It wasn't that long ago that Digg was a thriving online community. Publishers longed to be on Digg's coveted front page because it translated into many page views, but over the last couple of months something went terribly wrong with Digg.
Through various missteps, a leadership change, and a radical site redesign, Digg has lost a substantial amount of traffic, showing just how quickly the landscape can shift on a popular social networking site based around the concept of community.
Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) might want to pay attention.
Now, I'll grant that even at its peak, Digg was less than one-tenth the size of Facebook's gargantuan and growing online community, but 40 million unique visitors a month is nothing to sneeze at either. But ReadWriteWeb reported last month that, since Digg's site redesign in August, the site has seen its traffic drop off by an astonishing 26 percent. For those of you who are math-challenged like me, that translates into more than 10 million visitors.
If Facebook were to lose a corresponding share, if you believe the current membership numbers of around 600 million members, that would be a loss of over 150 milllion users in around a month.
If that doesn't make you panic, I don't know what will. And panic Digg has. The new CEO, Matt Williams, wrote an apology letter to the Digg community last week. He all but grovelled, promising to bring back beloved features that the community had been complaining bitterly about losing for weeks.
Will it be enough to restore confidence of users who are already fed up, such as Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, who in a blog post described the new Digg as "awful?" After two weeks of waiting for Digg to get its act together, he lost his patience -- and Digg lost him. I'm sure he's not alone.
I'm not quite as down on the new Digg as Vaughan-Nichols and others, but then I wasn't that engaged in the old one. I like the direct integration with Facebook, Twitter, and email via buttons built right into the interface, but even weeks after the launch, I'm still finding it a bit buggy, so I could see how folks could be getting fed up.
What could Digg's experience mean to Facebook or to any popular online community? It's hard to say, but I believe Facebook and others should take this as a social networking cautionary tale. Online communities are built from groups of like-minded people who have a large stake in the social site.
If you are going to make wholesale changes, you’d better make sure your user core is onboard, or you could alienate and lose them, and in this go-go online world, once you lose them, it's going to be extremely difficult to lure them back.
Facebook in particular seems to care little about its user base. It takes for granted that because they are today's go-to site, they can do whatever they want and users might complain and grumble, but they won't leave.
Digg's experience shows that sometimes users do leave, and when they do, they're gone, baby, gone.
Facebook may be today's social networking flavor of the month, but things change fast on the social Web, and Facebook and other social sites would be wise to keep that in mind.
— Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist, blogger, FierceContentManagement editor, and contributing editor at EContent magazine.