The Digg Story: Why Users Remain King

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DiggYesterday was a big day in Digg’s history, arguably one of the most important ones since its tipping point. If you looked at the homepage at about 6 o’clock in the evening, you’d have almost thought Digg was living its last day. Of course, it did come back to normal by today afternoon, but with the term “don’t mess with your people” now deeply engraved into the minds of Digg’s management.

The Story

The whole thing started when a group of people with the craving to fight DRM came up with the encryption code used to disable copyright protection on HD-DVD movies (at least on Linux). The code was posted and the community started spreading it in order to make a statement to the movie studios that limiting consumers in this way was bad and most probably was going to fail anyway. Someone posted the article on Digg (where you’d usually expect to read this kind of stuff) containing the actual code, and unlike in the past, the post got upto a few thousand diggs and was eventually deleted and the user banned.

Digg BacklashSo many people having already seen the article and puzzled as to why such a thing could happen, especially coming from the site created by a geek icon known for his cool attitude towards his users and rebelling against giant corporations, the code was posted again. This one got to more than 15,000 diggs and, like the previous one, was deleted as well. This created a huge storm of backlash with its users posting the code over and over again in the article’s titles and descriptions, which got to a certain point where the first 3 pages of the ‘newly popular’ section on Digg’s homepage was filled with stories regarding it.

The storm caused Digg CEO, Jay Adelson, to respond on the Digg blog, stating that the reason this was happening was because Digg had received a cease and desist letter from HD-DVD and in order to comply they’d have to remove all posts containing the code. Not surprisingly, this pissed off even more of Digg’s users and made the backlash much worse. Users now realized Digg, the company and community they felt a part of, was bowing, getting bullied by, and running away from a giant corporation with the dollars to put it out of business. Of course, having been a part of a community which usually tracks these kind of things and is strongly opinionated on them, they’d perceived Digg would be the last of the people to ‘sell out’ its users in such a way.

This revolution, rebellion, revolt, backlash, whatever you call it, by Digg’s users lasted a few hours and got worse and worse until Digg’s founder Kevin Rose, that geek icon and perhaps the coolest of all, responded on the blog, stating “After seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.” In effect, this meant that Digg was automatically cool again to its users. They had listened, they had chosen the community over the corporation, and they were going to ‘surrender’ in ways — not to the corporation, but to their community — leaving Digg’s future in the hands of users. If the users obeyed and stopped the flooding of the comments and posts regarding the encryption code, that would mean Digg stays. If not, their community would instantly bombard. One thing was clear, though. Digg’s founder Kevin Rose had made a come back, and by making that statement, had most probably saved it.

Of course, the Digg community is one that respects, loves, and obeys two things, (a) itself, and (b) Kevin Rose. As the posting stopped, users realized what Digg’s stance was, and decided to pull back. A few hours later, Digg was back to normal, and before we knew it, already looked like this whole thing didn’t happen at all. Digg was saved, Digg’s management had learnt a valuable lesson, and the loser in this were the movie studios and HD-DVD. The spreading of that specific code on such a wide scale on Digg now means they’ll most probably file a lawsuit on Digg (which I’m fairly sure Digg will give a fair shot at, hopefully through the help of fundraising from its users).

Opinion

Undoubtedly, the moral of the story is that users are still king. No matter what you do, the result of being a Web 2.0 company which thrives on its users means that you don’t make the rules, you live by theirs. If your community agrees on something, that means all your decisions and choices are overpowered. For the whole industry and any 2.0 startup with the premise of user-generated content and a community backend in mind, this is an important lesson to learn. I really think this incident made the industry stronger as a whole, and prepared the tens of startups as to what not to do when you receive a cease and desist order from a giant corporation. Of course, only if your community is this strong.


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