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Digg wants to build the internet comment section of the future

Two-way streets between readers and creators

Digg

Digg has a plan to save the online comments section. Yes, that Digg, the pre-Reddit social news site that has evolved to become one of the best places to find high-quality journalism on the web. The company is calling its newest product Digg Dialog, and it's a tool for news organizations to create a two-way conversation between writers, editors, and readers centered on long-form feature articles and other unique stories that pop up in the news cycle.

Launching on Friday, Digg Dialog will feature a conversation with writer Paul Ford about an upcoming feature on Wikipedia in The New Republic. Users will be able to sign in on the web with Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus and create a user name to ask questions. There will also be a overhauled Digg iOS app with the feature built in, says Digg's design director Justin Van Slembrouck. The format will operate less like a Reddit Ask Me Anything, Van Slembrouck adds, and more like a live panel discussion. Users will be able to toggle between live updates, answered questions, and "Most Dugg" questions and responses voted on by the community.

Digg's timing couldn't be better. The current conversation around online media is about what is too sacred to give up and what is worth handing over to platforms like Facebook, Apple, and Google. One aspect to the news operation websites have been eager to get rid of, however, is online comment sections. The occasionally insightful and sometimes toxic town hall slapped on the bottom of nearly every journalistic entity on the web became much less popular over the last year. Companies including Recode, Reuters, Vice's Motherboard, and Popular Science did away with comments and began experimenting with soliciting feedback elsewhere, from Twitter and Facebook to the trusty email inbox.

Now news organizations are looking for a way to have conversations with readers while trying to minimize the negativity. After all, comment sections in their most common incarnation resemble a black box for readers. They can shout into them, use them to insult writers or subjects of stories, begin wildly out-of-control comment wars, and then think nothing of it when they close out the browser tab. Digg Dialog is a way to keep everyone in check by giving readers a human on the other end to interact with (also: heavy moderation).

"A couple times a week, users will get a chance to interact in a nice, clean, aesthetically high-quality way," says Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin. "The basic idea is that we’re not going to force people to be in public with their real names, but we are going to pre-moderate the comments. Because our volume is going to be low, we think we can manage that." Digg is partnering with 25 publications and publishers to start, everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Post to The New Yorker and The Atlantic. (The Verge's parent company Vox Media is also a partner.)

"The old Digg was this toxic, mean-spirited underbelly of the internet in meltdown mode."

You're forgiven if you haven't heard of Digg in a little while. The social news hub co-founded in 2004 by Jay Adelson and Kevin Rose was once a huge destination for finding the best of the internet. But eventually it devolved into a cesspool of spammers and power-hungry users who manipulated the site's recommendation engine. Eventually Digg collapsed, and it was cut into pieces and sold off in 2012. Some staffers went to The Washington Post's SocialCode ad-tech project, while a handful of patents got sold to LinkedIn. The Digg brand name was scooped up by Betaworks, a kind of startup lab that also owns the Bit.ly link shortener and the Chartbeat web analytics platform.

Digg relaunched under Betaworks with a clean design and a front page that was constantly updated with the best stories of the day. The stories are handpicked by a small team using a series of proprietary tools, including the data streams from Bit.ly and Chartbeat, alongside good old fashioned news judgement.

"The old Digg was this toxic, mean-spirited underbelly of the internet in meltdown mode," McLaughlin says. Now Digg has its front page, the Digg Reader RSS tool, and Digg Deeper, a recommendation engine that lets you plug in your Twitter account and see what people you follow are sharing. "The best big move for Digg now is to go back toward social conversations, to add a network layer and give people a way to talk about the stories that are showing up on Digg."

Digg plans to do a Dialog every weekday throughout October

Digg plans to do a Dialog every weekday for the remainder of October, with a focus on creators and experts and not simply famous people promoting new work. The plan after that is to scale it back to give the team more freedom to set up Dialogs on the fly in case a big story breaks, according to director of community Veronica de Souza. For moderation, de Souza says she talked to community managers around the web to get a good idea of how to keep everyone friendly. "Clear rules that are fairly enforced seemed to be the common thing I was hearing," she says. "Because it’s about an article, it's easier to moderate and keep people on topic."

Whether readers flock to Digg's platform as any meaningful fraction of the massive audience Reddit AMAs command will rely on two things: how successful the first string of Dialogs are, and how willing people are to converse with writers about their stories instead of drop in their two cents and leave. Digg is treating it as an ongoing experiment nonetheless.

"Publishers are finding that meaningful conversations are really difficult to pull off on their own sites. Many readers are on social networks where they may or may not be talking about your stories," says McLaughlin. On Digg, McLaughlin adds, "maybe there’s room for that kind of curated conversation."