As a young journalist, I begin my day by perusing stories written by top reporters at the major newspapers, as well as the offerings of some trusted blogs. At the end of my morning reading, I take about twenty minutes to zero in on three or four pieces that are particularly engaging, and then I submit them to Digg.com, a two-year-old social bookmarking site that lets users vote to determine the best articles of the day. Pulling stories from all over the Web, from popular blogs like BoingBoing to front-page features from The New York Times, Digg is a democratic filter where the readers are the gatekeepers—and some one million visitors come each day to see what the “Digg army” has dug up.

To this community I am known as Digidave. Every time one of my submissions is voted onto the front page, my rank among Digg’s 600,000 contributors is enhanced. As of this writing I am ranked forty-third and have become a trusted contributor, watched by more than two hundred people who are notified whenever I submit a new story, which, in turn, gives my submissions a better chance at reaching Digg’s front page.

With up to ten thousand submissions a day, Digg is a rich marketplace of story ideas for journalists looking for trends. I first stumbled upon Digg in November 2005 when it was geared toward technology stories, and found the inspiration for at least three ideas that eventually became published articles. Then, in late February 2006, when a colleague’s story hit the front page, I realized that Digg wasn’t just a source of story ideas but also could be a way to promote my own work to a larger audience. I sent in a story I wrote for Seedmagazine.com. It hit Digg’s front page and became what at the time was the second-most-viewed article in the young site’s history. I was hooked.

Most of my submissions are from major news outlets or blogs, but I also submit my own articles. That garners more readers for my stories and gets me pats on the back from my editors, who know that through my Digger status, I am sending their sites huge waves of traffic.

In the beginning, I was afraid of being called out as a self-promoter, someone who manipulates a tool that is meant to give people without access to the mainstream media a say in the country’s news agenda. “There is a dark cloud around self-submission but the thing is, it makes perfect sense,” says Jay Adelson, Digg’s c.e.o. “If you are the author of an article, why not submit it yourself?”

Still, I began to wonder if being a social bookmarker and a professional journalist were in conflict with each other.

The front page of Digg is an amalgamation of preferences. Digg doesn’t produce original content, but it does have something of a symbiotic relationship with major news organizations. Without the content from news outlets, there is no Digg. In turn, as Digg began to expand in June 2006—adding topics like politics, sports, and entertainment—it became clear that being a top Digger gave one the power to drive a significant amount of Web traffic back to those news outlets. On any given day a front-page story on Digg can send an extra ten thousand to fifteen thousand visitors to a site (one editor told me a photo gallery posted on Digg generated 75,000 extra page views). This helps sell advertising. While Digg keeps contributors’ identities anonymous, an August 14 Business Week article estimated that 94 percent of Digg’s users are “male; more than half are IT types in their 20s and 30s making $75,000 or more. It’s a demographic advertisers lust after.”

“I’ve probably shifted millions of dollars in bandwidth over the last six months,” said Mark Johnson, twenty-six, who goes by the name Aidenag and is ranked eleventh on Digg.

This power, even if one allows for a bit of inflation, has created a problem. Aidenag, like most of the top thirty Diggers, is not hard to get in touch with, since like many Diggers he chooses to display his contact information. Diggers are a networking bunch, a result of the social nature of the site.

The top one hundred contributors—determined by their success in placing their submissions on the front page—are responsible for more than half the content that fills the front page each day. This group has been playing the part of a collective editor, and offers have poured in to pay popular Digg contributors for their “services.”

Many of these offers have been made out in the open, like Netscape’s offer to pay some of the top Diggers $1,000 a month to become permanent fixtures on Netscape’s Digg-like home page. Today, almost half of Netscape’s sixteen “Navigators”—paid social bookmakers—were originally top contributors to Digg. But other offers have been made in secret, according to Johnson, and he isn’t the only one being given the chance to Digg for cash. “One site offered me $100 for every submission that I got onto the front page of Digg,” says Derek Van Vliet, or BloodJunkie, who is ranked sixth on Digg and who was among those Diggers who took Netscape’s offer.

To accept such an offer is a violation of Digg’s terms of service, but Adelson acknowledges that it’s impossible to keep tabs on all 600,000 registered Digg contributors, and that in large part the community must police itself. While professional editors and reporters have also been caught taking bribes, they at least risk destroying their careers if caught. The top contributors to Digg, some as young as sixteen, only risk losing a digital account.

In early November, Digg —which has been the subject of sales talks—changed the algorithm that determines which submissions make the front page. The idea, in part, is to address the unequal access to the front page, and it has gotten a bit harder of late to get my submissions on page one. But the algorithm has been changed before, and the problem didn’t go away. For many, Digg is a game and a change in algorithm is merely an obstacle to be surmounted. Entire communities, like Spikethevote.com, have sprung up to try to cheat the algorithm by inflating a story’s votes.

Regardless of how well these attempts at cheating Digg work, the self-policing reality is troubling, especially in light of Digg’s policy of keeping the identity of users private. It fosters a sense of freedom in what people are willing to submit, but it also creates a void of accountability. While I can stand firm that trading Diggs for money is wrong, I have to admit it comes eerily close to what I do when I submit stories that I have been paid to write.

 

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David Cohn is a student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.