In Digg Nation

Kevin Rose: sweet smell of success.

| Wed Jun. 27, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Photo: Sarah KehoeUpdate: On July 12, 2012 Digg was purchased by New York tech firm Betaworks for a mere $500,000. At the time of this interview in 2007, Digg was valued somewhere north of $60 million.

When Digg, the Web 2.0 news-aggregating site founded by Kevin Rose, branched out from tech-only stories, I got hooked. A user-generated Google News, with a side of sass, it offers an editor a unique chance to understand the zeitgeist—or at least a geeky, libertarian-leaning, hipster subset of it. Like many a media outfit, we added Digg and other social bookmarkers to our site and obsess over which stories become popular. The results are often disheartening. Juvenilia can dominate; this is reinforced by DiggNation, weekly videocasts in which Rose and a friend slam beers and discuss what's "hot." And mob rule has downsides, as Rose discovered in May after Digg took down items disclosing how to end-run HD-DVD antipiracy codes and Diggers revolted. Forced to choose between a particularly petulant clique of his users and potentially company-killing litigation, Rose chose the former, saying, "If we lose, what the hell, at least we died trying."

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Below is Mother Jones' extended interview with Rose. The shorter version that appeared in the July/August 2007 edition of Mother Jones Magazine can be found here.

Mother Jones: Congrats, you're 30 years old, you reportedly own at least a third of a company worth upward of $60 million, and you've been named as one of the "hottest guys in the Valley." How does it feel?

Kevin Rose: The last two and a half years have been pretty nuts.

MJ: To those who've never heard of Digg, can you explain what it is?

KR: Digg is like your newspaper, but rather than a handful of editors determining what's on the front page, the masses do. Which, I've got to tell you, takes a lot of getting used to. There was a good six months there when I was freaking out because I didn't know what type of content the collaborative filter would produce. Fortunately, it's been solid, really cool, interesting news.

MJ: How does the filter work?

KR: Basically, any user who creates an account is an editor of the site. Right now we have a little over 1.2 million registered users who find interesting news and videos and podcasts. And when you find content you like—it could be a New York Times article or a blog entry or a video—you submit its URL to Digg, write a headline, choose the category that it belongs to, and it goes into our "Upcoming Stories" area, where thousands of users sift through it. If you find something there you like, you Digg it. Once enough people have Dugg the article, it goes to the front page, where 2.5 million daily viewers see it.

MJ: So, to the novice, it's sort of like a crowd-driven Google News, but with more diverse content?

KR: Absolutely, except rather than spiders crawling the news sites for stories, or automated feeds, someone has to physically submit a story to Digg. One of the things that's been crazy for us has been the speed at which news can break on Digg, because it's powered by a mass of humans versus a machine that has to go out and crawl and find the information and then determine its relevance mathematically.

MJ: It started out more tech focused, true?

KR: Absolutely. My background is in tech. I studied computer science, and was working on TechTV, so the first thing I wanted to do was see my favorite motherboard stories hit the front page, you know, like really geeky stuff. My plan was that if it worked out and we had success, then I would expand into other areas, which we did a few months later. We went into world news and into politics and entertainment news and videos. Video is a great example of some content we are starting to get into that is the first step outside of "just news." We'll be getting into other verticals later this year.

MJ: Who are these Diggers? Last year, Business Week reported that your audience is 94% male, more than half IT types in their 20s and 30s, making $75,000 or more. That’s an audience advertisers lust after but hardly representative. Is that changing?

KR: It really depends on what section of the site you get into. We have a huge tech following that do nothing but Digg tech stories, and then there's another pool of users that remove the tech section from their view of Digg, because you can go on and customize your own experience and remove sections you don't like.

MJ: Does everyone's Digg count equally?

KR: When I first built the system, if a story had 15 Diggs, it made the front page. But now our algorithms make sure a diverse pool of unique Diggers likes a story before promoting it to the front page.

MJ: So if every editor at Mother Jones simultaneously Diggs a story, you would not take it as seriously.

KR: No, because there are more behind-the-scenes things that we take into account, sort of like our special recipe or secret sauce. That's something that we've constantly been improving and tweaking, because we also have to take into account why someone wants something removed from the home page. If someone wants to remove, or bury, a celebrity gossip story, but they never Digged any celebrity gossip stories to begin with, does that mean that they are a good judge of whether or not that story should be removed from the site? There are a bunch of things we do behind the scenes to make sure it's fair.

MJ: If I've liked past submissions of "Mr. Baby Man" or "Admiral Adama," I'm likely to Digg their new stories. Is this high school 2.0? Popular kids, popular cliques?

KR: Well, we have rock stars who are very prescient. But ultimately, it's whether the story is any good. To make "Top in 24 Hours," you have to have at least 3,000 people think it's a good article. Often the most popular stories come from the one-off user who found an interesting article and decided to submit it.

MJ: So who are these popular people? Who besides people who work at Digg have the time to search for stuff to Digg and Digg it?

KR: I couldn't tell you, though "Digital Gopher," who is a very popular submitter, came to our party last night, and we got to hang out. He's a stock analyst, and that's his day job, but he just loves submitting news.

MJ: How many hours a day do the top users spend on the site?

KR: It really varies, because some users will submit a lot of stories and have a very small percentage of home-page stories, whereas others will submit five a day, but those five stories are just awesome, and four make the home page.

MJ: Okay, but what portion of stories are submitted by the popular set? I've seen estimates as high as 50 percent.

KR: We don't show a Top Digger list anymore, but there are still names that hit the home page on a daily basis. I think it's awesome because users can add other Diggers as friends and create collaborative filters. I have a list of 40 to 50 friends, and I only know 10 to 15 of them personally, the rest are my filter—people whose judgment I trust. One user I've added as a friend, "dfltr," Diggs the best videos ever, and I roll every time I see them.

MJ: Do most users start by looking at popular stories on the home page, or by looking at their favorite other users' lists?

KR: It's all over the place. Obviously the front page is the most popular on the site, followed by the “Top in 24 Hours,” but outside of that, it splinters all over the place. Some people follow other people's profiles, and just go to that person's profile page. Others will add friends to create that collaborative filter, and others use key word searches and sign up for RSS feeds and get news stories on those topics as they come into the system.

MJ: When Jason Calacanis started Netscape's Digg-like thing, he offered top Diggers $1,000 a month to decamp.

KR: He started off without paying people, and got a lot of heat for creating a "Digg clone." Then he decided to hire employees to submit content. I don't think that's a bad model.

MJ: There are reports of companies paying top Diggers to Digg stories favorable to them, or using Digg sweatshops. True?

KR: It's very easy for us to detect when someone is trying to game the system. You develop a baseline for natural Digging activity and.... But I really don't want to give away what that is. The funny thing is, if someone is paying a top Digger to submit a story, and users Digg it up and it doesn't get buried, then I'm not sure it's a problem, because users wanted it. The community is very good at policing the site. Thousands of users pore over the front page, and if something doesn't belong, or isn't good, it will be yanked.

MJ: Any idea of the portion of people who are Digging their own stories, and is that okay?

KR: Yeah, that's fine. The system is set up for just that: to share stories with your friends. And when you Digg something, you are automatically syndicating that story to a whole set of friends in the Digg community. One of the most common questions I get is from bloggers asking, "Should I submit my own stuff?" I say, if it's a great article, then submit it. Don't worry about someone calling you out. The system will correct itself.

MJ: The HD-DVD piracy code issue aside, have you had bury scandals?

KR: There was a story about how 9/11 was a government cover-up, and when it was buried, there were a lot of blog posts saying, "Digg is trying to cover up the truth." But in reality, there were a lot of users who said, "I think it's garbage."

MJ: Real reporting takes money. Could Digg kill old media's revenue stream?

KR: Writers and editors have always been very good at finding information other people want to read. We're just letting that happen in a single click. It's not as if Diggers have to write the story themselves; they're just good at filtering.

One of the things you'll see us get into this year is creating these connections for you, without you having to know that "Mr. Baby Man" is a good Digger. We are gathering all these different data points every time you interact with us, so if you are Digging certain types of stories, or if you are constantly agreeing with other people, like if I'm Digger Number 735, who are the other 734 people, and how much do I have in common with these individuals? Some of the tools you will see us launch with are going to be suggesting stories to you based on what you've Dugg in the past.

MJ: Sort of like Amazon?

KR: Right, but products and your buying habits are a little bit different than your interests and users that you follow. So, we're going to start making recommendations for people that you might want to meet. I mean, if you think about the way social sites like MySpace and Facebook operate, you either know these individuals, or you see someone's picture and you do a search based on age and location. We'll be able to do that, but we'll also be able to say, here's a percentage of stories you both have in common or agree on, you both agree on the same types of comments, you both spend a lot of time reading these types of articles.

MJ: So you're going to add more social-networking ability. Are you going to try to help people meet up virtually or in reality?

KR: We haven't spent a whole lot of time on the social side of things, and open that up a little bit. You know, if there's someone in San Francisco Digging stories about Linux and Oolong tea, and I really want to meet that person, then, in my perfect world, all this number crunching that we are working on behind the scenes will enable that to happen.

MJ: So, sort of adding what StumbleUpon is doing with their bookmarking?

KR: Garrett's a buddy of mine, and he was definitely on the right path a while ago. It's pretty cool that he's sold to eBay.

MJ: Which brings up an obvious question. When is the right time for you to sell?

KR: From day one, I thought that it would be cool if I could just pay my rent. I'm just really happy to have complete control of the company.

MJ: Is it profitable now?

KR: Not yet, but we are getting there. We never wanted to hit users over the head with banners and jumping monkeys and pop-unders. Our strategy really is to continue with the advertising that we have today, and grow the business, and we'll be just fine. We serve close to 200 million pages a month. That's a lot of ads out there.

MJ: So rather than sell it, you could go public at some point?

KR: Or just keep it private. There's a whole other slew of problems with going public, and then you answer to more people. I would be happy just running it and doing our thing. It's kind of a weird time in Silicon Valley right now. For start-ups, especially if there's no revenue model there, it's like they have to try and flip it or sell it to someone larger, and I'm glad that is not the case for us. A lot of our direction is guided by the users. There's a couple stories about getting into Digging images that had over 3,000 Diggs per story. They said, "Digg should do images," and everyone was like, "Yeah, they should." So we did.

MJ: So is the crowd always wise?

KR: The crowd always produces interesting results. I mean, it depends what section you are in. If you look in the Linux section, the crowd is really amazing. If you dive into celebrity gossip, you might be like, this is just garbage. One of the most important things for us was just making sure users can customize their experience. If they don't like offbeat news, then they can just remove it altogether.

MJ: But it does seem like salacious stories become popular very easily.

KR: Headlines sell newspapers. The stories that rise quickly—and users latched on to this very early on—have the best titles and descriptions.

MJ: Or stories that are about sex or '80s teen stars who are hot. . .

KR: That's absolutely true. It really has to do with what's going on in the world in any given day. As far as the most promoted stories within Digg, it used to be mostly tech. Even when we turned on the other categories, tech was dominating everything. Now, technology and politics are pretty much neck and neck. People love to talk about politics. We had a breakthrough with videos and now it has its own category, because we were getting so many video submissions. And gaming news has been big for us, too. If you do a snapshot of the top ten stories over the course of a week, you'll see a different mixture of news, depending on what's going on in the world.

MJ: Can Digg influence politics?

KR: It's been insane, the growth of users who come to Digg political stories. For us, what we're doing is a couple of things. We're creating tools for the websites themselves, to allow them to see what's going on and what type of content is being Dugg, and filters for their content. Sites want to know who's interacting with their content, what are the most popular stories on their site, and allowing them to tap into our API [Editor’s note: that’s an "application programming interface" for you nongeeks], pull that information out, and put it directly into their site lets you sort and say, here are the popular stories that the Digg community is into, around my content. That's some of the stuff we are working on, integrating, and pretty much giving that to anyone, like bloggers, or commercial sites. It doesn't really matter.

Have you seen our Digglabs Flash visualizations? We want to apply that to politics, so you can see trends—what stories and sites are hot. You could apply that to any of our genres. But definitely for the election, we want to have a kind of meter of what direction people are swinging.

MJ: Digg's Elections 2008 section has an inordinate number of stories on perennial Libertarian candidate Ron Paul. Wisdom of the crowd? Or tyranny of the minority?

KR: I steer pretty clear of the political section of Digg. I can only imagine what would happen if I got involved. I have to stay neutral. For us, this is a very new area of the site, and it's something we need to make everyone aware of, and work with a lot of different sites out there to get more of the content submitted into the system, and to let people know this is a destination people can come to vote on important information that they want the public to see. Every time we launch a new section, a subset of our audience makes it their home page. But it starts to broaden out. We've seen that in the last two and a half years; things have changed a bit, in terms of the base of users, and the kinds of stories and the number of Diggs required. New sections, depending on the amount of traffic to that section, require less Diggs and less activity to get stories promoted, but that changes as the section starts to grow.

MJ: Now that Digg has video, will it be a chief vehicle for "macaca moments"?

KR: I have no doubt.

MJ: Could Digg be used to spread false rumors about candidates?

KR: The most important thing to us is making sure that the platform operates as it's supposed to. The content is completely out of our hands.

MJ: So a "Hillary Kills Baby" story could be Dugg up by those who hate Hillary?

KR: If something is truly false and inaccurate, users will flag it.

MJ: Hmmm. Our Iraq War Timeline was completely sourced to original documents, but someone flagged it.

KR: All we say is that users have flagged this as being potentially inaccurate. We don't say it is absolutely inaccurate. But we're looking to provide more transparency as to who flags what.

MJ: So, do you see people using Digg as a sort of online newspaper or major news source, or come to it after they engage in some type of traditional journalism outlet, or are people sort of substituting any kind of traditional news-gathering activity?

KR: The feedback I’ve gotten on that is that for news junkies the collaborative Digg filter saves them time. I use Digg for pretty much everything except the Wall Street Journal, because that's something that I trust and I enjoy. And every once in a while, when I find a good story from there, I'll submit it to Digg. The whole system is designed around people going out into the world and finding good articles and bringing them back to the mother ship.

MJ: There's a concern among reporting circles that people see social bookmarking as a substitution for reporting. But somebody somewhere has to pay for stories to be reported.

KR: Some of our best content comes from very large news media sources. But it's also freeing up some of these writers to pursue things and eventually break off and write about things on their own, because they can make money. A great example is a friend of mine, Om Malik from Business 2.0 magazine, who opened his own blog, runs ads, and now has a team of four people, and he's writing all the time, and has more freedom, and is loving life. And he uses sites like Digg and del.icio.us and others as vehicles for promoting his content, and he's very happy to get those traffic boosts, and a bunch of the Digg community goes to his website, and he has great readership, and he can do it on his own now, which is awesome.

MJ: But you would also say that there is importance to, say, something like the Wall Street Journal having editors who vet stories and a larger reporting staff, instead of one guy, no matter how great, and his one blog?

KR: Absolutely. And the nice thing is that Digg highlights different types of content. We've gotten videos from people on the streets of Iraq, shooting it with homemade cameras, to stories in the New York Times, which are on our front page all the time.

MJ: Sitting here, you're well-spoken and professional. On DiggNation, not so much. Purposeful persona or too many beers?

KR: A lot of it is alcohol, I'm not going to lie to you, but I'm 30 now, so it's starting to hurt a little bit more.

MJ: Any worries that there's tons of video out there of you getting a buzz on, talking about stuff like hot '80s stars who you'd "spank it" to?

KR: Honestly, sometimes it's over the top, but fans want to see it. I mean, it's crazy. We just did a live event in L.A., and 400 people were clapping to us drinking beer.

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