Users Rebel Against Facebook, Digg

Consumer Control Still Tricky to Manage

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NEW YORK ( -- It was a tumultuous week for new-media companies. First, the student social network Facebook suffered an uprising in response to new activity-tracking features. Then, changes to's algorithm for weighing and ranking news stories touched off a minor upheaval by top contributors.

In each case, sites that pride themselves on egalitarian principals made top-down changes without input from members. And in each case, the communities to whom these sites owe their success threatened to vanish as quickly as they first appeared.

For advertisers, these incidents embody the risks associated with consumer-generated media as a marketing tool. "Why would an advertiser invest in something so fragile?" asked Robert Passikoff, president of the New York-based market-research firm Brand Keys. "Even though these types of glitches, if you will, are inevitable, they slow the progression of advertisers wading into consumer-generated media."

News Feed
On Tuesday, Facebook added News Feed and Mini-Feed features, which keep members posted on the latest doings of their Facebook friends. For example, if members change their relationship statuses, all of their friends -- a term that applies loosely in social-networking circles -- will be alerted to the fact immediately.

By Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Facebook members had emailed the company and formed virtual protest groups in opposition to the changes. The mission statement from the largest protest group, "Students Against Facebook News Feed," reads: "Very few of us want everyone automatically knowing what we update. We want to feel just a LITTLE bit of privacy, even if it is facebook. News Feed is just too creepy, too stalker-esque, and a feature that has to go."

Yielding to the backlash, Facebook late Thursday said it would modify the new features. "We have engineered new functionality that gives users additional controls in News Feed and Mini-Feed," the company said in a statement.

Digg, meanwhile, has had its own problems to cope with. Digg's system of linking to news stories based on their popularity among members has recently come under fire. So-called "power users" are believed to have too much control over story rankings, at times colluding together to give particular stories prime placement on Digg's highly trafficked front page.

Algorithm update
In response, founder Kevin Rose this week said he was changing Digg's algorithm to favor news items voted up by members without connections to one another. "This algorithm update will look at the unique digging diversity of the individuals digging the story," Rose said on Digg's blog. "Users that follow a gaming pattern will have less promotion weight. This doesn't mean that the story won't be promoted, it just means that a more diverse pool of individuals will be needed to deem the story homepage-worthy."

But no sooner did Rose announce his plans than some of the site's top users called it quits. Even Digg's highest-ranked active user, P9 -- he's submitted 1,334 stories -- announced his resignation from Digg on Thursday.

Some new-media experts said both events are, in fact, positive. "Both companies made mistakes by not including users in the decision-making process, which is bad," said Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer for the word-of-mouth analytics firm Cymfony. "But at least they're hearing the complaints so they can respond and make changes. That's more than a lot of companies can say."

'The new paradigm'
Mr. Passikoff, for one, sees the embrace of less-secure marketing environments as inevitable for brands. "What you're seeing is symptomatic of the greater control that consumers will have whether companies like it not," he said. "They can run for now, but this is the new paradigm."

Two-year-old Facebook has attracted more than 9 million registered users, according to comScore's MediaMetrix, and ranks as the seventh-most-trafficked site in the United States, with 6.1 billion page views in July.

According to a Hitwise U.S. sample of 10 million internet users, Digg ranked No. 101 in the news-and-media category for the week ending July 1, 2006. More than 1 million users visit the site daily.
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