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Digg's online crowd flexes its muscle

Backlash over the site administrators' attempt to squelch postings of a secret encryption code shows power of free-speech-minded Web users.

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"Without users, there's very little there," says Mary Madden, a senior researcher for the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington. "The successful sites are those that can foster a lot of good communication and, sometimes, forgiveness."

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Last month 16.5 million people visited Digg. And where there's buzz, advertisers follow. But when the business model relies on users bringing the content with them, keeping a sense of authenticity is key.

Last year, several users posited conspiracy theories on how certain stories made it to the top of the site. Although the allegations of a hidden hand orchestrating rankings were never proven, many Digg users threatened to leave.

"I still read the site every day, but I post much fewer stories and make fewer comments," says Chad Udell, a web developer in Morton, Ill. "For these people-driven sites, if I feel like I don't have an equal voice, then why bother?" [Editor's note: The original version misattributed the quote.]

Other successful social sites have hit similar power struggles. In September, the popular college networking site thought they would further connect users by rolling out a "news feed" feature that would update everyone on nearly every change occurring on friends' profiles, right down to who rejected whose party invitation. This perceived invasion of privacy launched boycotts and rumors of a National Don't Log Into Facebook Day. Site administrators changed the feature after only two days.

The HD-DVD key was not the first story Digg administrators yanked. They regularly pull down links to pornography and hate speech, says Mr. Adelson. But with more than 7,000 articles submitted to Digg every day, he acknowledges the process is very reactive. Digg's most relied-on filter is its users – for sniffing out both the good and the bad.

Digg's crowd is a tech-savvy set, so when the movie-code posting sneaked past administrators, the readers dug it. Before anyone at the Digg office noticed that the story had slipped through the cracks, 15,000 users had recommended it – making its sudden disappearance all the more noticeable, Adelson says.

But the backlash that followed was not a fight for potentially illegal access codes, says Digg user Thomas Black.

"Right now hundreds of thousands of people have the code, but barely anyone knows how to use it," says the IT specialist from Trenton, N.J. "If you are skilled enough to use the code, you probably would have found it elsewhere." The key has been floating around online message boards for months.

In fact, if the censored story were about something other than Digg's forte – technology – JupiterResearch media analyst Barry Parr wonders if the initial push to censor the piece would have caused a fuss.

Adelson stresses that this acquiescence on the HD-DVD code does not mark an end to Digg oversight. Nor should it, says Mr. Parr.

"These social sites can be like a bar," he says. "A lot of raucous behavior can go on – that's part of the fun. But if things get out of control, you need to have bouncer. It just makes sense to protect yourself from liability."