Digg: What Went Wrong?

You may have heard recently that news sharing/ranking website Digg had to lay off a third of its staff after a relaunch of its site flopped. Two years ago when I visited Digg on TechTrek, Digg was a darling of the Web 2.0 generation of startups. It had a charismatic founder in Kevin Rose, a veteran of the first dot-com bubble in CEO Jay Adelson, and an innovative idea that was poised to change how we consume news. Those Digg icons were all over the web. It turned down lucrative acquisition offers from Yahoo and others. Digg was the kid that was too cool for a million dollars because they had their eyes set on bigger things.

Well things have unraveled since then. Digg had trouble with mainstream adoption and lost its core users to Reddit. More importantly, Facebook’s “Like” and Twitter’s “Retweet” buttons have replaced Digg on most websites. This latest round of layoffs is the largest but certainly not the first as they’ve cut 10% of staff twice since 2009. Jay Adelson left the company earlier this year. Even the company’s major revamp, Digg 4 (which I reviewed favorably in beta), was poorly received. Digg appears to be a dead man walking now eclipsed by its rivals and its core fan base is in revolt. With such a dramatic fall from grace, one has to wonder: Was Digg’s fall inevitable, and if so should we be concerned about many of today’s social and mobile startups?

The answer to the first part of the question is a resounding no. Just look at Reddit, which has thrived during the same period of time. Reddit is a favorite of the hip, quirky, tech-savvy community. In other words the same group that made Digg cool. However, as a mainstream consumer, I would never use Reddit because its UI is unpolished and most of the top stories are kind of odd. Again, I said the same things about the original Digg. Digg knew it had to become more mainstream in order to compete with the rising popularity of Facebook and Twitter. Yet when Digg tried to change, its fanboys revolted. This brings me to my first conclusion about many startups these days:

The business interests of a social startup and the community’s interests are sometimes at odds. Niche fan bases have limited value and in the long run may actually be a constraint.

Few companies have successfully made the leap to mass adoption. Most companies have fallen to their deaths or are too timid to try. The last outcome is fine if you sell out. Reddit is part of the massive Conde Nast publishing empire so it has no pressure to grow and give its investors a payday all on its own. Digg turned down acquisition offers and tried to build its own empire. Its competition was Twitter and Facebook. The problem is news sharing is a feature on Facebook and Twitter while on Digg it is the entire product. This brings me to my second and more important conclusion:

A feature is NOT a product and definitely NOT a sustainable company.

This is what really worries me. A lot of startups I hear about these days are very narrowly focused. They have a novel way of doing something but they compete against one feature of someone else’s product. The current environment makes it possible for these companies to get funded and move their ideas to market, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is some real innovation going on here. However, it’s foolish to think there are any fortunes to be made with most of these startups, and founders and investors alike would be wise to sell sooner than later.

I don’t think there’s going to be another bubble like 2000 because this boom is not driven by the stock market. Even if a lot of these companies fail, there will be a much smaller impact on the overall economy. However, you do have to wonder how many of these companies have a future. For example, I’m worried about Foursquare and Gowalla. Although they’re slightly differentiated and have strong communities, they are merely features on Facebook. With Facebook Places and the inevitable check-in fatigue setting in, they could risk becoming the next Digg.

Twitter Habits

So if you keep up with the news at all in the past year, you’ve probably heard about something called Twitter. It’s supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate or something. I’ve been using Twitter for over a year now and it’s become a regular part of my life. Looking back at some of my older tweets, though, I can definitely see my tweeting and Twitter usage habit change over time. Like Twitter itself, my tweets have adapted to my environment and matured in the past year.

First of all, it’s important to note why people use Twitter. People call it a social network but I really think this is misleading, because people think Facebook when you say “social networks,” and Twitter is very different from Facebook. I would argue Twitter is a mass communication tool for individuals. Unless your name is Shaquille O’Neal (who I follow) or Ashton Kutcher (who I don’t follow), you’re not going to be using this as a tool to carry on a sustained conversation with your followers because, let’s be frank, you don’t have that many followers who are actually your friends. Except for niche groups like the tech community, the majority of your friends and colleagues are on Facebook or Linkedin and even if they are on Twitter, there are much better ways to carry out an extensive dialog.

For ordinary people, Twitter is basically a way to build a customized news feed. You can follow the accounts of your favorite media outlets as well as brands and people to get up to the minute information that is relevant to you. For example, I used to check CNN several times a day to find out what was going on in the world, but now I can get up to the minute updates not only from CNN and the New York Times about current events, but also the Wall Street Journal and CNBC for business news, ESPN for sports news, TechCrunch and Mashable for tech news, plus updates for specific news about Boston College, Wimbledon, or The Office. I can even discover interesting articles or videos by following celebrities and other influential individuals (such as journalists or business leaders).

Of course, there are still some rough edges to sort out. For example, because I follow several mainstream news sources, I often get redundant tweets when news breaks. It would be nice if these news flashes could be collapsed into one single tweet. I only need to hear that the bailout passed once. It doesn’t matter if I get the headline from CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNBC, Boston Globe, or Morning Call. It only matters if I want to read a more in depth analysis. Still, I think news is the greatest value of Twitter for ordinary people.

So why do I tweet? I have around 130 followers, which is solid for a random college student, but by no means influential. Of all those people, the small portion who are my friends can be more effectively reached through Facebook. The rest are typically companies or marketers hoping to gather feedback or data from me. So aside from complaining about customer service, why should I, or any ordinary person tweet?

My answer is brand building. It might sound self absorbed or hyper-commercialized, but I think in this day and age, it’s something everyone should think about doing. It’s very common for friends, colleagues, employers, colleges, and anyone else to Google you and learn more about you based on your web and social media presence. Just like multinational corporations, you can be passive and let others say whatever they want about you (see BPGlobalPR) or you can be proactive and write your own story by crafting your own public image. This is why I take care of my Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter accounts as well as write this blog.

With this in mind, the differences in my tweets over time make sense. At first, it took some time to figure out how to actually use this service. Early on, my followers were a few early adopter friends and a bunch of random, mostly spam accounts. As a result, my tweets were fairly uninspiring, usually commenting on mundane things like the weather, waking up early, and dining hall food. I first became conscious of my Twitter habits when I started using Selective Tweets. This allowed  me differentiate my tweets and Facebook status updates. Twitter remained the more frivolous, spontaneous updates while Facebook statuses were more important and thought out.

This setup basically stayed the same until I went abroad. All of a sudden, I was relying much more on social media to communicate with friends and family back home. In a way, this meant a return to the more frivolous postings of my early days on Twitter, but because I was in a different country, it carried more value for my followers. Getting lunch, taking a walk, or even talking about the weather was interesting because I was in doing it all in London. In addition, I began to blog more actively when I went abroad and Twitter was a great way to publicize new posts. While WordPress analytics indicate that Facebook is still my top referrer, it’s always a good idea to push through as many channels as possible to reach more potential readers.

The most recent change has come in the last few months. I’m starting to build up a meaningful follower base (I broke 100 last summer but most of those were spam bots that Twitter later deleted). I have two significant active peer groups from TechTrek and TEC, in addition to various (real and active) marketer and enthusiasts. I’m being followed by organizations like Boston College and True Ventures, as well as a few members of the VC community and controversial personality Jason Calacanis. I doubt they scrutinize my tweets too much, but just knowing my 140 characters could pop up on their Tweetdecks makes me think before I tweet. I do a lot more retweeting now of interesting news stories or websites that I find to project a more mature and professional image. I use more hashtags to make my tweets stand out, join larger conversations, and hopefully get retweeted. Like successful corporate brands out there, I’m building up the value of my personal brand by producing interesting, thoughtful, and curated content.

Verizon Wireless commercials are deceptive

You know those creepy Verizon Wireless commercials where it looks like the customers are walking onto a horror movie until the Verizon guy and his crew show up?  I thought they were really clever and kind of funny.  Unfortunately though, I am now a Verizon Wireless customer and my horror story is real.  I am in a dead zone, aka 66 Comm Ave.  My calls get dropped.  It’s like I don’t even exist.  Seriously people, 5/5 calls dropped today.  Now that I think of it, anyone want to make a spoof Verizon commercial in 66?

At least I can still get texts, which means I can Twitter.  Sadly I’m not famous/powerful enough (read Sarah Lacy) to get a major telecom company’s attention via Twitter and fix my problem.  Instead I entertain my TechTrek friends and a couple of creepy random followers with mundane events in my life.  Add that to my list of life goals:

  • Fly first class without financial concern
  • Write and publish a book
  • Start a family
  • Be a season ticketholder for my local basketball team
  • Establish my own scholarship fund
  • Travel to every continent (minus Antarctica)
  • Have the power to influence real life events with my Facebook or Twitter