The Great Digg Experiment Begins Tomorrow -- Will It Work?

By Erin Griffith , written on July 31, 2012

From The News Desk

The promise of Digg was great, and its fall was just as incredible. The company's firesale sent shockwaves across the Web, especially to anyone sitting on a currently hot startup. Here is a Web 2.0 darling, once worth as much as $300 million, selling piecemeal, the sum of its parts worth a paltry $16 million. Watch out, or this could be you.

Even more surprising than the rock-bottom price was Digg's acquirer's plan for the company. Digg was shopped to every conceivable buyer in the old media, new media, startup, and legacy tech landscapes. That New York "startup factory" Betaworks saw potential in Digg that literally no one else did says something: Either Betaworks is crazy, or we are missing something major.

After speaking with Jake Levine, the guy at Betaworks tasked with revitalizing Digg, I can safely conclude that yes, they are crazy. But that doesn't mean they're doomed.

The team's approach is not one I'd recommend to anyone. They're rebuilding the entire thing from scratch in six weeks and treating all of it -- from the features to the business model to the vision -- as one big experiment. On one hand, awesome! Digg has nowhere to go but up. How else would you approach a problem like this?

On the other hand, good freaking luck! Successful consumer Internet turnarounds are like unicorns. Unlike with (the Betaworks company that's adopted the Digg brand) and any other small startup toiling away in obscurity, a failure here will be incredibly public and brutal. The people of the Internet are not very forgiving of washed-up stars. They'll be waiting for Digg to fail. The stakes are very, very high.

And yet, Levine comes off as totally relaxed about it. The deal made perfect sense, he says, adding that "where Digg needed to go was exactly where was headed." He had just reoriented to target less of a heavy news consumer and more of a person looking to see the most shared, most talked-about stories on the Web. The overlap of his purpose with Digg's existing user base of several million seemed like a perfect fit.

Digg may have been the first to go after the news discovery problem when it started in 2004, but now, the landscape is jam-packed with tools. Digg will be a simplified version of what's out there, giving users the ability to participate in communities they care about, rather than merely absorbing news in the most efficient way possible, Levine says. And instead of showing users what their social graphs are discussing and reading, as did, Digg will show what the entire web is discussing and reading. Mobile will also be a top priority.

After tossing out the entire Digg code and building from scratch, his team will roll out version one tomorrow (or possibly today -- as soon as the final line of code is written, I'm told).

The most ironic thing about Betaworks' handling of Digg has been its very first move: The company immediately launched a survey asking Digg's remaining users what they wanted Digg to be. It's ironic because Digg's downfall is often attributed to its obsession with pleasing its users. The company regularly surrendered to the rallying cries of its community any time it made a change they didn't like, and in doing so, lost its chance at mainstream adoption. Meanwhile Facebook and Twitter managed to survive the crossover from niche network to global use, often ignoring the protests of its users over each incremental improvement. For the "new" Digg to start by asking "what do you all want?" seemed counter to future success.

That is, until we saw the results: 92 percent of those surveyed said they would not recommend Digg to a friend. Those core users aren't exactly happy either. Levine says there's a fine balance between having convictions on where you want to take a product and really listening to users' hard, honest feedback. "Theres no real right way to do it, it's an art and its something you try to approximate," he says.

The team could have obsessed over the new Digg for six months. But condensing the time frame into six weeks forced them to focus on the one thing Digg has to do really well. For now, that's deliver news. They've thrown out everything else--newsrooms, the comment sections, the Digg bar are all gone.

Comments on the new team's very transparent progress updates have been fairly positive:

i really hate the digg bar... thanks for killing it.

Is it possible that the new Digg team is going to nail it? The image-rich wireframes, and composite Digg/FB/Twitter popularity metric look and sound really well thought out. I'm optimistic! Not a sentiment I thought Digg would elicit again. They might actually pull this off. Wooing the users back, that is. Even a delightful new Digg will hit the same snag the old Digg did when it tried to sell: proving that it's a real business.

The experimental model Levine and team have applied to their product will be likewise applied to the company's business model. If I had to bet, I would wager it involves subscriptions of some sort. Levine does not like ads, which is why the new Digg won't have them. "I haven't seen a product that does ads in a graceful way where the business model doesn't harm the product," he said. Further, had a subscription model.

But that's not a worry for the short term. For now, the team is staying small -- five people -- to buy itself some time before the company needs to establish a business model. No pressure, though. It's not like the entire Internet is watching.

[Image courtesy NightRStar]