At Digg, The Inmates Now Run The Asylum

During my routine travels through the blogoshphere yesterday I happened upon a post at Pronet by Muhammad, The Reason Why Digg Removed That Story, and after a read and saving the link for Friday’s This Week In SEO post, I promptly moved on to the next blog awaiting me. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized the revolt that was going on over at Digg about the story in question. Shows what I know huh?

The Story

It all began when Rudd-O asked people to spread this number, that number being HD-DVD processing key to decrypt movies in Linux. On Monday the post became popular on Digg until it was subsequently pulled.

That might have been the end of things had it not been for CJ Millsock who noticed the Digg article in his feed reader only to discover the it had already been deleted at Digg. He copied the story from Google Reader and resubmitted it to Digg as Spread This Number Again. Then he went to sleep.

The resubmitted post garnered over 15,000 diggs until it too was taken down. About the same time CJ found himself banned from Digg. The community began to react strongly.

Clearly not realizing what was to come Digg CEO, Jay Adelson, offered What’s Happening with HD-DVD Stories? on the official Digg blog to explain that the stories had been removed because the processing key infringed up intellectual property rights. Of course he didn’t mention that HD-DVD is a Digg sponsor.

Jay’s post only caused more fuel to be thrown on the fire and many in the Digg community went into full revolt, submitting and digging more and more stories with the decryption key until they took over the front page and eventually took Digg’s site down temporarily.

Last night Kevin Rose succumbed to the pressure and posted Digg This: 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8-41-56-c5-63-56-88-c0. Yep, that’s the hex number that got this whole thing started.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

The Reaction

Michael Arrington pointed out that even “Digg didn’t fully understand the power of its community” and Thomas Schmitz likened the Digg revolution to the situation in Iraq.

This event is a significant moment in the life of Digg, though it’s still a little early to know what that significance will be. Andy Beal is right when he said Kevin Rose had a difficult decision to make, though in the end Kevin handed over control of Digg to the community. Andy sees many possible outcomes and mentions three.

  1. Digg users may well become even more loyal and active on Digg, driving the site to new heights of success.
  2. Digg users may also start testing Digg’s management repeatedly, trying to get their own way.
  3. Digg could still actually find itself subject to legal action for displaying the code. It will have no choice but to either fight it, or face the wrath of its users.

Michael Gray adds another possible outcome in The Day the Digging Died.

While the Diggers may be congratulating themselves on a hard fought victory, it will be short lived. Basically they set their own homes on fire and burned them to ground to prove the point they were in charge. When the “suits” come in I fully expect there to be some changes and the power and freedom the users had will start to be throttled back. The simple reason, no one wants to advertise in the middle of a riot, and without the advertising dollars, there’s nothing to pay for the hardware and bandwidth the diggers consume like a plague of locusts.

I strongly suspect Michael is right.

My Take

Let me go on record saying the DMCA is midgided and companies that attempt to add copyright protection to digital media don’t understand their customers. Your copyright protection is going to be cracked and the knowledge of how it was cracked is going to spread. People have been copying movies and music for as long as I can remember and in all that time the movie studios and record companies have been doing more than ok. Technology in general and the internet in particular have changed the way the game is played, though there is still plenty of money to be made. Learn to to do business in the new economy and stop suing 12 year olds.

Still publishing the processing key may very well be illegal. I’m hardly a legal expert, but it seems to me Digg was being conscientious in removing the posts. Danny Sullivan took a look at the story and also a look at provisions in the DMCA and thinks the posts probably weren’t in violation of anything though Danny will be the first to admit he too isn’t a legal expert.

The lawyers can decide whether or not Digg is subject to legal action. What interests me more is what will happen not only to Digg, but to social media sites in general. Andy is right. There are a lot of places the story can go from here. Something tells me Andy’s first suggestion won’t be one of them. One thing the Digg community has never been called is mature (read the comments on the CJ Millsock’s post if you need confirmation) and if anything they are more likely to see themselves as the ones who carried the moral flag and struck a blow for freedom and democracy. I don’t see them championing Kevin Rose now or becoming more loyal to him or the site.

Andy’s second scenario, where the inmates try to run the asylum, is probably where things will go and Kevin Rose will need to pull in the reins to prevent that from happening. It’s easy to see the next time someone doesn’t care for a post’s removal they will try to mobilize the community again regardless of the the merits of the issue. Now that the community knows they can get Digg to buckle it will try again.

It may not matter what Kevin Rose does. Michael is right and it’s ultimately the ‘suits’ who fund Digg that are in control. Those ‘suits’ generally don’t like to be sued and odds are they didn’t care for what happened and don’t want to see it happen again. If Kevin can’t tighten the reins on the community the ‘suits’ may tighten the reins on Kevin or look elsewhere to invest.

Beyond Digg other sites may begin to rethink plans for adding social features. You wouldn’t expect all communities to revolt the way the Digg community did, but some might. The lesson for others is that if your community does grow and becomes popular and strong enough to bring the monetary results you want, it’s the community that has the control and not you. That could scare off some community building until we see how things play out at Digg.

Any thoughts?

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6 comments

  1. This won’t be popular, but the first thing that comes to mind is this is a charade. Most of the Digg community, likened to a plague of locusts, has no idea what to do with the decryption key. The Linux C++ programmers writing the ripping code don’t need Digg to find the key, and the millions of Diggers who were shown the bytes wouldn’t be able to use them if their lives depended on it. All of this is for show, both on the part of Digg users, and the legal response we all know is coming.

    Users shutting the site down is pretty big. This is going to send shock-waves through Wall Street that ripple throughout the “web 2.0″ world. No one predicted liability would be the end of Digg; spam was supposed to do that, in a slower, more lingering fashion. Investors are learning what site owners have known for years – it takes more than a server and some code to be successful. Still, a bunch of angry humans causing a distributed denial of service attack isn’t “the revolution.”

    We’ve learned (again) that information is self-replicating. People “dugg” articles with a decryption key they had no idea how to use simply because they found the idea of a secret being leveraged against the public (for profit) repugnant.

  2. I’m with Forrest here. I always thought the spam would be the thing that would slowly render Digg (and other social bookmarking sites) useless; I put links to them in my blog and hope people will bookmark the site, but it hasn’t happened yet and I don’t expect it will before the end draws near.

    I gotta admit that I never saw something like this coming, although with Digg users it doesn’t surprise me. The geek community will always fight back against anything that takes away their contrived sense of entitlement, and this is a classic example of such.

  3. This whole situation makes me wonder what will happen to “Web 2.0″. Will it’s life span be as short lived as the Macarena craze? Will “Web 3.0″ become the new moniker for “corporate interests always win out over the little guy”?

  4. I always assumed the general lack of maturity would do in Digg. I figured as the current group of Diggers got a little older they would begin to dislike the place and the next generation would rebel a bit and move on to the next social media site. In all fairness to Digg not everyone there is immature. Unfortunately the more mature aren’t as vocal.

    I don’t think this was staged at all. I think it was a genuine decisions and the right decision to remove the key and then later it was Kevin Rose surrendering because he was worried what the community would do.

    I couldn’t tell you how many Diggers would know what to do with the key, but I suspect it’s actually quite a lot. We’re talking a young, geeky crowd that loves Linux, CDs and, DVDs, and hates the man as represented by the record companies, movies studios, and for most of a day Digg itself.

    That’s what I’m wondering Dave. I think for the most part we’ll see things the same as they were before all this started. I expect all the existing social media sites to be doing business as usual and most programmers trying to figure out how to create the next big social media site so they can sell to Yahoo or Google.

    However I wonder what the stance will be from traditional and more conservative companies who have been thinking of adding social media features. USA Today has had some recent success and grew subscriptions when it added things like a voting system. I have a feeling other companies may hesitate to do the same now. At the very least social media may become a little less democratic and open than it was a few days ago.

    By the way if you’re wondering about web 3.0 come back tomorrow. I’ll be linking out to a post that attempts to define what web 3.0 will be.

  5. I only got wind of this a couple of days ago. I didn’t realise it was this big.

    kevin Rose should stand up for himself and do what he feels is right, Which obviously is not posting the hex as he had it removed so many times, rather than hand all control of digg over to it’s moronic user base which consists of mostly 12 year olds.. Let’s face it, The “digg community” isn’t going to be up in court over this, It will be kevin rose.

  6. I’m not sure Kevin Rose knows what he feels is right on this. It’s possible the hex was originally removed at the request of HD-DVD or on the advice of a lawyer. Later Kevin caved to the masses and put it back. I’m not sure we’ll know what the events will mean for some time, but it definitely feels like a significant moment for Digg and social media sites in general.

    Web 2.0 is in part about giving control over to your users, but I’m not sure anyone was prepared for something quite like this. My hunch is diggers will be quicker to make demands of Kevin and Digg in the future and if they don’t get their way they’ll start throwing tantrums.

    In all fairness to Kevin he probably didn’t have a very good day and I don’t envy him his decision.

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