core of your existing base?
Users in Revolt
Digg’s aforementioned user revolt occurred in part because of the loss of some traditional features — like the “bury” button, which users could click on to vote a post down — as well as some other irritations, like changes to the commenting system and the loss of the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” icons. Backlash took the form of an unofficial voting block that gave thousands of thumbs up to links from Digg’s competitor Reddit, pushing dozens of stories from the other site to the much-coveted Digg front page. According to at least one measure of site traffic, the effect of this wasn’t just embarrassment for the relaunched service. It also caused a substantial drop in the number of visitors to Digg and what appeared to be a corresponding rise in the number of visitors to Reddit. It probably didn’t help that the launch was plagued by stability issues, with the site unavailable for long periods of time.
But it wasn’t the above issues that irritated most users. The biggest problem was the presence of what many deemed an unwelcome change in the fundamental nature of the site itself. In a nutshell, many have argued that Digg altered the algorithm that governs the site and determines what makes it to the front page. Many feel the changes amount to the site turning its back on its core user-base, the power users, who effectively determine what makes it to the front page and what doesn’t. This, people feel, is an attempt to curry favor with mainstream content publishers and (presumably) with advertisers, since it is now their content being promoted to the front of the site with alarming regularity.
Why the Change?
On Twitter and in blog posts, as well as on a podcast hosted by several “power users,” Digg fans have spoken out against what they see as a “sellout” of the site’s hard-core users by a service more interested in mainstream content — from web sites such as TechCrunch and Mashable, or from traditional newspapers and other media — and appealing to new users rather than existing Digg fans. But it’s clear that this was exactly what the site intended to do.
With Twitter and Facebook now the social media tools of choice for hundreds of millions of people, Digg is far from the only game in town as far as social networks go. And though changes that Digg made are what caused the majority of the dissent in the ranks of the so-called Digg Nation, those changes will allow Digg to go more mainstream and compete effectively with other services. Much of the same content, after all, that gets pushed to the likes of Facebook and Twitter now also gets promoted at Digg.
Ryan Block, former editor-in-chief of Engadget and co-founder of the gadget community gdgt, argued the changes to Digg were necessary, saying the redesign “realigns interests and does a lot to remove the incentives to game the system,” (a clear reference to Digg’s power users). He also stated that the service had to change because “the model that made Digg popular no longer works… social news has evolved, and so Digg had to evolve with it.”
Kevin Rose, meanwhile, responded in a blog post to some of the complaints: He said many of the lost features would be restored and apologized for the bugs and site problems. He also said the changes were designed in part to “remove the popularity contest and put the focus on quality diggers.” In other words, to try and defuse some of the power that “power users” of the site had managed to accumulate.
Communication is the Key
One problem with Rose’s post, however, is that it only appeared after the revolt, which points to an important fact: The biggest element missing while the changes at Digg were being developed was communication with users. It’s understandable — even laudable — that Digg wanted to remove some of the power from a small group with so much impact on the site and make it easier for new users to see the content they want and share it with their friends, just as they can on Twitter and Facebook. But a lack of communication on the part of the site meant that those changes came as a shock to many of those long-term, devoted fans of the service. That’s not a great strategy for growth. The bottom line is that unless you can be certain your growth in new users will outpace the loss of your existing ones, it’s better to try and garner support from the latter ahead of time, rather than alienating those existing fans and apologizing for it post-launch.
Facebook has arguably done a fairly good job of communicating change over the years. Yes, the site has experienced some substantial user backlash over new features such as the news feed and the recent changes to privacy settings. But Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have done their best to communicate those changes in a way that made them seem less threatening both to new users and existing users, and have responded to criticisms frequently and in many different forums. There are always going to be those who are irritated by change, but there are ways of handling that to make it less painful for users and ultimately build a better business.
The single biggest tip for services that are going through what Digg has gone through is to communicate new changes, as early as possible in the process and by any means possible. And this should be done not just with new users, but your existing fans as well. That doesn’t mean hard-core fans of your site or network won’t be opposed to change, but strong communication could save them from feeling sandbagged and not consulted.
Trying to do damage control after the fact, particularly while your users are busy organizing a public revolt against your new service is never as effective as building support before the changes are made. In other words, try building some bridges before you start burning them.