Interview: Jay Adelson

CEO and co-founder, Digg.com

CEO and co-founder, Digg.com

Digg is a website that allows users to determine which stories make front page news, making citizens the editors of their own news source. After a little more than a year in operation, the website is now one of the top five hundred websites in the world, according to web tracking website Alexa. While initially focusing on tech issues, the website plans to branch out. Adelson spoke to PRWeek.com about the wisdom of crowds, how Digg has a competitive advantage, and why marketers can't "game," or artificially influence, the website.

Q: What does Digg's proposition – allowing users to pick which news items are the most important – say about the state of media today?
A:
There is a necessary transition for media to reflect a more real-time interest of the masses, as opposed to the traditional editorial cycle. That's what's happening today with Digg. Submitting a story enables the breaking of that story faster than it has in the past because the masses have a real-time tool to bring that [news] to the attention of the rest of the [community]. The implications of that are revolutionary.

Q: Is there any distilled theorem about what gets Digged and what doesn't? Or does it depend on numerous factors?
A:
We're seeing different groups have different speeds with which they change what is news and what is not news. That [differing] speed and patience and attention span has historically been ignored.

Q: When something gets propelled to the top, with say 500 Diggs, what is that saying about the news item?
A:
The most important word we use is relevance, and relevance is not necessarily governed by the current nature of the news, but that is often a leading indicator. There is a direct relationship between what touches people everyday and what gets promoted. Today's mass is different than tomorrow's because we're constantly being influenced by all these stimuli. The story that gets propelled to the front page is an accurate representation of what has captured the [public's] interest in the last half hour.

Q: When you went live with Digg, did the success occur overnight or was it gradual?
A:
The boom of growth was overnight; it was very unique in how fast users became attracted to the methodology. Even before we made the user interface pretty, our way of promoting stories – and the whole democratic approach – spread like wildfire. When we launched the site in December 2004, we started with a couple hundred users. Within a couple of months, we had tens of thousands of users. Sometime around the summer of 2005, we hit what I call critical mass. Over 60,000 were "power" users that made us better than any other site that tried to clone our concept. Without that mass, it doesn't work.

Q: Yes. It seems like a lot of [Web 2.0] companies are only as good as its customers.
A:
Absolutely. It ends up becoming a competitive barrier to entry, this critical mass, but it also helps to change Digg. Not only the stories, but the way Digg is organized, the features that Digg has. Once we started having this critical mass of users to go and provide feedback to use, you saw that Digg made some changes and tweaked our system, which enabled more and more users. We have this incredible growth rate; we have 1,500 story submissions per day, and 1,000 to 1,500 new users a day. [Digg is] something you couldn't achieve without that solid base.

Q: Is there an "inverse critical mass" where too many story submissions make Digg too unwieldy?
A:
It's something we think about a lot, of course. The answer is no because we're [constantly updating] our developing tools that help sort through this. If you'd look at all the stories that come into Digg, it does get to a point where you might miss one [story that would have interested you]. We don't want that to happen, so the future of Digg will incorporate proprietary visualizations that will help solve that problem.

Q: We just published a piece on Digg and Memeorandum where a PR professional says he reads, but doesn't try to influence the results. How do you think PR professionals should approach Digg?
A:
I would argue no one agency could game Digg, particularly as we grow. The actual threshold of Diggs needed to promote [a story] increases with the number of users who join Digg. We've developed not only human, but automated tools that prevent the gaming of the system. That being said, Digg is an incredible tool for a PR professional. The lowest-hanging fruit [reason] is to assist a PR person with pitches because the real-time view of what users are interested in, you could argue, is ahead of what the reporting and editorial community is thinking about. If you're organizing a pitch, not only can you anticipate where those interests are going, but you can also use Digg as evidence to suggest to anyone out there that this is an interesting topic. It is proven to be relevant to a particular user base.

Obviously accuracy is important. There's proprietary algorithm we call Karma that can tell real users from fake users. That stops the fake stories from being promoted. And what's wonderful about the wisdom of the crowds is that there are more people correcting stories and reporting them as inaccurate. There's an accuracy advantage that millions of clickers have. There seems to be this tendency for people to assume that the mass is stupid, and therefore the news [determined by the crowd] will be stupid or inaccurate. We've discovered the opposite is true.

One of Digg's powerful features is that news that is not mainstream media [fodder] suddenly rises to extreme relevance. If the goal is to get the message out there, you can imagine how a blog or a trade publication can be well-read not only by the mass, but by those mainstream media organizations you were trying to pitch in the first place. This is, of course, all assuming that there is something interesting to say about your client.

Q: There have been acquisition rumors. Is it your goal to keep Digg as a stand-alone company for now?
A:
Yes, Digg currently is not interested in or shopping for an acquisition. We are very focused on our own advertising business model which is going to take us to profitability. We have our eyes on that ball.

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