Digg.com CEO on Web-ranking methodology

Jay Adelson, CEO of Digg, talks about the first Web 2.0 user revolt and challenges facing his company

Digg is a Web 2.0 company that lets users post news stories, which are then "dugg" (bumped up the list of popular stories) or buried based on the reactions of other readers. The company's Digg.com Web site has been on a steady growth path since February 2005, when a story about Paris Hilton's cell phone being hacked was "dugg," resulting in traffic doubling virtually overnight. Now, the "Digg this story" logo is included with countless online news stories, and having a story or blog post "dugg" has become an online status symbol. Digg.com celebrated its 1 millionth registered user in mid-April.

How did you come to be the CEO of Digg?

It seems to be a bit of a jump from an entrepreneur who founded Equinix, a provider of data center and Internet exchange services. I've always been focused on disintermediation and applying technology or concepts that really level the playing field. That is what captured my interest when my friend Kevin Rose started to explain to me the early concept behind Digg. It is similar to how Equinix [eliminated intermediaries] for telecom companies. When the Internet became a commercial medium in 1994, all of the Internet had been funded and operated by the government and universities. When it switched over to one operated by telecommunication companies, a very strong hierarchy developed. Tier 1 ISPs, the top five players in the world, would collect a dime on every packet that flowed throughout the Internet.

Part of the reason was all the Internet networks had to interconnect with each other using these antiquated network access points operated by carriers. Equinix replaced these single, network-owned facilities with Internet business exchanges where anyone could exchange packets with anyone in a neutral playing field. This allowed the dot-coms like Yahoo and Google and others to really exert their might. Digg does a very similar thing to the media. I have had an incredible passion about communication and how to break down the barriers for establishing a voice of the people.

You have been quoted as saying, "A lot of companies are afraid to touch their original technology, to reconsider the premise on which they started the business. But when you stop doing that, that's when you get lapped." What are examples of companies that have refused to re-examine their original technology or premise and suffered for that?

If you look across the Internet landscape, you see plenty of carcasses on the side of the road. The most famous ones are Friendster and even Digg look-alikes. In the world of the Web, you have to be willing to take risks, and the largest of the media companies out there tend to be the most risk-averse. They are publicly traded [and have] a very conservative approach that is not the speed at which the consumers need an Internet company to move. Digg has been willing to go out there, execute on an idea and pull it back if it fails.

What are some risks Digg has taken and then pulled back on?

The top-users list we put out when we launched Digg -- a list of users who had the most [story] promotions to the front page. At first that made sense because it created a competition and users liked it. Later, we decided to remove that because it had become a target for spammers to solicit these individuals for money to submit stories. It created a certain lack of confidence in the promotions system.

Allowing users to submit articles that they are interested in democratizes the Web but also allows for a mob mentality that could result in users filling a site with crude content. In addition, topics that may be difficult but important -- like genocide in Darfur -- could be pushed to the back burner. How can these questions be addressed?

The interactive Web is a democratic republic, but you have large groups of people who are much more passionate about a subject being the ones who drive that particular subject on Digg.

In terms of the mob, in Digg's methodology, it is never an inertia that can't be stopped. Even when a story has been promoted to the front page, passionate users will bury that as well. There is always the check and balance of groups of people. There is no such thing as a single mob in the Digg world.

We have never seen [a correlation between] the difficulty of a subject and what is popular on Digg. A story that may be more difficult for an American to hear is something you are more likely to see on Digg than the traditional media.

Editor's note: Computerworld talked with Adelson in a subsequent interview in early May after users revolted against Digg's efforts to prevent users from posting an encryption key used to copy DVDs. That revolt, which some have described as the first online riot and a pivotal episode in the development of user-generated Web 2.0 sites, prompted Adelson and his team to change their minds and allow users to post the content. This next question is from that second interview.

Did the user revolt change your views on the potential dangers of the mob mentality taking over?

The tools we have for the users to moderate themselves are enough to prevent this from happening most of the time. Digg's success is a testament to that. The method they were using -- we're definitely going to look at that in the future. How do we allow the users who don't agree with [the posting of certain content] to have a voice too? We have to be sensitive to all our users. I don't think this changes my attitude that this was something we can manage within the way the site operates.

One of the distinctions that have been made between the dot-com era and Web 2.0 is that instead of racing for an initial public offering, many companies are being built to be sold. Is that what you're doing at Digg?

We're definitely not doing that at Digg. Digg was built to achieve this goal of democratizing the media. We are interested in doing this ourselves. There may be partnerships we can have. Maybe there is someone who could acquire us and get to our goal faster and more efficiently. Now, we're not interested in that.

What are the toughest technical and business challenges on your plate right now?

On the technical challenge, a lot of it is the math. It is interpretation of data in useful and innovative ways to make everyone's user experience better from a technology standpoint. That is where Digg focuses a lot of its attention. There isn't any cool wisdom I can draw from. It is all new.

The business challenge is about people. Digg is in a massive growth phase. I need to make sure I find the right people and grow my company in a way that we can continue to have our speed, flexibility and innovation. That is a very challenging task. The things you would typically think of as the obstacles -- like monetization and scale -- have been solved a hundred times before us, and they are not huge challenges for us.

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Heather Havenstein

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