Digg overhauls its definition of 'popular' articles

The social networking and news sharing site has always kept the precise details of its popularity algorithms a secret. But today, Digg did announce the nature of a change which could alter the entire meaning and purpose of the site.

Up to now, the way any online news publisher got one of its articles publicized through the Digg social service is by hoping enough people were interested in it to vote in favor of moving it up the Digg scale -- of giving it enough "Diggs." Starting today, however, that changes: The secret to a heavy publicity on the Digg service won't be having enough people, but having the right kind of people.

And how Digg determines the right kind has already become a subject of controversy among its community. This morning, Digg founder and chief architect Kevin Rose unveiled the key to its new popularity algorithm. Described as involving "diversity," it apparently involves an unusual way of determining whether recommending members are diverse enough from one another: by ascertaining just how much they don't get along with one another.

"One of the keys to getting a story promoted is diversity in Digging activity," reads a statement Rose posted to his corporate blog yesterday evening, whose text was also added to the site's FAQ. "When the algorithm gets the diversity it needs, it will promote a story from the Upcoming section to the home page. This way, the system knows a large variety of people will be into the story."

The move was the proverbial last straw for one user whose handle is Digidave, who started an online petition of revolt against Digg on his personal blog late yesterday.

"Digg is, in part, a game," Digidave wrote. "It always has been, and that is one of the reasons we love it. That it helped us share useful, entertaining or interesting content only made it that much more fun. Unfortunately the rules to the game have never been under the community's full control."

He went on to charge that the site has enabled the creation of so-called "bury brigades" -- pockets of users that collect together to vote down an article -- and that Digg itself is capable of "auto-burying" articles from selected sources for no publicly stated reason. Similar so-called "brigades" are known to collect together for the express purpose of promoting articles, moving them up the scale -- and such organizations within the organization may be threatened by the new algorithm.

If Digg were more interested in nurturing a community, Digidave explained, it would enable itself to be more accountable to that community.

To that end, Digidave has launched a small exodus of users toward what he's characterizing as a more democratic island. By nearly 11:00 am ET this morning, he had collected 79 responses, mostly positive.

Ironically, some of the responses to Rose's statement on Digg itself concerned members not really knowing how to respond, or whether their responses would actually carry any weight. "Thanks for the update, Mr. Rose. You wrote, 'As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback,"' one member cited. "In what way do you suggest Digg users may have a dialog with Digg staff?"

Another member took issue with Rose's changes, suggesting that Digg shouldn't be about diversity but about popularity.

"This is stupid. It should be based on the most diggs, period," wrote tommy7154. "So what if there are 'brigades?' If you don't like what MOST people like go to a different site. If I post a story on the book Island of the Blue Dolphins, it won't be very interesting, and people won't digg it. If I post a story on the downfall of Scientology, Apple, or Ron Paul, it will be much more likely to be dugg (or buried). Why? Because that's what MOST people here want to see (or not)!"

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