Zaibatsu, a.k.a. Reg Saddler, is best known for being the #4 Digg user of all time (despite being arbitrarily banned from Digg since September 2008). A political progressive, Zaibatsu had the power to collect Internet news stories that were ignored by mainstream media and bring it to the web’s attention.1 (Zaibatsu contends that he is even more influential now, since he has relocated on to Twitter.)
A lesser-known fact about Zaibatsu is that he was a top Digg user for a long time before he outed himself in 2007, revealing himself to be a black man who had previously kept his racial identity hidden.2
Gender and racial identity at Digg
I joined Digg in 2006, and like in the past, I signed up with a gender-neutral and race-neutral username. I then abandoned that account, and for several reasons, I signed up again with a username that identified me as non-male, non-white, non-American, and probably a “feminist”.
One reason was that I wanted to test if the combination of my gender, racial, and national identity would prevent me from rising among the ranks of a predominantly male, white, and American online community. I knew that the visibility of my gender and race in face-to-face interactions affected people’s perceptions of my words. I wanted to see in which ways—if any—did minority visibility affect non-facial, and mostly textual, interactions.
Another reason was that I was enamored with the idea behind Digg, which was that news stories should be promoted based on merit, from the bottom-up by the community, instead of top-down by a few elites. While I knew from past experience that online communities like Digg would be biased towards male, white, and American perspectives, I hoped that if I was upfront about my visible minority status from the beginning, I could disrupt the white-male-American hegemony. I wanted to represent and make Digg a little safer for other gender and racial minorities who I suspected were “hidden” behind gender- and race-neutral usernames.
Extrapolating from my experiences at Digg, I conclude that being visibly non-male, non-white, and non-American was not a significant barrier to becoming a top Digg user during Zaibatsu’s reign. Although I did not break the top 20, it was because I stopped after I figured out how it worked and became bored.3 On the other hand, given how Digg works and the fragility of chaotic systems like popularity, the outcome of my participation at Digg was dependent on the participation of the now-banned Zaibatsu.
How Digg really works
Digg’s front page links are supposed to reflect the news that Digg users as an aggregate consider important. Any Digg user can submit a link, and any Digg user can digg (vote up) a submitted link by one point only. If a submission receives enough diggs, it makes it to the front page. Thus, Digg’s front page is meant to be analogous to the winners of a democratic election.
In reality,4 however, Digg’s front page is heavily influenced by a few individuals who network with each other and game5 the system. Unfortunately, Digg has a “Friend” feature, and provides the option of seeing only the links submitted or dugg by your “Friends”. Hence, the chances of your submission being seen is a function of how many “Friends” you have in your network.
If you are a Digg user and you want to build a powerful Friend network, you simply Friend Digg users who are active and who submit links that you find interesting. Usually, the top Digg users are the first to Friend you back. This is because they know the importance of networking, and that they are powerful because they have an extensive Friend network.
While you are building your Friend network, you should submit interesting links that have not been submitted by anyone. (I achieved this by subscribing to RSS feeds of research news in Google Reader.) Whether another Digg user Friends you is partially dependent on the quality and originality of your links. Moreover, it is usually not enough to copy and paste the article title as the submission title. Article titles are usually badly chosen, and you must have the ability to hand-craft a relevant, more appropriate title that makes people want to click on the link. Article summaries should also be pieced together to reflect the gist (or interesting part) of the article.
There is an unspoken custom of reciprocity to digg (some of) your Friends’ submissions if they digg (some of) your submissions. Since Digg gamers do not have time to read every article to check its quality, they usually digg based on the title and summary. You can skim through submissions quickly by scanning the title first, and if it looks interesting, reading the title, and if it still looks interesting, scanning the summary, and if it still looks interesting, reading the summary. If the submission still looks interesting, then it is probably worth digging.
Passing and anonymity
Not only did I submit research news, but many of my submissions were about evidence of gender, racial, and other forms of discrimination. In other words, not only was my gender and racial identity highly visible, but so were my leftist politics, in the sense that promoting the visibility of empirical research on discrimination could be considered “political”.
At the time, I had falsely assumed that Zaibatsu was a white male. When he dugg many of my submissions on race and gender, I thought it was refreshing to see a white male who did not viscerally reject experimental conclusions about the failures of racial “color blindness” as a strategy, etc. I imagined Zaibatsu to be a white male geek who “got it”, but he turned out to be a male geek of color who “got it”.
I was humbled by the realization that I too made a racial assumption, but Zaibatsu’s admission made him all the more endearing. When I had suspected that people of color walked invisibly among white-majority online communities, I was not just projecting my past behavior on to others.
After all, given that neutrality is assumed to be white, male, and American (and heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied), most of us who adopt neutral pseudonyms “pass” as the majority—unless we actively resist it. However, when we actively resist passing online, we lose some of our anonymity and the safety that comes with it.
1 Before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Zaibatsu submitted to Digg a story about Sarah Palin wanting to ban Harry Potter. The McCain campaign responded to the allegation, which was popularized by Zaibatsu but not reported by any U.S. national news agencies. [back]
5 While “gaming Digg” generally has a negative connotation of cheating, by “gaming”, I mean realizing the unmeritocratic nature of Digg and doing what is necessary get your submissions recognized over the other, less merited submissions. [back]