SAN FRANCISCO — Getting where you want to go on the Web is easy. It's called Google. Finding topical news stories from around the globe is just as easy: Hello, Google News.
But such convenience often brings sameness — and relief from that sameness is exactly what makes community-driven news sites like Reddit and Newsvine so appealing. Those sites allow users to submit stories and vote on their favorite ones; stories with the most votes rise to the top of the queue in categories ranging from sports and entertainment to technology and science.
It's editorial layout by the masses, a concept popularized by the most trafficked of all community-driven news sites, Digg.com.
Since its inception, Digg has ventured beyond traditional news, allowing users to "digg" or "bury" online videos and podcasts. Kevin Rose, Digg's founder, is also the young, beer-guzzling co-host of a weekly podcast and Web show called "Diggnation." With more than 250,000 downloads a week, the show has more viewers than many cable TV programs — and if you're thinking you know of a YouTube video featuring a man's talking belly button with more views, then it's important to point out that "Diggnation" has the type of consistency network execs crave.
Rose's stock seems to be rising as more eyeballs turn to computer screens for news and entertainment. He may not have made Forbes.com's top 25 Web celebrities list, but with Digg trying to expand from its core user base of science and technology readers, most of his time is spent as Web entrepreneur, not Web celeb.
MTV News recently caught up with Rose during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. We sat with him in a renovated warehouse which was serving as Digg's offices and talked about everything from "digital Maoism" to vomiting on a webisode.
MTV: You have a background in television. When did you decide to leave TV behind and begin building Digg?
Kevin Rose: There was a lot going on at TechTV, the network I was working at, and we were using a lot of user input to mold the show and decide which segments we were going to air. So it was that basic idea that you can allow the masses to control something very large. [Digg] was really just an experiment: I was working full-time, and I would come home at night and put a lot of work into this little side project. I wanted to see what would happen if you gave complete control of a Web site back to the masses. It could've failed, but luckily it started exposing very interesting pieces of news and other types of content that you wouldn't find anywhere else.
MTV: How is it that some Digg users become very popular in the community merely by getting their stories dug?
Rose: We call them prescient users. They're really good at predicting which story is going to be hot early on. It's amazing to see these people service themselves on the site because not everyone can do that, so you get these rock stars who are very well-known on the site for submitting good stuff. Then you have the really random one-off submitters who happen to have this really good nugget: It's their first time submitting, and it becomes the most popular story of the month.
MTV: Some Digg users are paid by private companies to digg certain articles for their own promotional purposes. How is the site combating that?
Rose: Digg is about a mass of people getting together and saying something is cool and getting it pushed to the front page. There are individuals out there who would do anything to get their story to the front page because there are 2.5 million people coming to the site a day. I'm sure it does happen, but the community will remove and filter out the bad stuff. If it's a spam story or something that they just don't like, it will get tossed off the site. So it is definitely a concern and something we try to combat with some of our measures in making sure that we don't promote the wrong stories — but it's really up to the community. We leave all the moderation in their hands.
MTV: Computer scientist and digital veteran Jaron Lanier has coined the term "digital Maoism" for some of the mob-like behavior he has observed in Web 2.0 sites. He argues that the danger with an online collective taking control of sites like Digg is that trivial stories dominate the front page. Is that a concern you share?
Rose: As our community has grown, we've seen a different mix of news at the front page. But the front page is definitely not the only place you can go for good content on Digg. Something that we're focused on this year is building out the individual experience within your own user profile. There are going to be several different ways to get at our data. You can say, "I just want to look at what the huge, mass pool that's coming to Digg right now is producing," and that's the front page. You can say, "I want to look at what Digg is recommending to me based on their algorithms," and that will be Digg suggesting stories based on what you've been digging. And you can also use your friends as that collaborative filter and say, "What are my 25 friends who are using Digg creating as a front page for me?" So the front page is not going to suit everyone as we grow larger. The best thing we can do is enable the user to customize it to where it creates something they will find of value.
MTV: What is the formula for your podcast?
Rose: Drink beers and talk about computers. Other podcasters will come up and say, "So what kind of research goes into it?" And well, honestly we go and pick the top seven Digg stories, and that can be anything across-the-board, kind of geek-culture stuff, and we say, "What's going to be interesting to talk about today?" Then we just sit on the couch, have a few beers and forget that the camera is there.
That's pretty much it. If we mess up, we just keep going. I mean, I've thrown up on the show because I've swallowed wrong. It wasn't because I was drunk, it was just ... I probably shouldn't have said that.
MTV: Well, that's something that, in TV-land, they would've gotten rid of.
Rose: Coming from traditional television, I can tell you that you have to report to a whole slew of people. So many people have their hands in your mix of content. We said, "What can we do in an open format, something that we're just having fun doing?" If the camera stops recording halfway through, we'll just explain that with a graphic. I think the audience likes the fact that we're just raw like that.
MTV: And you have cable TV numbers?
Rose: Yeah, it's nuts. When I was at TechTV we were Nielsen-rated .15, which is equivalent to 150,000 viewers per episode. And now we do 250,000 downloads a week on "Diggnation," higher than we were when we were in 50 million households on cable TV and Comcast. It's nuts how that can work online. You see some of these YouTube videos, and you're like, "Was that really viewed 2.5 million times?!"