Is Wired trying to bury Digg? Or does it just like a good story?

March 2, 2007

Is Wired trying to bury Digg? Or does it just like a good story? Bloggers and social news site aficionados are accusing Wired News of trying to damage social news site Digg, after a story appeared on Wired News in which the journalist claimed she bought “diggs” to make her ridiculous story “popular” on Digg.

Freelance journalist Annalee Newitz set out to demonstrate, through a real-life experiment, that Digg could be easily manipulated.

She had been previously told by Digg CEO Jay Adelson that other attempts to manipulate Digg had failed:

“When we identify a (Digg user) who is part of a scam, we don’t remove their account so they don’t realize they’ve been identified. Then we let them continue voting, but their votes may count a lot less. Then the scam doesn’t work,” Adelson told Newitz.

To prove Adelson wrong, Newitz created a moronically inane blog called My Pictures of Crowds, which as the name suggests, featured pointless pictures of crowds. She then posted a story about it on Digg.

After four-and-half hours her story only had one digg, so she then paid User/Submitter, a service set up to “digg” stories for , US$350 to ensure that it became popular. All told, she ended up with 124 diggs, half of which were unpaid.

Newitz found that many of the people who dugg her story, also dugg certain other stories, which suggested that others were using the User/Submitter service to promote their stories. The My Pictures of Crowds story was ultimately buried when other Digg users started wondering why such an inane blog had become popular.

Newitz then wrote an expose-style story, I bought votes on Digg, about her experience.

That’s well and good, the only problem is Wired News is owned by CondéNet, which also owns Digg competitor reddit, which has prompted some commentators to wonder whether there was an ulterior motive for targeting Digg.

As feedback to the original article, “xylem” wrote:

“Shame on you guys…you own Reddit. The damage this is doing the Wired brand by virtue of how much of a non-story you’ve created is far worse than the fabricated “story” itself.. How many other systems can anyone game? Stick with finding cool tech and reporting on that…if your investments can’t stand on their own without help from the parent brand, then take a closer look at whoever chose that investment.”

Or how about this one from “thetruth”:

“Are there no ethics in journalism anymore? We have Netscape employees bashing digg everyday (msaleem, theattacks, digidave, etc.) and now who owns, a CLEAR COMPETITOR of Digg, has three negative digg stories. Is it just trendy to bash digg? Where is the credibility?”

Meanwhile out in the blogosphere, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch though that Digg should sue Wired:

“Digg can’t treat Wired like any other user that’s engaged in fraud. Wired is the press, and the press has tremendous power. Wired is putting Digg in an impossible situation, and they should be called on it. Reporting news is one thing (although they should note the conflict of interest there as well), but actively creating negative news about a competitor and then using the massive reach of Wired to promote that “news” is way over the line.”

The obvious question is why didn’t Newitz include Reddit in her experiment? She answers this very question on her blog:

“So why did we target Digg and not Reddit in the Wired News piece? Again, the answer is simple. Digg is so big that an entire industry has sprung up around gaming it, and therefore I could hire a company that would pay people to digg my story. There is no such comparable industry or company that will game Reddit. Again, I love Reddit and I think it’s very cool — but writing about it in this context would have been like comparing apples and oranges.”

So is Newitz’s piece an example of clever investigative journalism or a corporate hatchet job?

The key question that needs to be answered is this: Would Wired News have done the story if its owner, CondéNet, didn’t also own reddit?

And I think the answer is a resounding yes. It’s a really interesting new-worthy story that is in the public interest. After all, Digg CEO Jay Adelson did say that Digg could not be manipulated. Newitz simply tried to prove him wrong.

Digg happens to be the leading social news site, so it’s hardly surprising that it was the object of Newitz’s experiment. And Adelson did disclose the possible conflict of interest issue in her article.

As an interesting aside, and what’s been missed in other commentary, is that Newitz’s story didn’t actually prove that Digg can be manipulated; all it proved is that you can pay someone to try to manipulate Digg. Eventually Newitz’s attempt at manipulating Digg failed; perhaps her pockets weren’t deep enough, or perhaps her fake blog was overly stupid.

Like everyone else in the media business, Wired is looking for interesting news stories to try to break through the clutter of the online news scene and the blogosphere. In its quest for scoops, I don’t think it’s reasonable that it should be expected to take a ”hands off” approach to companies, just because they happen to compete with businesses owned by its parent company, CondéNet.

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