The Futurist: Why Digg Is Bad For The World

Being a sometimes-media critic (in years past, I wrote for the media magazine Editor & Publisher), the effects of news aggregation sites like Digg on news organizations is a topic of constant interest.

Not so long ago, the vast majority of our news diet came from a single channel — reading (or listening or watching) a chosen news source. Whether it was our habit to pick up the Times every day, or to tune into 60 Minutes, whatever they decided was news, we’d learn about. In those days, the prestige and distribution of the news organization had an immense impact on the proliferation of a story.

Of course, times have changed. These days, the Web has added two more news avenues to the mix: search-directed results (Google, for example), and community-driven news aggregation (Digg, most prominently, but also awful chain emails.)

The spread of these channels, and Digg in particular, is having immense impact not only on our access to the news, but also on the type of reporting that news organizations undertake. And I’d venture to say that the end result could be nothing short of catastrophic.

With Digg, the source of a news story is less important than ever. Unverified rumors are salivated over, and blogs such as this one have as good a shot at getting Dugg (a feat that comes with a guaranteed one-day readership of at least 50,000, conservatively) as The New York Times. In fact, look at the Digg homepage — the actual LOCATION of the link is in tiny, light-grey letters bound by parenthesis. When browsing Digg, the source of the news has almost no bearing on whether it earns a click or not. In essence, this is the commodification of news.

From a news organization’s perspective, this is a double-edged sword. The drive to be Dugg encourages sites, including old-time big media names, to pander to Digg’s base, and to consequently deliver a disproportionate amount of coverage on a few (often unimportant) topics at the expense of others. Lets just get them out there: gadgets, video game nostalgia, anything-Apple, customer service horror stories, and anything in list form are effectively catnip to Diggers. The perfect Digg story might be along the lines of “Top Ten Apple-related Customer Service Horror Stories.” While the saga of the guy who spent a week tracking down his stolen Sidekick makes for great reading, there is little plausibility to an argument that it is more deserving of mindshare than Darfur or Iraq

And that’s not to mention stories about Digg itself (yes, I’m aware of a tinge of irony here.) BusinessWeek (disclaimer: I have contributed to BusinessWeek in the past) recently ran a cover story on Kevin Rose and Digg. Do you think this was done because it was the most important issue in the news that week, or because it was a sure-fire hit on Digg?

Now lets combine Digg’s effective commodification of news with the drive by big media to earn slots on the site. If an organization with the resources of BusinessWeek is effectively competing for clicks with no-budget blogs, there are very serious implications.

Big-time news organizations are at their best when they are conducting the type of hard news and investigatory pieces that only they have the resources for. When such resources are squandered on stories because they are Digg-friendly, the public loses out. Just imagine a world where The New York Times fills its front page with top ten lists.

Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.