Could Twitter Ever Replace Digg?

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Hitwise Research Directory Heather Dougherty reported yesterday that for the first time ever, Twitter had passed Digg in terms of overall share of US traffic. This report is rather suspect and was rightly questioned by a few top bloggers.

According to other measurements — such as Compete and Quantcast — Twitter is no where near Digg in terms of traffic. Yes, Twitter has been getting a lot of mainstream attention lately by being featured on an afternoon CNN television show in the US and by becoming the place where pictures of last week’s New York City airplane crash first landed (bad pun acceptable because no one was seriously hurt!). However, Hitwise’s numbers covered the week between MacWorld/CES and Tuesday’s inauguration of the new US president Barack Obama, which caused activity on Twitter to spike 500%, but not the inauguration itself, and did not include traffic that comes over Twitter’s API — which sees more action than Twitter.com.

That a week without a major (planned) event could cause traffic at Twitter.com to outstrip traffic to Digg seems unbelievable, and could be, as my former colleague Marshall Kirkpatrick said at ReadWriteWeb, “a Hitwise problem [rather] than a changing of the online landscape.” However, it does bring up an interesting question to muse over: could Twitter ever replace Digg in terms of link discovery?

We here at SitePoint take Twitter pretty seriously. Our Twitter account has over 20,000 followers (and we’d love you to be one of them!), and because we Tweet about every new article, Twitter has become a pretty big source of traffic for us. In fact, you may very well have landed on this article via a link seen on Twitter. It is definitely a more steady source of traffic than Digg, but even with our much larger than average number of followers, Twitter has never come close to Digg in terms of sending traffic to a single article — which is perhaps another knock against the Hitwise report.

However, even while Twitter might be great for link promotion, providing you have a sizable following, does it really do well at link discovery?

Previous attempts at discerning popular links on Twitter have mostly fallen flat. Sites like Tweetmeme, for example, tend to be rather all over the place and have never done a great job of pointing me in the direction of links I often find interesting.

But I think Twitter actually could be a useful method of link discovery. The key is in recognizing that the power of Twitter isn’t that it can point out what the crowd likes (as Tweetmeme and its ilk try to do), but that it can point out what your friends like.

If there were a Twitter tool that could look at my friend graph, and then pull out all the links my friends have tweeted and arrange them by popularity (how many times have they been tweeted, weighted toward my friends) and retweets (how many of my friend’s friends thought it was a worthwhile link), it would expose a sort of Digg-like picture of people I already presumably find interesting. The tools to do all this already exist, but nothing that I know of ties it all together by linking it to your friend graph.

Such a service could probably also suggest new people to follow based on the type of links your friends tweet and retweet and the ones that you respond to (maybe it could have a “retweet” button that automatically retweets your favorite links).

In answer to my original question: could Twitter replace Digg? In a broad sense, no, probably not. But could it potentially expose more useful and interesting links on a user by user basis? Yes, that’s definitely a possibility. Hopefully someone will build something like what I’ve described above so we can find out.

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