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When I first started my blog a few months ago, I leaned very quickly (as I am sure many people have before me) that social media was a great way to give a new blog some much needed exposure. Digg, being the undisputed social media leader (at least as far as traffic is concerned), was therefore the natural choice for me to get involved in. It was perhaps a selfish reason to join the community, but that was how I got my first taste of social media.

I soon started learning the ropes and getting more and more involved. I made some friends, started digging more stories and even started submitting some stories of my own. It is perhaps a testament to the shaky foundations that Digg is built on that it didn’t take me long to notice that all was not peaches and cream in the Digg community.

Pandering To The Establishment

As a fairly new Digg user, it was glaringly obvious to me how over-represented the established news sites were on the front page. Digg was never my only source of news, so it was a little bit annoying to come to Digg expecting something different, but seeing the same stuff I just saw on Slashdot, the major papers and a bunch of other places. Perhaps I should have come to Digg first, maybe that was my mistake, but then again maybe the onus should have been on Digg to make sure I did get something worthwhile from my visit.

I certainly get why all the major sites feature on the front page. They are known to be reliable and authoritative, people are happy to vote for stuff they recognise, but that does not mean the content is always what everyone wants to see. Rather than pandering to the establishment Digg should have been coming up with ways to give smaller niche sites equal opportunity to feature. It’s not like people didn’t complain about seeing the same stuff on the front page over and over.

I don’t know what Digg could have done, after all, the community drives the news and if they keep voting, the major sites will keep hitting the front page. However, I could probably come up with some ideas if I think about it and so could the rest of the core Digg community (the active users). Which brings up a good point, nobody asked!

Not Consulting With The Community

It is all well and good to listen to the community, after all you can’t avoid it since they are right there talking, but establishing a dialog with the community is a whole different kettle of fish. I did not see this happening with Digg.

A while after I joined there was a big uproar with some people complaining that others were digging too fast and not clicking through to read the stories. Some of the biggest Digg users were ‘implicated’. Of course the other side of the coin was that people were claiming that Digg was a social community and that in the interests of helping out your friends it is alright to Digg without looking at the story. After all, you trust your friends not to send you dross. This is all just part of how Digg works, right?

Both sides of the argument have some merit and it would certainly have been worth the time to establish a dialog and find a compromise that both sides could have been happy with (or equally unhappy but prepared to live with). Instead, one day, out of the blue, a tacky javascript appeared on Digg that limited the speed at which you could Digg stories. No warning was given of this, and it was implemented badly to boot, with some people being unable to Digg for almost 24 hours.

This was no way to improve the situation, it seemed like exactly what it was, a knee-jerk reaction to some complaining by the more vociferous Digg members. It seems to me that someone with some clout at Digg HQ agreed with one side of the argument, so they decided to do what they felt like to ‘fix’ the situation in their favour. That is not the way to behave in a community, that is a dictatorship!

No Transparency

This one has been an ongoing complaint since long before I joined Digg. Nobody knows exactly how to succeed on Digg. That’s not such a big deal, since people are happy to work the rules out and share with their friends, it can only be good for the community spirit. However, in the case of Digg, the rules seemed to change on the fly. Stories would hit the front page with a pitiful number of Diggs (well under 100), while other would languish in obscurity with several hundred votes under their belt. There are certainly ways to explain this, some people would say, maybe the other story got buried several times and therefore needs way more votes or maybe something else happened.

Well, maybe is the operative word here. Noone know for sure. There is no formula for success, not even a guideline. Quality of content doesn’t matter, you submit a story, you share with your friends, and then you cross your fingers and pray. This actually sounds curiously similar to how the iPhone app store is run, and they’ve been getting loads of positive press lately, right? See what I mean about transparency.

This is not the only problem, for a newbie, even the rules of conduct are unclear. By the time you work out the etiquette, you could easily have been banned or simply made a bad name for yourself in the community. Sure you can read the TOS (not like it is prominently displayed or anything), but not all the info is contained there. Some of it is in the FAQ and who reads that unless they actually have questions, it is not like it’s called README.1st.

Regardless, if you don’t want a confused and angry community with rampant misunderstanding, you need to have more transparency, it is the same in business and it is the same in politics. If you deliberately or accidentally misinform your community or simply keep it in the dark, it will only come back to bite you in the end. But, what does a dictatorship care about what the people think?

My Pet Peeve – No Respect

One day I finished writing what I thought was a particularly nice post on my blog and decided to submit it to Digg. I was only peripherally aware at the time about the ‘rules’ around submitting your own content (good old transparency working like a charm). Imagine my surprise when I get a message on submission telling me that my domain has been banned for violating the TOS. Well I certainly wasn’t aware of violating anything, surely it must have just been a mistake. So, I sent an e-mail to Digg, asking them politely to explain what happened.

Next day I got a somewhat terse reply, telling me that my domain was reported as spam and that in the interests of the community it will not be unbanned. My little blog? Spam? I personally hand crafted every single one of the handful of posts I had on my blog, they most certainly weren’t spam. And what about violating TOS, was someone gonna explain about that? So, sent another e-mail, once again politely asking Digg to please elaborate on how exactly my domain has violated TOS and to please point out to me what part of my blog constituted spam. Maybe I did something wrong unwittingly, who knows?

Well, after waiting for 2 days with no reply, I sent the e-mail again with the same result, no reply. Now, that’s just rude. Firstly a warning about doing something wrong would have been nice. Secondly, is it too much to ask to provide an explanation as to what you did wrong, if only so you don’t make the same mistake again somewhere else? The funniest thing was, my account was not banned, so what the hell was going on.

To this day I am still in the dark. Although getting my blog banned stings a little, what annoys me much more is the way Digg responded to my concerns. It shows a complete lack of respect for the members of the community when e-mails go unanswered. Even if the answer is an auto-response (I can certainly understand being busy), it is still better than nothing. The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Lessons Learned

Digg was one of the first social media sites, they blazed the trail and tested out the rules. But, that time is long past. The rules have evolved, the people are more savvy and social media is an ever changing landscape. Digg however has become a dinosaur, unable to adjust. It is not at the forefront of innovation any more, the model it operates under is outdated but it doesn’t know how to refresh and become more relevant. Due to all of this it can’t keep up with the younger players. Sure, it is still the biggest and baddest, but the air up there surely must be getting thin by now and soon it’s gonna be hard to breathe.

These days if you want to be successful in the social web, you need to engage positively with your community, that is the essence. I know it sounds like psycho babble, but it doesn’t make it any less relevant. You have to listen to your people but you need to talk to them as well. Nobody wants a faceless overlord, but a charismatic, friendly leader is respected and loved by all. You still have to play nice with the big boys to some degree if you want to succeed, but don’t ignore the smaller players. Everybody loves an underdog, so if you get a reputation for giving the little guy a go, it will only do good things for you in the long run.

You have to make sure the rules are clear from the start. Explain to the people how the system works, a frustrated and confused community is not a happy one. Finally and most importantly, treat your community with respect, each and every individual. No matter what you do, use respect as your motto. Even when you have to ban users, do so with an explanation and do so politely and tell them what, if anything they can do to get into the good books again. Finally, no double standards, treat your lowliest newbie in exactly the same way as you would treat your most active power user. Most people have a pretty finely tuned sense of fair play, don’t try to be too smart for your own good.

Follow these rules and you’ll set a very solid foundation for success for any online social community. The only other things you’ll need are a unique blend of personality and a concept that people just can’t resist. If you have all of that your community is bound to go far. Fail to do any of the above and your community is likely to turn into another Digg and I don’t think anybody wants that, least of all you.