Is Digg Broken?

Digg is a community-based website that allows its registered users to submit stories or articles that they feel might be of interest to others. Once submitted, the story appears as a link to the original source as well as a short description of the content. Other registered Digg users can then evaluate the content and either “Digg” or “Bury” the story depending on if they find it interesting or not. The theory is that those stories that get “Dugg” a lot will end up on the front page, while those that do not will vanish into obscurity.

The idea of having users rank content is a good one, but unfortunately Digg does not seem to work this way, which brings me to the point of this article. Digg is broken. Deliberately or not, it is failing to function in three very important ways:

1) Digg is censorship:
The way Digg figures out which story to promote to the front page is not based as much on how many people have “Dugg” it as it is on which particular user “Dugg” the story to begin with. If you are a user that is very active within the Digg community and have “Dugg” a large number of stories that end up being popular, the stories you “Digg” are far more likely to end up on the front page than stories that get “Dugg” by new users with no reputation.

Why is this a problem? Because when you go to Digg, you are only seeing links that a relatively small, elite group of Digg users want you to see. The vast majority of stories that get “Dugg” end up being relegated to obscurity because they were “Dugg” by average, everyday users and not the Digg elite.

2) Digg users are nasty:
When a story gets “Dugg” users have the ability to comment on it. Not only are these comments usually of little to no actual value, but they are often cruel and nasty as well. For a case in point look here.

The “Dugg” story reads:
When a California woman recently gave birth to a healthy baby just two days after learning she was pregnant, the sudden change to her life was challenging enough. What April Branum definitely didn’t need was a deluge of nasty Internet comments.
Nasty Digg user “Antifreese11” commments:
wow legal action for voicing our opinions. what the fu** is America coming too. And really, they are trying to get us to sympathize with a fat slob who didn’t realize she was pregnant for 9 months? What kind of piece of sh** article is this. This is the most ridiculous thing i have read all week.

I’m the first to defend free speech, but the nasty comments that are so pervasive in Digg does not build community; it destroys it! What I don’t think these mean-spirited commenters realize is that such harsh words actually serve to silence people, taking away their voice that is protected by the first amendment. They don’t comment because they don’t want to deal with the angry, childish comments spewed fourth by many Digg users.

3) Digg readers generate traffic that is of minimal use to web publishers:
Having a story show up on the front page of Digg can generate an amazing amount of traffic to the author’s website. As a rule, this is a wonderful thing for any web publisher, but not so with Digg. The reason for this has to do with the way many sites earn money. Web publishers often make use of advertising on their site such as Google’s Adsense or Yahoo’s YPN. These ad services present visitors with contextual ads that they can click on should one of them seem useful. Each time a visitor clicks on an ad, the owner of the website earns some money for the referral.

Digg users almost NEVER click on ads!

I am in a position to have the actual statistics for three individual sites that use advertising and have had stories appear on the front page of Digg.

CTR stands for “Click Through Ratio” and is a measure of what percentage of visitors click through on an ad.
ECPM is a measure of an ad’s effective earnings per thousand impressions.

Example #1
Average CTR and ECPM:         CTR = 3.03%         ECPM = $2.57
CTR and ECMP on Digg day:     CTR = 0.79%         ECPM = $1.10

Example #2
Average CTR and ECPM:         CTR = 2.93%         ECPM = $1.35
CTR and ECMP on Digg day:     CTR = 0.86%         ECPM = $0.67

Example #3
Average CTR and ECPM:         CTR = 4.12%         ECPM = $3.80
CTR and ECMP on Digg day:     CTR = 0.28%         ECPM = $0.47

Which ads are shown to visitors and how Google or Yahoo decides which sites get the best paying ads to present is proprietary technology, but there seems to be a correlation with higher paying ads being presented on sites that have a high CTR. When a story gets “Dugg” the overall traffic goes WAY up, but the CTR goes WAY down, meaning Adsense or YPN most likely conclude the ads that are being presented are not targeting correctly. The theory goes that they then change out the higher paying ads that are being presented for lower paying ones so they can try to get them targeting well again. This is disastrous for the web publisher because the ads often don’t start performing well again for several days, even after the Digg traffic dies down.

To be fair, however, it is important to note that traffic is traffic and anytime a large number of people read a story the author is much more likely to receive incoming links, resulting in the all-important increase to Google rank. Still, one has to consider if gaining a few incoming links is worth the other headaches that come with being “Dugg”. Many people, for instance, experience major problems with their hosting provider when they receive all the traffic that Digg generates.

Digg is not pure evil, and despite all its problems, the service does seem to offer some value to its readers. I do have to call into question, however, the wisdom of web publishers making an effort to get onto Digg’s front page. I would conclude by strongly encouraging the architects of Digg to think long and hard about their strategic goals. The internet works best when it is used as a leveler to give everyone a voice on an even playing field. Digg’s tendency to reward its elite users, while silencing those who are less active runs counter to this principle and indicates serious moral problems with its design.

Essay on Calvin & Hobbes

I’ve been a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan since the comic strip began in 1985, so I was thrilled to find that they have finally bundled up every single strip that was ever published into one gigantic set of three canvas-bound books called “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”. This weekend I picked it up, and as I was thumbing through the three, seriously hefty volumes, it got me thinking about this essay I wrote about the strip a few years ago.

“Calvin and Hobbes” is a comic strip about the imaginative world of a six year old boy named Calvin, and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes, who is not only very much alive within Calvin’s mind, but also his best friend. The strip was created by Bill Watterson, and first published on November 18, 1985. Almost immediately after its introduction, the strip became wildly popular, and it held that popularity until December 31, 1995, when the final “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon was sent to the printing press.

In 1995, “Calvin and Hobbes” could be found in over 2,300 publications worldwide, and there are more than 18 million published collections in print. This popularity resulted in an incredible following of people who identified with, and cared about the characters. For instance: one series which ran for only a week, involved a situation in which a big dog knocked Calvin down, and ran off with Hobbes. The strip’s readers were more upset by this than Watterson had expected, and they began to write letters asking that Hobbes be brought back safe. The intense interest shown by the strip’s readers shocked Watterson, and he began to realize how important his creation had become to people. He describes reading the comics as “a comforting little ritual to see our favorite characters for a few seconds over coffee in the morning. We care about them when they’re in trouble, and we count on them to look at life with a slightly amusing twist.” This would certainly appear to be the case considering the concern people expressed over the safety of Hobbes.

How was it that Watterson was able to spark such emotion within his readers? What makes “Calvin and Hobbes” so appealing to such a broad spectrum of people

These questions are not easy ones to answer; the mechanisms that make characters believable and likable are diverse and complex. However, by breaking “Calvin and Hobbes” down, and looking at some of the major aspects of the cartoon, we can begin to gain an insight into why the cartoon was able to find a place in so many reader’s hearts.

For this analysis of “Calvin and Hobbes,” we will look at the main characters of the strip, the ways they react to each other, the ways in which the reader reacts to them, and some of the most notable themes and topics of the cartoon. The cast consists of five major personalities, who interact with each other in ways that are usually humorous, but often very deep, and emotional. While conflict is nothing rare in the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” relationships between the characters are almost always positive. There may be a practical joke here and there, but it’s done in the same way we joke with our close friends or loved ones as a form of affection. This, I believe is a large part of the cartoon’s appeal. People have always been drawn conflict, and when readers see the positive way the strip deals with argument, it becomes harmlessly funny, and people find themselves drawn to it.

The artwork for weekday strips is a slightly sketchy style of drawing, done in black ink, while the Sunday strips employ larger frames, and are done in color. Watterson says that in the early stages of the strip, he used “a cartoony, flat look, in which Calvin’s fantasies looked more realistic than reality.” Later on, however, the artwork became more three-dimensional, which allowed the characters to be drawn from different perspectives. One thing that is particularly notable about the artwork, is how effectively the characters convey emotion. It’s easy to see in their expressions what they are thinking, and the text is written in a such a way that we get a good feel for what’s going on. Loud noises, screaming, and most any exclamations are written in big, bold letters and are often surrounded by a jagged dialog balloon. The calmer language, on the other hand is written in small, uniform letters, which usually appears in a smoothly rounded caption. The mouths are remarkably large, particularly on the children, which gives the reader a feel for how much effort the kids put into getting their points across, as well as helps to show some of the things that are important to them.

The strip’s star character, is of course, Calvin. Calvin is a bratty, six year old boy named after a prominent sixteenth century theologian who believed in pre destination. Calvin spends his days using his imagination to create new worlds and fantasies which lead him to adventure and fun. Since Calvin spends much of the time in the world of his own imagination, it usually doesn’t occur to him that the rules of the “real” world apply to him, and he often ends up getting himself into all kinds of trouble. While Calvin is indeed hyper active and difficult to deal with, he is very imaginative, and tends to ask questions about life’s larger issues, such as human nature or the meaning of life. Watterson says that through Calvin, he is able to explore the things he is thinking about in more depth, and remarks that while Calvin is nothing like him as a child, the character helps him stay in touch with his own immaturity, providing him with a way to “sort through his own life and understand it.” This intellectual curiosity is done in a humorous, but thought provoking way, and I believe it adds to the appeal of the strip, because it prompts people to ponder philosophical questions that might not otherwise come to mind.

With Hobbes, we find ourselves with a somewhat strange situation. To everyone but Calvin, he is merely a stuffed tiger that Calvin drags with him everywhere he goes. To Calvin, on the other hand, Hobbes is not only alive and kicking, but his best friend as well. This leads to an interesting twist within the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” as none of the other characters are able to grasp why Calvin is so attached to his toy tiger. Hobbes gets his name from the seventeenth philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had a particularly dim view of human nature. This is fitting since Hobbes often shows a quiet, witty, sarcastic attitude as he reacts to Calvin’s outrageous escapades. None the less, Hobbes is Calvin’s best friend, and we can tell by watching his patients, gentle body language, and by reading his thoughtful questions and remarks, that he has a genuine love for Calvin. Watterson says that he created Hobbes, including everything he looks for in a best friend.

Calvin’s parents are a good depiction of a couple trying to deal with a child like him. They often seem sarcastic, and at their wit’s end, but this is because we only really see them while they are reacting to Calvin. In the early strips, they were criticized for being unloving and cruel. I disagree with these accusations; In fact, by closely looking at their actions, Calvin’s parents appear to love him a great deal. His father shows a surprising amount of trust and tolerance, by doing such things as letting Calvin use the binoculars, or going along with his elaborate stories. We can even see his father’s love in the jokes he plays on Calvin, such as teasing him about not getting any Christmas presents. Calvin’s relationship with his father exemplifies of the harmless practical joking that people seem drawn to.

Calvin’s Mother shows her love in a different way. She displays a kind, motherly quality by doing such things as sticking up for Calvin when his father teases him, or bringing his lunch out to the sand box so Calvin won’t have to stop playing. I think readers are drawn to the funny, but positive way Calvin’s parents deal with him, and any reader who is a parent will probably find that they can relate to them on many levels.

Susie Derkins is a quiet, smart, earnest girl, about Calvin’s age. Calvin’s relationship with Susie is pretty much what would be expected from a six year old boy dealing with a girl, which leads to an interesting conflict. Watterson says that he suspects Calvin has a crush on her, but shows it by intentionally acting outrageous. Susie is a little “put off” by this outrageous behavior, which prompts Calvin to act even more outrageous. This relationship is fun for the reader because it gives off the same awkward feeling that most of us went through as a child when we had a crush on someone. Like the others, this relationship is positive, and it deals with the concept of love, which is important, and heart-warming to readers.

These characters all react to each other in ways that are easily identified with and funny, while at the same time, dealing with larger philosophical issues and themes. The goal of any news paper comic strip is to appeal to as many people as possible, so it is important to stay away from topics that may offend people. “Calvin and Hobbes” does this not by completely avoiding issues that people feel strongly about, but by mentioning them, and letting the readers find the answers for themselves. For instance, in one cartoon, Calvin is lying in bed, wondering why man was put on earth. Hobbes rolls over, gives a sarcastic smile and says “tiger food.” This cartoon deals with creation, which can be a hot topic, but instead of trying to answer the question for us, we are left to make our own decisions about it.

Many “Calvin and Hobbes” strips deal with issues of reality, and when taken with the sometimes complex language, it becomes clear that the cartoon is working on many different levels. A good example of this, is the subjectivity of Hobbes’ reality. When he is drawn from the perspective characters other than Calvin, he appears as a stuffed tiger. When drawn from Calvin’s perspective, however, he is animated and alive. Even then, however, it is not always this simple. As we can see in one strip were Hobbes is dizzy from having been washed and then put in the dryer, the issue of the tiger’s reality is sometimes blurred even for Calvin. Another example of this blurring of reality is a cartoon in which Calvin is imagining that he has traveled to another world and is being approached by an alien monster. As the monster nears, we see that it is holding a sandwich and a drink. When the monster finally gets to Calvin, we see that it is really his mother, bringing his lunch to him. This undefined reality allows us to relate to the strip on any level we chose, and I believe it is a major reason for the strip’s success.

Bill Watterson seems to have struck the right mix with “Calvin and Hobbes.” He’s created a world that is inhabited by believable, likable characters, who deal with a rich variety of issues in a convincing and humorous way. I think that inside all of us, we can see a little of each character, and this makes the strip fun and easy to identify with. As we read, we become involved in the lives and thoughts of the characters, and because of the sometimes complex topics covered, we are able to grow from the cartoon. In the final “Calvin and Hobbes” strip, the world is covered with snow, and Hobbes is carrying a toboggan. Calvin remarks “It’s a magical world Hobbes ol’ buddy? Lets go exploring!” The two friends then slide away from us on their toboggan. I hazard a guess that most “Calvin and Hobbes” fans felt a lump in their throat that day; I know I did. For me, however, it wasn’t a sad feeling. I was left with the feeling that Calvin and Hobbes were still active behind the scenes, and that the two friends have only started to explore. This feeling indicates to me that Watterson was able to do with his creation what many cartoonists spend their entire lives trying to accomplish. He was able to create an entire world in which “Calvin and Hobbes” could exist.

Cartoon Examples.
All images the property of Bill Watterson.
The First Calvin & Hobbes Cartoon >
The Last Calvin & Hobbes Cartoon >