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New Digg CEO, take note: How social media companies respond to irate users

August 31, 2010 |  6:08 pm

Digg-reddit-sumbleDays after launching a major revision to its social-news website, Digg has appointed Matt Williams, a former Amazon.com manager, as its new chief executive. And man, does he have some work ahead of him.

The overhaul of Digg, which shifts the focus from a page edited by the masses to a personalized news feed, has angered some of its most loyal users. Many Diggers have been very vocal about staging an exodus to rival news site Reddit.

Of course, these types of rumblings seem to happen just about any time a large site has its formula tinkered with.

Twitter saw backlash recently when it released a feature called Retweet. A loud group that included the service's creator, Jack Dorsey, criticized Retweet for not letting users add a short note to those messages. The small music website TheSixtyOne heard angry chants when it unleashed a simpler version of the service. And such revolts make up practically a bimonthly tradition for Facebook.

So how should social media website owners, who find the cries are loudest on their own pages, deal with the attacks? The Times talked to some of those administrators and looked to examples from the past for clues as to how Williams might want to handle the indignation he's inherited.

Twitter has millions of passionate and observant users who will notice every time a new button is added or a new "promoted" thing shows up on the site. The San Francisco company provides guidelines for businesses using its social network, and when prompted for Twitter's own philosophy, a spokeswoman highlighted a line from that Best Practices page:

"Listen regularly for comments about your company, brand and products -- and be prepared to address concerns, offer customer service or thank people for praise," she quoted.

In other words, don't ignore the negativity.

Facebook, with 500 million active members, knows push-back perhaps better than anyone. Sometimes the Palo Alto, Calif., developers lose (see: Beacon). Sometimes they win (News Feed). But judging by Facebook's reactions in the past, these issues are usually handled as such: The company lets things stew for a bit and eventually finds either a mountain or a molehill.

Molehills disappear rather quickly.

Mountains normally get addressed through company blog posts, often by Chief Mark Zuckerberg. Those messages have offered an excuse, some reasoning or an unusual alternative. (To ease privacy concerns, Facebook said users could vote on a sort of Bill of Rights. Few opted to participate, and so the program mostly fell by the wayside.)

Beacon, a veritable Everest, resulted in a $9.5-million settlement.

Reddit may have benefited the most from Digg users' revolt this week, but the small company has had to deal with tantrums of its own in the past. Though, compared with Digg's, "We've never had anything quite like that," Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian said in an interview with The Times.

But Ohanian seems to think Digg is scaling its mountain reasonably well.

"It's important to remember that you're still running the site, and you're responsible for doing what's best for it," said Ohanian, who is no longer involved in Reddit's daily operations. "It's impossible to please everyone. And it's important to be wary of the silent majority, who will never let you know how they feel."

Digg's response aligns with Ohanian's advice and that of Facebook. Founder Kevin Rose, who was filling in as interim CEO until Tuesday, wrote a blog post addressing many complaints and offering fixes in the future. A Digg spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.

While Rose maintains a great deal of influence at Digg, those decisions may ultimately fall on the shoulders of the new chief.

"Introducing change is never easy, and bringing something as radically different as Digg version 4 was bound to generate a strong reaction," Rose wrote in a statement announcing the hiring of Williams. "We are absolutely listening and really value everyone's feedback as we take Digg in new directions."

So Williams will have plenty to mull over as he reshapes the fast-changing company. Rose offered some thoughts in an interview with AllThingsD about Williams' new role: "It's a pain in the ass and something I would never wish on my worst enemy."

Have fun, Matt!

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian 

Photo: From left to right, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, StumbleUpon founder Garrett Camp, Digg founder Kevin Rose. Credit: Tony Pierce / Los Angeles Times

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