Thumbs Up: Digg Wasn’t A Failure, It Was A Beginning

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“Don’t let him climb a wall. We haven’t finalized his life insurance plan.”

That was one of the first directions I was given at Digg when I started in early 2008. “Him” was Kevin Rose, the founder of the widely popular social news site, and I was on my third day. It was widely known that Kevin was an avid rock climber, though he had recently been extending this skill to common household surfaces…walls, doorframes, stairways. We were heading together to Miami, for his keynote at Future of Web Apps, and he had offhandedly mentioned that he was going to scale the 3-story inner wall of the conference hall.

He climbed the wall.

That’s how it was at Digg. And it was fantastic. This intentional disobedience, the bucking of the rules, the attitude of disregarding the norms, was the cornerstone of how we approached every technology challenge set before us. It permeated every department…engineering, sales, marketing, community. At the time, we were revolutionary in the space, arguably one of the first to add a social, communal element to something very traditional: news. We provided a very simple platform to share opinions – good (Digg) or bad (bury) – in many ways, giving a voice to the masses.

And voice we had…our company culture mimicked the outspoken, vocal nature of the 39M monthly users we were happily serving. I’ve worked at companies whose culture is often heralded in the press as being unique – Google and Facebook, included – and I can resolutely say that the experiences that we had working at Digg were far and away more fun and rewarding and absolutely, mind-blowingly, outstandingly ridiculous than any Game Day or Hackathon that any NASDAQ-listed tech company can hold.

Creating a culture is hard…it’s not something you can artificially build by putting posters up on the wall or having weekly in-office happy hours. Trust me, I’ve tried (*cough* AOL West Coast *cough*) and failed. The Nerf wars, the Digg Meetups (including one where MC Hammer held a dance-off and the infamous Mark Trammell naturally won), and the booze-laden scavenger hunts made Digg fun. But the people were why we woke up every morning, why we tackled impossible problems with smile on our faces, and often with a beer in our hand.

The Digg team was passionate about being there, often because we were very active users on the platform prior to being hired. We cared about this immensely. One former engineer, Steve French, recounts: “I remember having multi-hour conversations over minor implementation details, just to make sure we were doing the right thing. I think this has a lot to do with why people were so close there outside of work. That professional trust translated into an expectation that everyone was as personally awesome as they were professionally.” Basically, we hired people we wanted to inspire us during the workday and be hungover with the next morning.

We hired not just our peers, but spent time recruiting people we looked up to professionally. We hired managers we wanted to have the opportunity to work with, smart people who we gave the freedom to solve difficult problems. And they did. During the 2+ years that I was at Digg, the site grew from 21 million to nearly 40 million Active Users, and revenues steadily increased.

We launched programs like Digg Dialogg, taking the core ‘voting’ functionality of Digg and tweaking it to create an often-mimicked (see: Reddit’s Ask Me Anything or Facebook Live) platform that extended a technical brand into a consumer one. We threw events all over the world that routinely had people lining up 24-hours in advance to attend, sometimes driving 10-12 hours to wait overnight outside in the rain. People didn’t come for the food nor the drink (as we didn’t provide either for free); they came for the experience. They came so that they could, for a few short hours, feel a part of this company, this community that was breaking boundaries, that was teaching the tech world that the collective is more than the individual, that each opinion and each user, when combined, has an impact.

It was the Digg Effect, crashing websites, eliciting lawsuits and setting the stage for the next evolution of online communication.

I left Digg over two years ago. Yesterday’s news that Betaworks purchased the assets of Digg didn’t sadden me – I’ve had a few years to process my disappointment in what has happened to the best company I’ve ever worked at.

Instead, I’m eager to see how the News.me team at Betaworks evolves what was once an extremely strong brand and, in my opinion, has the ability to be again, under their entrepreneurship and guidance. The Digg Crew – as we’d often call ourselves on the blog posts – aren’t strangers…we regularly hold our own meetups, stay active on email threads and Facebook Groups with each other, and in a lot of cases, have sought out opportunities to work together again. More remarkable than anything, though, is the lasting effect of this unparalleled experience; over 40% of the 50 original members have gone on to be a founder or co-founder of a tech company.

As for me, I’ve since moved to New York City. After starting my own consulting company and helping lead Facebook’s Consumer Marketing Team, I now head up Marketing & Communications at Sailthru, a tech start-up. And I did so intentionally, seeking out an opportunity at an innovative, thriving company, one that would provide me much of what I learned and experienced at Digg. Part of my role is to help create and define the culture here, and I look to Digg as the model for this.

I spent much of today talking to my former coworkers, sharing stories, reminding each other about the legendary anecdotes, reconnecting and laughing and reminiscing about the time we all spent there. The messages keep pouring in. And despite what the press has written about the acquisition being a disappointment, I think the sentiments of Digg’s former employees clearly show otherwise. To note:

“I’ll never have such a good working experience in my life.”

“I continue to be amazed by the hard work and the willingness of every member to help, no matter what day of the week or time of the day.”

“It’s the best job I ever had, biggest ideas, smartest people.”

“I was met with excitement and support [about suggested changes...everyone] was willing to let me shake things up.”

“Digg helped jumpstart careers and create more jobs.”

Digg may no longer exist as it once did, but I think it’s pretty evident that the Digg Effect lives on.

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Editor’s note: Contributor Aubrey Sabala served as Digg’s Marketing Manager from 2008-2010. Currently the Vice President of Marketing at Sailthru, a behavioral communications company headquartered in New York City, she misses her colleagues at Digg daily but is endlessly grateful for the experiences she had there. Her cat’s name is Mittens.

Image via: Mathieu Thouvenin