Sunday, November 05, 2006

An Explosive Conversation With Digg.Com's Jay Adelson

Reprinted by kind permission of the now defunct Defiant Salmon weekly newsletter.

In keeping with this week’s patriotic theme, I sat down with CEO Jay Adelson on the 4th of July to discuss the anniversary of the bicentennial, safe handling of fireworks, and his initial response to the overwhelming success of the recent "3.0" revision of his website.

In case you have been away from the Internet for a while, is a social networking/bookmarking site that applies the democratic process to the art of newsgathering. Members vote on stories submitted by other users, and the most popular items are "promoted" to the homepage of the site.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I also have to mention that I grew up with Jay Adelson on the mean streets of Detroit, MI (OK--the mean suburban streets), and our mothers used to play Mah-Jong together. Personally, I never thought he'd amount to much, but he seems to be doing just fine for himself these days!

Actually, I am breaking one of the cardinal rules of the site, by posting an interview where the responses are even funnier than my questions, but I guess I'll just have to let that slide this time...

Happy 30th anniversary of the bicentennial, Jay Adelson!

An acquaintance of mine answered the Trivial Pursuit question "What happens every 76 years?" with "The Bicentennial!" Other than revealing much about this individual's mental assets, it also reminded me how much fun we had that day in Detroit, burning things. Yes, we Detroiters do love to burn things, especially on July 4th. Hospital records will confirm that I was in the hospital for stitches or various other injuries every July 4th from 1976 though 1984. (The answer, by the way, was Haley's Comet.)

You are probably too young to remember the bicentennial, huh? Well, let me tell ya, it was a pretty darn exciting time for us Americans, by golly!

Remember it? Oh pishaw! Burning my fingers on sparklers! Lighting illegal bottle rockets aimed at the scary people's house! Parades through Southfield! Eating red white and blue EVERYTHING, even steak! How could I forget?

Anyway, I stopped by recently, and noticed you guys did a bit of spring cleaning. What is the initial response to your new "Version 3" update?

We pretend to be calm about it. The truth is, we are astounded by the success. We keep high fiving each other, like NASA mission control after a successful shuttle launch. We just crossed the 400,000 registered users mark! Huzzah!

Our new users per day went up 5-10 times, as did our pageviews and so on. We're still counting stats and will know better in a week or so how much is a spike vs. sustained, but no question our submissions per day went up by more than double! We're very happy with the results.

What has been the effect, if any, of adding non-tech related news to your site? Are you concerned about losing your core audience of tech news junkies?

You'll notice that users, submissions, and comments in the technology section have continued to climb, at even greater rates. I think leaving the default to technology was a good idea, at least for now.

Our intention is to create some cross-over community, but by and large, to protect each area as a potentially separate audience. We designed v3 to ensure that the original community could continue to operate and exist without impact, and I think we were successful.

I recently read an interesting article posted on your site that said that, as today's adults, we have fewer close friends overall and less interaction with the community than our parents' generation. Do you think social networking sites and communities like digg have any real impact on the quality of our lives away from the computer?

I'm reminded of William Shatner's hosting of Saturday Night Live, where he stood in front of a (fake) Star Trek convention audience and said, "You! Have you ever kissed a girl? You! You probably still live in your mother's basement!" Then, when confronted with the possibility of not being paid for the appearance, said something like "Sorry, that was the evil Kirk from episode 36, The Enemy Within," to large applause.

People who otherwise would not be social, whether it is because they are isolated geographically, anti-social by nature, or oppressed by other obstacles, have found online communities a fantastic way to reach out. How many marriages happen from online meetups? Computer dating services? Fan communities? I think communities like digg can enhance the social lives of many who otherwise couldn't get out there. I don't think it reduces the amount of time we spend outside, if that's what you mean...

Ultimately, the idea that people can have a neutral, fair, diverse flow of information that is global in nature, uncorrupted by giant interests such as governments or non-neutral media, is far too important to consider these impacts of whether Tommy is a little pale this summer.

Let's talk hard numbers here for a minute (if you can). How many members does digg have now, and how fast is the site growing? Does the ad revenue necessarily always keep up with the amount of growth you experience?

Well, as of this morning we're at 400365, but it's growing fast, doubling monthly at this rate (though again, I expect that to slow down to doubling every three months or so once this spike has passed).

Yes, the ad revenue keeps up, though it multiplied a bit higher than expected with the release of v3. Federated Media has been a fantastic partner to make that happen, as well as Google for text ads.

There are a whole bunch of digg clones popping up all over the place like weeds these days. Does this flatter you, or just make you angry? Do you feel like they are just cashing in on all the hard work you have done thus far, or is this just a source of validation for the concept of democratic news selection?

If someone copies digg (like Time Warner did with Netscape), that just validates our model and flatters us. I don't get angry about it at all. It does annoy me when people copy parts of our model, then prance around saying that our model doesn't work. That's just plain silly.

We know there are limitations, and we also know how to address them, through greater transparency and additional tools to empower the people to moderate the site. Also, two years of research went into our promotional algorithms, so you can't just point to a clone's failure to work properly and say, "See? Digg's concept doesn't work!" when they simply work by raw numbers of votes, without the benefit of our research and intellectual property.

Ultimately, we think there will be hundreds of clones, if not thousands. We hope to reduce these in number by offering people more customizable and personal versions of digg, so that these smaller communities can use us and our engine to achieve their goals (either directly or through an API).

What is next for digg? Any chance you will add a fake news category to the site? Because I know this great blog...

You've really inspired me. While offbeat news might work for now, I'm such a fan of sites like yours I think we should create a special section. I'll go start beating Kevin up about this immediately! For starters, I should require the staff to start watching The Daily Show prior to our staff meetings or suffer bad performance reviews.

Thank you so much for your time, Jay Adelson. You are a gentleman and a scholar. Happy 30th anniversary of the bicentennial to you and yours!

And to you, Sam L. Parity. Remember, for what it's worth, I beat you in Asteriods in Chatham, Ontario in 1979, even though you're older than me, and that is all that matters to an eight year old...

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