At the height of his power, Andrew Sorcini was one of the most influential people on the Internet. Back in 2009, Slate deemed him the "the king of all social media" for his ability to drive millions of page views in server-crushing traffic to dozens of websites each week. Under the pseudonym mrbabyman, Sorcini was one of the most well-known Power Diggers, an elite group of Digg users who, back in the site's heyday, had managed to game the system so that their submissions to Digg made the coveted front page, sometimes several times a day. Though at the time the site boasted millions of active users who submitted upwards of 20,000 links every day, only a very small number of those submissions received enough diggs (a "digg" is something similar to the "Like" function on Facebook) to reach the front-page threshhold--as few as 200.
Digg tried its best to tailor its algorithm to democratize its front page as much as possible (in other words, make it so any user had an equal chance to create a front page-worthy submission), but this didn't stop this small group of roughly 100 to 200 people from securing a sizable percentage of the front page submissions. Because of this widely disproportionate power, the existence of the power users was extremely controversial. More casual users hated them because they felt their own submissions were getting short shrift and Digg's employees worried the power users would cause new users to grow frustrated and leave. In fact, it seemed that on an almost weekly basis Digg was rolling out a new feature to make it harder for the power users to game the system. "As for my opinion, I despised the power users and thought they all should have been banned for collusion," wrote one former Digg employee recently. "MrBabyMan was digging stories 24 hours a day. This guy either doesn't sleep or he hired people to digg stories for him."
Love them or hate them, Digg's ability to send upwards of hundreds of thousands of visitors from a single link made the power users a force to be reckoned with, and many website owners began courting them, sometimes with money. But that was when Digg reigned supreme, before a swift downfall in which it bled millions of users and ceded much of its power to other social sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit--the last of which most closely resembled Digg's platform and voting mechanism. Though Digg reached rock bottom earlier this month when it was announced the site had been sold to Betaworks for $500,000, a mere fraction of the $200 million valuation it held just a few short years ago, observers have been charting its decline in readership since as early as 2010. So where have all these power users gone? Did they stay paddling on a sinking ship or did they take their influence and penchant for spotting viral-worthy content elsewhere?
Sorcini, who lives on the West Coast and edits film animation for Disney by day, was one of the thousands of Digg users who participated in the "great migration" to Reddit. In the days following Digg's release of its disastrous "Version 4" redesign in 2010, Reddit reported a steep increase in new registrations, and it's commonly considered the network that essentially absorbed Digg's user base. But though Sorcini counts himself among this migration, his immersion into Reddit was purposefully gradual. "I moved to Reddit early on under a different alias to give it a try to make sure to test the waters out since I didn't want to completely abandon my place at Digg," he said. "And eventually, a year after establishing myself on Reddit, I added another alias, my own therealmrbabyman alias, and dove into the site."
The reason for the alternate pseudonym, he said, had to do with the fame that had amassed around his original mrbabyman handle; with that fame came a lot of baggage. "I basically wanted to see if I could do it," he explained, "if I could still have the skill to curate content on my own merits." It quickly became apparent that his influence had transferred to the new site after he amassed thousands of Karma points (which you receive every time someone upvotes one of your submissions). At one point he found himself among the top 10 users on Reddit.
This isn't to say Sorcini and his fellow power users didn't attempt to hold on to Digg, or that they didn't try to lobby its employees to reverse some of the drastic changes it made in its disastrous Version 4 redesign. He had been one of several who were called in to Digg's offices to preview the new updates prior to their launch in order to give feedback. "When I saw what they had intended to do through Version 4, my jaw dropped," he recalled. "I was dumbfounded. Basically what they were doing was taking away the content curation from the individual users and allowing publishers to essentially hook up their firehose of RSS feeds into the submission engine and allow them to submit everything they want. And I told them when I saw this that this is a huge mistake. You're going to drive your regular users away in droves. I strongly advised them not to make that particular change."
Nonetheless, when the new version launched not long afterward, it was evident that the Digg team hadn't followed his advice. Neal Rodriguez, another power user, said that he saw an immediate and precipitous drop in traffic that Digg sent to a website; depending on the relevance of the link, it could send as few as 600 visitors, whereas before a front page article could guarantee a minimum of 10,000. Even more worrisome, the redesign made it difficult for the power users to collaborate and digg each other's stories. "Prior to the redesign, there was one page called the friends submissions page," he said. "You could go on there and digg on all of your friends' submissions. But then they took that away, and that had been the real key to the movement on Digg. That's where you could submit something and people already had the understanding that people with whom they were friends were going to digg their story to continue that reciprocal support."
Despite these hurdles, the power users continued to work together, forming Facebook, Twitter, and Skype groups so they could promote each other's submissions. Digg, meanwhile, continued to install features that downplayed the role of its most active users. "They had this recommended users feature," said Sorcini. "So people like Lance Armstrong and Katie Couric--people who had maybe visited the site a couple of times to check it out and then never came back--were getting thousands of followers. In the meantime, the regular submitters, the people driving the site on a regular basis, were not getting any attention. The attention was focused away from them. I think that kind of made top users of the site disenfranchised."
Not all the power users went to Reddit, and even those who did also began spending time building up their followings on more decentralized blogging platforms. Sorcini has a popular podcast he hosts and said he spends a lot of time on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter. Rodriguez used his contacts at Digg to secure speaking engagements at conferences, and he now spends much of his time developing content for Forbes, Huffington Post, and YouTube.
Some of the users went to other niche social news platforms similar to Digg. A program called Pligg, for instance, allows you to build any site from scratch with a social voting function like Digg's, and there are a number of specialized sites that have amassed their own small communities. One former power user, Marcus Hirn, attempted to migrate the entire Digg power user community onto a site he created called Thruzt. A kind of mashup of Pinterest and Digg, Thruzt was founded out of the hope that the power users could essentially reverse engineer Digg's success by combining their influence on the site. "I started contacting [the power users] one by one," he explained. "It's about 200 people, so it's a lot of work." Everyone in social media is mistrusting, Hirn said, so he made the case through chat and E-mail that if they could launch a site with an already-active user base--albeit a small one--then it could grow and attain power quickly. "I think I had all of them, 99 percent at least, of all the former power users have accounts on Thruzt," he said, though he admitted that many of them aren't very active.
As for those who migrated to Reddit, many found themselves competing in a far different environment when they got there. Because of its use of subreddits, each one with its own moderators and rules, Reddit is much harder to game and the community is more aggressive about downvoting stories it doesn't like. With Digg, the power users could each digg each others' submissions, but this strategy has a much weaker effect on Reddit (many people would say this is a good thing).
Even Sorcini, who arguably grew to be more powerful on Reddit than he had been on Digg, grew disenchanted when the site, without warning, banned his account. It occurred when Reddit instituted a controversial set of bans for mainstream news organizations like the Atlantic and Businessweek for alleged spamming. Sorcini had frequently been submitting links to the Atlantic's In Focus photography blog, and the Reddit mods banned his account because they assumed he had been one of the spammers. "I haven't gotten back to Reddit since then," he said, a touch of exasperation in his voice. "Unless they want to accept my version of events and reinstate my account, there's no point in me continuing my activities on the site."
Surprisingly enough, some Power Diggers have continued to cling to their old stomping grounds, and they say that, despite the negative headlines, Digg still has some kick to it. "The last one I saw some really good stats for was a story my friend Greg wrote," said Rodriguez. "He got about 500 votes from Digg and it got tens of thousands of views coming from Digg itself. It's dying a slow and painful death because it keeps getting bad publicity, but it still has potential. It still has the ability to kill."
Last week, Betaworks, the company that purchased Digg, said it'll be rebuilding the site from the ground up in just a matter of weeks. Even after Digg's decline, Comscore claims it still pulls in 7 million visitors a month. With those kinds of numbers, perhaps the redesign still has the potential to spawn a new generation of power users who can rebuild the site's tarnished influence. But after disappointments with previous attempts to jumpstart the community, this new iteration will be met with no shortage of skeptics waiting in the wings. Digg's power users always warned the site's owners that they were the lifeblood of its network, and when it was at its peak traffic periods the owners merely turned up their noses at them. Now that these new owners need to reignite the same enthusiasm that encompassed the site just a few short years ago, they'll find that getting the community vibrant and active again will be no simple task.