On Digg, Design and David Karp Thursday 26 July, 2012
What we’re learning from last week’s events
A few major items this week have got us thinking (well, more than usual) about online communities; the sale of Digg, and the New York Times’ look into Tumblr’s attempt to sell ads without, as they put it, selling out.
Taken together, the two companies present a great case study on how directed user behaviors are by design choices, from the minute (“how many pixels should this icon be?”) to the meta (“how should our site work?”) Rob Walker’s look at David Karp’s aesthetics- and instinct- driven approach to design shows how Karp’s philosophy delivers a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Each of his choices (a metrics-free format, icons that could come with an Atari trademark) combine to create not just a notably attractive and inviting online space, but also to drive remarkably positive user behaviors and communities; it’s Pay It Forward for the HTML5 set. In an era where even the savviest media heavyweights consider online civility our Great White Whale—elusive, chaotic, and dangerous to chase—it’s amazing to view Tumblr through Walker’s lens and reassess what they’ve achieved (largely, as he notes, through refusal.)
On the other hand, the sale of Digg is a stark—and, for the many, many Digg supporters out there, sad— reminder that any design, no matter how right it seems in prototype, can turn out wrong, (and, as Alexis Madrigal puts it, that the technology that powers a “once-massive social network is worth about $500,000” in the end.) Every founder I know got into startups for their own reasons—some for bucks, sure, but more for glory, or to change the landscape, or to change the world. And with every different goal, comes a unique blindspot; the money-hungry might monetize too aggressively, the design nerds may refuse to compromise aesthetics even when they become obstacles, and the world-changers aren’t always the best at conforming their Big Idea to business reality.
There’s a lot to admire in the latter—would that we had more CEOs too wedded to their principles. That said, it’s awful to see a great site go down because they couldn’t bring themselves, quite, to kill their darlings. There’s a major fidelity factor in Digg’s downfall; even as an entire cottage industry sprang up around artificial promotion, driving users away in droves, they could never really bring themselves to redesign the concept. A weird combination of management fumbles and good faith meant Digg ended up watching helplessly as power-users and marketers secured an iron grip on the homepage, rendering their original premise—that every user would have a say in what made the headlines— a farce.
In fairness, when everyone’s saying you’ve redefined the future of journalism, the internet, information itself, what are you supposed to do when you want to change that definition? Sadly, the answer this time seems to be watch your users flock to Reddit, whose design decisions (many “homepages”, little advertising) ensures there’s little incentive for marketers to invade. Is it more appealing to users? Unquestionably. Is it a business? We’ll see.
At Huddler, we’re viewing this as a cautionary tale. Our company is predicated entirely on keeping our core users and influencers on board, and delivering services, function, and opportunities they might not otherwise have found. That said, it should surprise no one that we are, in fact, a for-profit entity. We look forward to one day reaching the size, impact and user affection that Digg and Reddit have both enjoyed at different times, but we’re not sure we’re going to be copying their business models.
As founders, it feels like every single piece of what we do here everyday is important. Reading about these guys, though, reminds us that priority one is delivering value to everyone to whom we promised it; our Forum owners, by being responsive and leading-edge partners for them. Our advertisers, by continuing to curate the foremost audience of influencers online. And above all our forum members, by continuing to seek out marketers that bring something to the table—products, insights, conversation—and genuinely enhance the conversation. Because without you guys, we’re just $500,000 of servers, which, suffice to say, was not the reason we started this thing.