When it comes to Digg and its sudden, spectacular decline five years ago, Jay Adelson doesn’t sugarcoat.
The cofounder and former CEO of Digg, who steered the company to Silicon Valley fame and tens of millions of active users, speaks freely on why it all came crashing down in mid-2010. Now the cofounder of a venture capital firm focused on the Internet of Things, Adelson is also happy to dole out lessons for Reddit, the community site that once benefited from Digg’s errors but now faces a backlash of its own.
In June, Reddit banned some of its user-created “subreddit” groups on the grounds they were engaging in harassment, a move that resulted in their members flooding the Reddit homepage with angry posts. Then the company fired Victoria Taylor, a popular, public-facing employee. Taylor coordinated the site’s high-profile “Ask Me Anything” interviews with celebrities, and her abrupt and unexplained departure became the last straw for a fed-up community. Moderators bemoaned a lack of communication from administrators and outdated management tools, and many of them temporarily shut down their sections to protest Taylor’s dismissal. Users petitioned for the resignation of interim CEO Ellen Pao, a wish that Reddit granted on Friday.
In countless articles and Reddit comments on the drama, Digg has served as the quintessential cautionary tale, showing how quickly a community of millions can disintegrate. Still, the parallels between these two sites aren’t so clear-cut. Reddit is far larger than Digg ever was, with no big rivals waiting to steal its users. And after the initial furor died down, much of the site went back to business as usual, at least for now. For as much as Reddit can learn from Digg and other collapsed communities, and as many challenges as it faces, it also has a lot more room to make mistakes and learn from them.
Comparisons between Reddit and Digg are natural because they operated on the same basic principles. Just like Digg in its heyday, Reddit consists largely of user-submitted links and images, with a voting system for each post. The smartest or funniest material–at least in the eyes of the hivemind–rises to the top.
But while Reddit’s current drama stems largely from behind-the-scenes problems, the main reason for Digg’s downfall is that it changed its core behavior. With the infamous v4 update in 2010, Digg deemphasized its own community and gave greater visibility to established publishers. At the same time, the update removed several long-standing features, such as the ability to “bury” low-quality posts and to view a submission’s history.
“Ultimately, there was a feeling that users had lost their influence over the site” Adelson says. “It just couldn’t survive . . . and I think it took one weekend for most of the user base to leave Digg and go to Reddit.” (Estimates from that time differ, but comScore claimed that Digg traffic dropped to less than one third of its 2009 levels within a month. Within a couple of years, Digg was carved into parts and lives on as a news service.)
Digg’s drastic changes may have resulted from immense investor pressure, as its backers watched Facebook and Twitter become the web’s dominant social networks. Although Adelson says traffic was still growing when he left Digg in April 2010–amid reports of friction with cofounder Kevin Rose and investors–he acknowledges that Digg was under pressure to recapture growth at all costs.
By comparison, Adelson believes Reddit’s owners at Condé Nast were more tolerant of a modest buildup. (The site became independent in 2012, with Condé Nast’s parent company as its largest shareholder.) “If your investors are comparing you to Facebook every day, it’s a rough place to be, if that’s what success is,” Adelson says.
Instead of chasing the big social networks, Reddit doubled down on community-building. In 2008, the site started letting users create their own sections, or subreddits, of which there are now more than 600,000. Adelson says Digg had considered this idea, but dropped it by the time the redesign landed. He now sees these user-created forums as essential to Reddit’s success, and another reason for Digg’s demise. “In order to bubble up the mainstream content, you need to have these communities of interest as the source of this content,” he says.
The strategy has helped Reddit grow to more than 160 million monthly unique users, making it significantly larger than Digg ever was. And because of Reddit’s scale and depth, sites like Voat and 4chan are unlikely to become real alternatives. That makes the occasional community backlash easier to tolerate.
“When the users revolted and left Digg in 2010 to go to Reddit–in one weekend–there was Reddit to go to,” Adelson says. “I think that is one of the reasons why Reddit can persevere through this.”
That’s not to say Reddit is invincible. The site still faces many challenges, from keeping moderators happy to curbing abuse and hate speech to figuring out how to turn a profit.
Yes, Reddit is unprofitable, and last September raised $50 million in venture funding to improve its site and services. This could create some of the same pressure that Digg once faced, while creating suspicion in the eyes of the community–last week’s drama fueled speculation that Taylor was fired over disagreements on how to monetize the Ask Me Anything section–but right now Reddit says it’s not focused on making money.
Adelson believes Reddit can be modestly sustainable and profitable while serving the needs of its community. It just needs to be consistent and transparent in its policies so that users don’t lose trust.
“The issue is trust,” he says. “Trust is what is at stake here, and every step that Reddit takes is going to be an effort to reestablish that trust.”
Adelson relates an example from his time at Digg. In 2007, HD-DVD users discovered a way to crack the encryption on copyrighted discs. When a post containing the unlock key became popular on Digg and drew DMCA complaints, administrators deleted all mentions of it. This in turn caused a revolt in which Digg users reposted the key in various formats, including images, videos, and songs.
Within a day, Digg reversed course. In a post from Kevin Rose, the company itself posted the key, and stated its willingness to suffer any consequences. Digg also set a policy to respond to future takedown requests with a link to the actual takedown notice.
“The users were like, ‘All right, we got what we wanted. We got the transparency we needed in the way this content is moderated.’ And that’s the key to everything, transparency,” Adelson says.
If Reddit is such an unmovable force, why does any of this matter? To Adelson, it’s all about the quality of the content. The vast majority of Reddit users are lurkers, and the only reason they’re spending time with Reddit is because the material is interesting. If Reddit’s best contributors lose interest in the site, the larger audience may start to drift away.
“Within the user community, while of course all users are equal in terms of how they’re treated by the system, there are people who can frankly crush the quality of your site,” Adelson says.
In other words, don’t expect a Digg-like user exodus anytime soon. The bigger risk is apathy, which may explain why Reddit has responded in force by apologizing profusely, instating a new chief (cofounder and original CEO Steve Huffman), and vowing much-improved tools and a proper mobile app.
“When you have a site with a community as strong and passionate as Reddit’s, you sometimes forget that they are in fact running the show,” Adelson says. The protests from Redditors weren’t so much a threat as they were a reminder.