Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A day on the Planet of Digg: Living and dying by UGC

This is a landmark day for social media – when it ran away from the school to experience the real world. This was the day when the prodigal son got face to face with the grizzly in the forest.

For the past 24 hours or so, popular social news site Digg has oscillated from the stupid to wise.

First, an excited digg user posts a story containing the HD DVD encryption code. A slew of related stories follow, with one story getting the most digs ever, 16000 thumbs up in 20 hours. Then the administrators start removing stories and most appallingly, removing stories that criticize their actions. The administrators also ban many users.

By the way, you can use the 32 digit hexadecimal code to make copies of HD DVD movies by using software such as BackupHDDVD.

The result: mayhem
A headline on Digg cries out, “The day Digg died”.
Another one shouts, “The Biggest online revolt”.

After the Digg revolt, Wikipedia locked the HD DVD page for editing, to prevent the information from being mangle by an over-enthusiastic crowd.

When the revolt broke out, at one time, all of the front-page stories were about the HD DVD code, with headlines brazenly displaying the code.

Example of another indignant headline:

"Digg deleted my hard drive for posting the HD-DVD KEY! Now my hard drive refuses to write in binary. I get Error Code: 09-F9-11-02-9D-74-E3-5B-D8-41-56-C5-63-56-88-C0 . Oh noz."
The halo of ‘wow’ is gone

When Digg initially brought down the stories, people cried ‘foul!’

Some wrote about the hypocrisy of Web 2.0 startups, championing users’ voice on one hand, while moderating submitted data to suit advertisers’ needs ( HD DVD is a sponsor of Diggnation, run by Digg founder Kevin Rose).

However, Kevin Rose seems to have pulled in things.

Kevin Rose says on the Digg blog,
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.
That is brave. Google-like brave (vis a vis the Viacom lawsuit)

What would do Digg users do next?
Will Digg users leave the site?

The Digg community is a thin-skinned but loyal group. Most of top digg users who threatened to leave didn’t leave when Digg changed the ranking algorithms.

I am waiting to see Digg users move to Reddit or start their own Digg. I guess they would miss the everyday familiar nicknames.

Chances of this happening:10%

Legal issues
The Digg case might as well be the bellwether case for new media, when UGC is all the rage.

Traditional, hugely leveraged news organizations employ armies of lawyers to deal with all sorts of emergencies.

Recently, the Business2 magazine lost all its data for the upcoming issue in a huge system crash. Fortunately, they were able to retrieve the text part as they had sent the whole text for the upcoming issue to their lawyers for scrutiny and approval!

Can you copyright a number?
While some might say that the HD DVD code is a number, nothing creative about it, so there is any chance of the code being protected under existing copyright law or the DMCA.

However, DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) says it is illegal to crack encryptions.

Section 1201(a) (2) of the Copyright Act has an Anti-trafficking provision, which prohibits distribution of encrypted cracks.

The MPAA lawyers will cite the famous DeCSS case (Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Reimerdes) where the court said, “"It is analogous to the publication of a bank vault combination in a national newspaper.”

The lawyers might also contend that the HD DVD code is a private industry secret and so the freedom of speech argument does not apply.

What will suing Digg achieve?
In one word, nothing.

Paraphrasing the popular slogan, people are living and dying by UGC.

Already, the HD DVD code can be accessed on Slashdot, Youtube, blogs, forums, wikis, results via Google image search, twitter, Myspace messages and many other places. Do a search for the said code on Google and you will see what I mean.

Once the data is out, it stays out.

There was a reason why no one could ban people from what they wanted to say. When you couldn’t publish something, send it through the telephone, cellphone, word of mouth.

There are just too many outlets for expression for all the lawyers in the world to sue.

Is there anywhere on the web with truly uncensored speech?

Some have long called for anonymous forums where one can posts anything freely – without being moderated, banned, tracked.

If they really come up with absurd laws making social media site responsible for the content they host, net users will find the next Sealand, Freenet to host their data, away from the influence of any law.

HD DVD, DRM: both suck
Universal studios might have received good coverage via this Digg-revolt episode, but at best, HD DVD is an intermediate technology for data storage.

DRM is all form continues to suck.

Where is the justice in taking the money from the consumer and the dictating limits on how he can use the product?

As the Economist wrote a while back, why don’t the MPAA guys go after the pirates rather than shouting,
“who put the code out?”

Suggestions for Digg
Acknowledge that you are a ‘moderated’ news site- cabals, elites, instant story buries and all that stuff that the community routinely pushes under the carpet.

There are Digg users and there are Digg submitters. Acknowledge that the two are two different things.

Acknowledge that like in the physical world, there are problems with democracy in the online world.

Do away with the hypocrisy.

Blue-sky thoughts for social media startups
Web 2.0 social networks increasingly mirror our physical world – the hypocrisy, rule by few, the madness of crowds, etc

For people who want to run Digg-like sites, with 1 million members,
how do you moderate 10,000 stories effectively?

Plagiarismtoday has a useful analysis of DMCA rules vis-a-vis Social media sites, including valuable tips.

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At 6:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

We visited this blog post yesterday, 2 May, on our daily "coolhunt" program where we look for people who are using Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs) to spot or develop new trends.

Reading your post with our audience capped a spirited online discussion of this “red-letter” day in the history of the blogosphere, especially the important implications of the Digg events related to the HD DVD code and the meaning of the reversal of it’s compliance decision. This is an important event for the power of the swarm! We found your analysis to be among the best we read.

Our recent book Coolhunting (Amacom Books) discusses swarm behavior and swarm creativity at length. You can see the full log for our coolhunt and the discussion precipitated by your post at the Swarm Creativity Blog ( and add your own comments if you like.

Thanks for providing such interesting food for thought.
Scott Cooper (smcooper@MIT.EDU)


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