The news aggregator's love-hate relationship with me.

Media criticism.
July 3 2006 4:05 PM

Completely Dugg, Then Totally Buried

The news aggregator's love-hate relationship with me.

On Friday, I pondered the hit-drawing capabilities of the people-powered news aggregator Digg.com after learning that it had steered enough readers to a two-year-old piece by Paul Boutin to make it one of Slate's most read articles of the day. (For a quick summary of how Digg works, see this sidebar.)

If a piece from 2004 could draw major hits by virtue of its promotion on Digg, what sort of traffic could an article designed to enlist Digg's discerning users attract? I posted my piece to Digg with this transparent plug:

I wrote this piece for Slate.com to determine whether the massive traffic Digg sent to Slate this week was a fluke: Somebody dugg a two-year-old Slate piece, putting it in our daily top five. I conclude that sites like Slate with deep archives should use Digg-like voting features to steer readers to oldies but goodies in the editorial vaults.

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The answer came quickly. The column went live on Slate at 12:47 p.m., and my digg (recommendation) for the piece appeared on Digg moments later. My goals were to match Boutin's 1,600 diggs and to exceed his traffic of 26,000 hits in one day.

I failed. Miserably.

Things started swimmingly. By 1 p.m. I'd attracted 50 diggs; by 1:30 p.m., 130 diggs; and by 2:15 p.m. 432 registered users had dugg my piece, and it had risen to the No. 1 slot on Digg's "Recently Popular" list.

I had predicted that many registered Digg users—the only ones who can vote to "digg" your piece or "bury" it and knock it off the site—would be offended by my piece's self-promotion. On the other hand, Digg users love reading about the site, so I thought their enthusiasm might offset all the negativity from the Bury Larrys out there. But within minutes users were proclaiming in their comments that my submission "should be the future definition of what is lame on dig." One commenter wrote that my piece was the worst he'd "ever read on Slate. It's very meandring [sic] the writing needs tightening up overall." Many wrote in the vein of everybody knows Digg boosts traffic, why do we need your stupid piece to tell us that?! as they cast bury after bury. "Slate just reeks of the dot com era, somehow it borrowed more time than such a relic deserves. I'll stick with digg," one wrote.

Although I received an equal number of positive comments from users, soon the bury votes were swarming like the mechanical antibodies attacking the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix, reaching the number or frequency of buries required to knock me off the recently popular list. I've gotten a trickle more diggs since the piling on, accumulating today's count of 521.

What did the experiment do for my traffic? Not much. My pieces attract 8,000 to 40,000 page views a day, and this piece returned 11,000 on Friday—the day it went up—and about 7,000 on both Saturday and Sunday. Enough blogs—15 to be exact—thought so much (or so little) of my piece to mention it, earning it the status of one of Slate's top blogged pieces, but far from being one of the most read.

My conclusion: I probably dealt myself two strikes with my submission. I volunteered that I was submitting it as the author of the piece, and I wrote a summary that emphasized my intention to attract hits, a move that probably earned me a disproportionate number of buries. I can't pretend to be intimate with Digg's hard-core users, but they are so protective about the site that an introductory or even innocuous story about it from an "MSM" source can't just be ignored—it must be aggressively banished. Which is OK with me, as it's their club.

Although I failed to beat Boutin's hit count, I still believe in the power of referral sites like Digg to bring smart content to users' attention. I'll continue to promote my own pieces on Digg with the transparent username "ShaferAtSlate," but I'll write more conventional summaries so I don't look like too much of a hit-hog. If I learn anything interesting—and I suspect I will—I'll return with my findings.

******

No, I'm not going to submit this piece to Digg. If you've got a digg and bury in mind, send it via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. EarthLink folks: Turn off your spam filters if you want me to write back.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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