Kevin Rose on Community

Paul Boag

At this years at Future of Web Apps I was fortunate enough to interview Kevin Rose, the founder of digg.com about running online community.


Paul: Ok, so I’m really pleased to have joining me today Kevin Rose from Digg and Diggnation. Good to have you on the show.

Kevin: Thanks for having me.

Paul: So, Kevin we had your keynote this morning at Future of Web Apps, which was brilliant, really enjoyed that, and you talked about some really interesting concepts around the subject of community building and that whole complexity that goes into that, and you made some really good points about how to encourage and engage people in community, and you talked particularly about this idea of massaging egos, which I thought was very interesting. Maybe you could share a little bit about that?

Kevin: Well I just think that people don’t really talk about that side of things, it’s kind of like it’s a black art in some ways. People are like “anything that would stroke the ego is a bad thing, and we shouldn’t do that!” but we’re doing that all the time in the features that we build. And you see it even in the most successful sites out there, I think, have figured a way to inflate an individuals self worth, in a way, when they use their products.

Paul: So you want to give us some examples, perhaps?

Kevin: I think that one of the biggest one is Twitter and the follower count and the idea that when you look at that number it’s “whose is bigger” contest between whoever is playing the game, right. So it could be between a couple of different plumbers, that have competing plumbing companies, they have Twitter accounts, any celebrities that are on there. And that’s just one of just a whole slew of different examples from Farmville, which is a really popular Facebook application, that figure out ways to give you certain awards every time you do different things and give you different badges and levels and things like that. I don’t use it as a way to drive the idea of the feature, so I’m not backing into it saying: “Ok, how can I massage the ego?” I think of, what does the community need? What features are we building? And I want to always make sure that person is rewarded in some form of fashion, and that can either be like, I’m digging a story and this is important to me so I want to show that I’ve added one to the overall count and in my profile it can be something where I achieve a certain level based on my contributions to the system, so I’m leveling up inside of a system. And there are so many ways to go about this.

Paul: One of the ones that you mentioned were leader boards, about how in the early days of Digg you had this leader board and then you decided to remove it. The thing that always strikes me from my experience of working with leader boards is that they can actually be gamed in a negative way, which ends up actually damaging the community. And is that why you removed them from Dig? And how did you get around that problem?

Kevin: Yeah, in the early days it was based on the total amount of stories that reached the front page, the stories that you submitted. And so it became this game that for the first six months was a lot of fun for pretty much everyone on the site, because they would look at the number one slot and say: “Ok that’s something I can achieve if I put in a decent amount and effort and work into trying to play this game.” As they grew hundreds and hundreds of stories deep to where you’d have to have a thousand front page stories, people were having a hard enough time getting one story on the front page of Digg, let alone a thousand. So it would discourage a lot of the other people and all of a sudden we had this press articles about how Dig is controller by very small subset of its user base bla bla bla.. so it was something we decided to remove because there was no real way for anyone to break into it once it hit a certain level. Some of the stuff we’re looking at now, well there is a couple of things: one, we plan on opening up a promotion of stories to a whole slew of different, like an open taxonomy, a whole slew of tags, so if you’re in something very niche, like rock climbing or road bikes, you’ll be able to jump into that section and see stories getting promoted in there. And so it’s not necessarily about just that one home page that sees a hundred and some stories a day, it can be about these other small verticals. And inside of those verticals we want to highlight the users data really finding the quality content. One ways that this can be gamed is if you’re saying: ok it’s only by the people that submit stories. Because some people are, I don’t know if they sleep or not, but they happen to be the first one to go out there and always find the best stories and be the first submitter. So, ways that we can get around this is not look at submissions, but also looking at the people that dug this early on, and how accurate they are at predicting whether something is going to be very popular. So, let’s say you’re in the road bikes section and there may be someone who diggs 50 articles a day, but let’s say you only digg 5 a day, but the ones you always digg eventually become very popular within the ecosystem. That means that you’re a very prescient user, you are a user that is very good at predicting what the community is going to enjoy.

Paul: Quality rather than quantity

Kevin: Exactly, so if we can start to structure our leader boards around those concepts, those are very difficult things to game, because even if you do game them you’re really providing the masses with what they want, high quality content. So, and then also lowering that window, so instead of saying it’s an all-time leader board, something that the sum all of your activities over time that would be hard to penetrate, you can say this is leader board of the best users in the last 30 day, or the best users in the last week or two weeks.

Paul: Constantly resetting

Kevin: Resetting, refreshing always making sure, and there might be some people who stick and some that go on vacation or holiday for a couple of weeks and then all of a sudden they’re back to square one.

Paul: Talking about your users, you talked a little bit about putting content live and then seeing how people responded to that and adjusting accordingly. Do you actually ever do any formal usability testing where you get people in and try stuff out?

Kevin: Absolutely

Paul: Ok, so how do you go about doing that, do you select people from the community or how does it go?

Kevin: We typically do it into three different sets of groups: we’ll have what we call our “lurkers to the site”, so people that are aware of Digg but they don’t participate. So they like the home page and understand what we’re doing we’ll invite them in for some usability testing, and then we’ll invite some peop

le that have no idea what Digg is, they’ve never heard of it before. And then we’ll invite our hard-core, on-Digg-24/7, the big stream users, and we’ll take those three groups of users probably 10-15 per group, set them down in front of a bunch of computers and then just walk them through a bunch of different scenarios.

Paul: One of the kinds of advantages of being a well established brand, whether it be pamps(?) or Digg or whatever else, you can try stuff out and you’ll get a reaction from your community and people will tolerate that backwards and forwards. But if you’re a startup – we just interviewed a guy earlier today who literally is him and his mate and they’re launching a startup – they only get one opportunity to make a good impression, really. So this idea of putting stuff out and testing it do you think that always applies?

Kevin: Yeah I do, I think that if you have just bad ideas and you can’t get a product to where at least people are like “that’s interesting enough to where I want to play with it” then you have to go back to square one. So that initial launch is not proving itself then maybe you need to try a different idea, but for us I think that we’ve been very fortunate in that first initial ideas that we’ve launch with have been sticky enough to have a group of users that wanted to continue using the product, and that’s the point where your starting to get feedback from these users or they’re starting to ask you “I’m having a bug or problem with this particular feature, or I want to see this or that” and that’s where I truly believe in the fact that you should release, iterate and continue to evolve as fast as possible.

Paul: Ok, that’s interesting. Can we talk briefly about community and community culture, because I’m fascinated by this idea that as the different applications launch they all develop little cultures of their own, if that makes sense, and Digg has got this reputation as being quite an edgy and has this kind of edginess to it, where there’s the classic one about posting the key for (something??) and they’re quite bulshy, they know what they think, they are very opinionated. How much do you think that that is born out of Diggnation and the fact that you guys present a certain persona in Diggnation and that’s kind of trickled through to who you’ve attracted on the site and how people have chosen to interact on the site?

Kevin: I haven’t really put that much thought into it, but I know that initially during the early days, well we launched before Diggnation so we always kind of had it was an edgy group to begin with and so

Paul: Perhaps it’s just the people you know

Kevin: Yeah, maybe I have some shady friends, no, but I think that there was some of the people that initially came to the site were fans of TagTV, which was the television network that I was involved in and all that, and so these were early adopter geeks and then we started the podcast later and that grew along with the site, but I think that today I really wish there was as many people listening to the podcast as there are diggers, ’cause right now last month I think we did around 40 million uniques on the site and on Diggnation site 150,000-200,000 people, so it’s kind of separated.

Paul: Perhaps the culture was established before has perpetuated.

Kevin: Sure

Paul: Have you found that a problem as you’ve expanded out into new areas? As different people come into the site, are they finding it quite hard to break in?

Kevin: Yeah, I think so absolutely. There’s no one single universal homepage that’s going to suit everyone and I don’t think that you’re ever going to be able to throw millions of people into the same chat room-slash-comment stream and expect them to all get along. So our big push with some of the new redesign and stuff that we’re doing with the next version of Digg is going to be to break up these sandboxes into smaller areas and service a lot more of the long tail of content, so that if my mom comes onto Digg there’ll be something for her to jump into. Versus today, she would look at the front page and be like “I don’t understand all these crazy Internet memes”

Paul: From our point of view as web designers, even the Tech section is too broad for us, we want our own Web Design subsection so that suits us perfectly

Kevin: Absolutely. I’ve been hearing that from the Linux and Unix candy(?) for a long time.

Paul: You talk about this redesign that you’re working on at the moment and we’ve had Daniel on the show a few times and he did our SXSW special where he was very rude to me – but we’ll gloss over that. You talked about in your presentation about how Daniel talked about this idea of simplicity “what can we take away”. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that because that’s something we hark on about a lot so it’s nice to hear you say it too.

Kevin: I think that there is, especially when you get to a certain size, it’s very easy when you’re a small company an you’re five people, like-minded individuals and you’re all trying to build a core product and you know what’s good for the web. Then as you grow into a larger 20, 30, 50-plus person company, you get different opinions and different takes on how to build websites. You have a biz-dev that says “wouldn’t it be great if we had this feature,” marketing that says “it would be great if we could have another banner ad here,” you have the CEO that wants a little something else – there’s so many cooks in the kitchen. It’s important, I think, to always strive to have as least clutter and just a clean, light-weight experience that people can grock(?). People tend to forget that and it’s very easy to say “I want the entire kitchen sink as a feature-set and present all on the same page”. Hopefully there’s someone in charge of the company that can fight those battles, because as you get bigger there’s more and more battles to fight when it comes to that kind of stuff.

Paul: We do a lot of large public sector and very bureaucratic websites – that’s the kind of work that we do – and that’s terrible for that because they have entire committees that are arguing over what content to put on their site, so it’s something I’m very familiar with. There’s a great book which you might have read called “Laws of Simplicity” – have you read that?

Kevin: I haven’t read it, no.

Paul: Superb book! Which talks about exactly this and how to go about simplifying anything, from your life right the way through to a website. It’s really interesting stuff. John Madda, I think.

Kevin: I have to write that down. I am typing it to the iPhone as we speak.

Paul: Do you have any questions you wanted to ask?

Stanton: Yeah, one of the key things I took away from your talk is when you said: “stop thinking you understand your users and learn what they actually do”. You said you do user testing, is there anything else?

Kevin: To be honest I don’t even like user testing. I think user testing is great for the big gotchas, like where you’ll slap your forehead and say “oh boy, I don’t know how we were about to miss that one” just before their products went live. I remember even before launching Digg – I was probably about 3 weeks out – and I was showing my friends, who I respect their opinion on all things Internet, I was showing them what Digg was. And several of them were like “I just don’t get it,” “I kinda understand what you’re trying to do” In my mind, there’s been so many times when you have so many well-educated people give you an opinion one way or another on whether or not something’s gonna work, but until you actually release it and get it in real users hands, you really don’t know what’s gonna happen – and it can go either way. I’m not saying there isn’t stuff you can do to, hopefully, make it go into a positive way. Like when you’re developing a feature, you’re bouncing it off the right types of advisors and people that you trust in the community that can think through some of these problems. But I think that 9 times out of 10 it’s better, rather than try and over-think it and sit there and say “we absolutely have to have this as part of the release” or arguing for weeks on end over how something should go, I’d rather take that time, make a decision: develop it, release it, and if it doesn’t work – worst case – you change it. That’s worst case! So many people forget that, they think it has to be perfect before they get it out there and it’s like “Get it out there!” because they’re just wasting time. It kills me when I watch people going on and on for weeks debating things. When in the same amount of time they could’ve released it, fixed the problems and re-released the code.

Paul: There’s seems to be this perception that the web is some kind of fixed thing that once it’s out there, people have almost got the attitude that it’s like printing a book; there’s no going back.

Kevin: Without a doubt! They think it’s like printing a book. And the other thing is they think that failure is a horrible thing. I don’t see it like that. If you fail at least you’re being real with your user-base. Jump on the blog, write a post and say “You know what, we fucked up there. That was a bad feature, we should’ve done it like this. Thanks for your feedback. Here’s the new feature.”

Paul: There’s a great quote from Winston Churchill who said once that “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm” which just sums it up brilliantly. Any other things?

Stanton: You mentioned building a group of advisors, a group of people you trust and can not be afraid of to show ideas to and get their feedback, even if its bad feedback. And you talked about not necessarily designers or developers. What kind of advisors do you have, not necessarily for Digg ’cause I guess they’re quite high-business-level people, but for small ideas that you have that just bounce off people?

Kevin: I don’t have any official advisory roles on my other projects, but if you’re fortunate enough to befriend people in the industry that you really respect their opinion – I’m always bouncing ideas off of Tony from Zappos or like some of the WeFollow Twitter directory stuff off of Ed from Twitter – you need these guys. Even if you don’t have official advisory roles with them where you’re giving them shares, just to be able to sit down and have a coffee and brainstorm is just such a valuable thing. Even some of our angel investors, some of the best angels can be advisors as well; they’re not just investors, but hopefully you’re allowing them to invest in your company because they’re adding value outside of just the money that they’re contributing. So some of our angels are just extremely well-connected people in the Bay area or wherever, and to just be able to go to them and say “you know I’m having a really hard time with image storage or scalability in this area” and they go “oh, well I’ve worked with a guy here, I know this guy here and let me just set up a lunch “and they send 2 emails and because we both mutually respect that investor, they’re willing to get together with you. Little things like that can be really valuable.

Paul: Kevin, thank you so much. I know you’ve gotta go on and do other stuff, so thank you for taking time to come on the show and maybe we’ll talk to you in future.

Kevin: Sounds good, thanks for having me.

Thanks goes to Simon Hamp for transcribing this interview.

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