This guest post was written by Muhammad Saleem, a social media consultant and a top-ranked community member on multiple social news sites.
Most of us know the Digg story. All it took was a scrappy-looking kid with an idea, and lo and behold, online news discovery and aggregation were changed forever. Digg wasn’t the first social bookmarking (now social news) site, nor was it the first to popularize the concept. It was, however, the first site with a story that touched people, and helped the site outgrow all its competition and become an industry (and even mainstream media) darling.
So why does the Digg story sell so well? Here’s a look at 9 elements that make a good story – one that people embrace and propagate through their networks – and how Digg has taken those principles to heart:
1. A great story rings true.
Digg tells you a story about a world where the media is controlled by a select few. Whether it be mainstream media, or fringe media online, the story outlines a hierarchical system where a few people decide what is important and subsequently feed that to the audience. True here doesn’t mean that it has to be factually true (though the story of Digg is). David and Goliath is a great story but some would say it isn’t necessarily true. True here means that it is authentic and it is consistent. That the story is believed by those who create it and by those who propagate it.
2. A great story makes a promise.
After outlining the limitations of the existing model of news aggregation, Digg makes you a promise. The promise is that the site will put power in your hands. You get to decide what content is submitted to the site, and you collectively decide which submissions are important enough to be promoted to the site’s front page. With everyone getting an equal say, the content that is promoted is the one that appeals to a majority of the people on the site (or at least the most active users on the site). The site promises to reject any hierarchical system or spoon-feed any content to the community.
The promise is a bold one. It goes against conventional wisdom and as the underdog, the site promises to fight all odds.
3. A great story is trusted.
Unlike Slashdot and its small group of moderators, or Del.icio.us, which is decidedly more corporate, the Digg story is easy to trust. When it was started, Digg was the obvious underdog, started by a couple of idealistic kids that were doing it because they believed in the power of the people, and wanted people to have more control over what media they were exposed to.
People are generally mistrustful of authority and manufactured content, and therefore it was easy to fall in love with Digg
4. A great story is subtle.
Digg started of as quite idealistic and making huge promises. But ultimately the site said that it could and would only achieve what the community wanted to achieve. Digg is a platform that empowers you. Anything that is accomplished through the platform is up to you.
Digg is subtle in that it doesn’t force its ideals on you. Rather than pushing its ideals, the site draws you in.
5. A great story happens fast.
6. A great story appeals to your desires.
Like I said, Digg was the underdog and everything the site was doing was counterintuitive and against conventional wisdom (just like the entire concept of the wisdom of crowds, we’re much happier “chasing the expert” rather than entrusting people with decision-making). But it worked because it appealed to the people, and it appealed to our inner punk. Everyone wants to stick it to the man, oppose mainstream media, and collectively decide what information you and your peers consume.
The Digg story didn’t make logical sense to most people. But t appealed to the desires of enough people to make it a popular phenomenon.
7. A great story inspires a following.
Digg isn’t for everyone. Even today, my parents would never read or participate on Digg (they would much rather just read the daily newspaper). But you don’t have to target everyone. All you need is a passionate following from a small group of people and the phenomenon will snowball through natural social networking (think Apple).
8. A great story doesn’t contradict itself.
As the site was growing, the story was incredibly consistent. One user, one vote, no exceptions, and everyone and every site was allowed to participate with equal opportunity. As the site has grown and more and more people try to manipulate it, Digg hasn’t been as consistent as would be ideal. We saw this with the HD-DVD fiasco. The users are incredibly good at finding inconsistencies and when they do they aren’t very forgiving.
9. A great story agrees with your world view.
The wild popularity of social news is made possible today especially because of the general mistrust people have of mainstream media (which hasn’t gotten any better lately). To cite an example from Matt Mason’s book The Pirate’s Dilemma, “In June 2005, the major U.S. network and cable television stations arn 6,248 segments on the Michael Jackson child molestation trial… [And] a total of 126 segments ran mentioning Sudan.” People often complain that social news sites like Digg, only cover either extreme of the news spectrum. What they don’t realize is that these sites cover what the mainstream media won’t, and in doing so they give the people a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The 9 elements of a great story are adapted from Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars.
Note: It’s arguable that over the years Digg has lost its way a little and even betrayed some of the principles that made the site what it is today.