Boys Will Be Boys: The Problem With Digg


It’s no secret that Digg is a terrible place for women, whether as conversation topics, authors, or participants. But the same factors behind the social news site’s hostile environment are also making Digg obsolete.

Digg, for the uninitiated, is a five-and-half year-old site that allows users to submit and vote up or down on news stories and other items around the web. Not long ago, it was being heralded as a democratized savior of the news. It’s still one of the most-trafficked sites on the web.

It’s also incredibly sexist.

Women tend to appear on Digg in the following ways: golddigging, posing half-naked by cars (though never driving them competently), never inventing anything worth shit (“You know what men invented? Everything else!”), forcing men to go shopping with them, trying to cheat by offering sexual favors, probably cheating on their loyal partners and being subject to rightful revenge. If we’re not bad at math and science, we’re ugly. (All of these posts were wildly popular on the site, requiring thousands of affirmative votes.)

Digg is a safe space to vent these views, whenever women happen to pierce users’ consciousness — which isn’t very often, because women don’t usually get to choose the conversation. In fact, as of last fall, numbers suggested that whereas Facebook and Twitter were majority female, Digg alone among “social media,” broadly construed, was 64 percent male. But on some threads, it’s hard to believe there are even as many as 36 percent women. There is moderation on the site, explicitly banning porn, nudity, and even cursing (rendered in asterisks). There is even a community guideline that reads, “Don’t be sexist, racist or a hater.” And although there have been raging debates about whether Digg is sexist, they’ve stopped because Digg’s sexism has been recognized as a given.

Why is Digg so sexist? Its users have offered their own explanations. “In real life, Diggers are far too scared to talk to women, much less be chauvinistic towards them,” wrote peterjmag on one of the most popular posts on Digg of the last year, with over 9,000 diggs, a screengrab of a girl who turned to Yahoo Answers for a comeback to a sexist remark. “Men don’t degrade women online, we degrade everyone online,” wrote another user. “This includes ourselves! If you look at the comments I think we actually hate ourselves more than the women that whine, which is quite a feat.”

Whether for philosophical reasons or because they don’t want to make the monetary or time investment, Digg execs have been rather hands off about all this. They told us they wouldn’t be able to talk to us by our deadline, but in an interview with Fast Company in November 2008 (after a controversy that resulted in the banning of a few dozen users), Digg executive Beth Murphy said,

“The crowd based community management is always imperfect. We’ve tried to give the community as many tools to do this. Digg does skew younger, it does skew male, it does skew early adopter. But it’s tough to characterize Digg as a monolithic community – there are pockets that are sexist racist, homophobic – certainly. There are trolls and people might see over indexing of these folks. But equally there’s the other side of the coin…. Sexism in general is a cultural grey area. We have to ask ourselves — is this using the First Amendment right to be offensive yet not crossing the line to become true bannable offense.”

But wait, you say. Anyone can join Digg. It’s a democracy! What’s to stop women from changing this eminently influential community? Certainly, there are a few active female Diggers. When conversations about Digg’s sexism take places, as they have occasionally, they can pipe up to say how little it matters that they’re female. And that the Internet is full of degradation and you should get over it. Or, in the words of one user: “And I agree that it can be homophobic and racist and so many other things. We just can’t give it power, and [Jen Nedeau, author of a Digg critique], gave it power. I was fine being a girl on digg, but she brought attention to the fact that I’m a girl. It’s like who cares!”

Anyone vocally taking issue with content on the site can expect to see something like this (click to enlarge):

Can you blame so many women for going elsewhere to get their news, entertainment, and feedback?

It turns out Digg itself is, to put it bluntly, gasping for relevance. Yes, the Internet is fickle, as is the media that covers it, and it couldn’t be heralded as the next revolution forever. But it’s being dwarfed by Twitter and Facebook (and that’s even without being able to count Twitter usage through various desktop and mobile client). The company is redesigning to make it more social, moving towards “a personalization model.” The current model seems to be actively discouraging its users from forming bonds beyond the basic function of the site; it doesn’t even have a private messaging system, although users can choose to include links to other social networks on their rudimentary profiles.

If you use Twitter or Facebook as a way to curate your news, you know that you act as your own community moderator. You define the limits of what you want to follow and what you want to see by following and unfollowing, or by liking or hiding or defriending. There is some anonymity on these networks, but far less than on Digg, where anonymity appears to feed into its users’ cruder impulses. And you can choose a number of sources to trust rather than rely on invisible masses.

On Facebook, you might see a news item come up again and again in your network, and on Twitter a trending topic you’ve never heard of, which is a little bit like being on the front page of Digg. But Digg’s current reliance on mob rule (unless you’re interested in scrolling through all of the pages) also seems to reward casual sexism and occasional bigotry — just look at the favorable votes pushing up some of the most lazily offensive “stories” or comments.

For some sites (Gawker Media sites among them) Digg still matters as a possible engine of mass traffic. Our own Nick Denton, in a recent email, referred to the phenomenon as “the male geeks who hang around Digg and other social news sites, who surge to Gizmodo like a bunch of English guys at pub closing time.”

But meanwhile, the population interested in actively participating in news sharing, curation, and commenting is more diverse than ever, as the overall pool grows. That pool is no longer solely made up of the stereotypical nerdy white guy in his basement, or the metaphorical drunk guy at the pub. Digg, whether by dint of will or its history, seems to have pretty much stayed the same: a boys club, if a very self-loathing one. Meanwhile, the rest of us have moved on.

Digg [Main Page]

Related: Is Digg The Future Of Social News? [CNN]
Is Digg Sexist? []
Digg Community Responds To CR Efforts []
Sexist, Stupid, And Downright Offensive Digg Community Responds [Fast Company]
Digg Bans 20-30 Users for Hate Speech In Response to Fast Company’s Women in Web 2.0 [Fast Company]
Is Digg Sexist? [Pointless Banter]
In World Of Social Media, Women Rule [Brian Solis]

Earlier: Girl Talk: How Men Dominate Twitter
Is Facebook Girly? How Men And Women Use Social Media

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