May 31, 2010

The Lowest Common Denominator

Over and over again, I see the same misconception: "Lowest Common Denominator" means "dumb." That is how people criticize stupid comedies on TV or lolcats on Digg- they said they are catering to the lowest common denominator.

Most of us learned in middle school how to figure out the lowest (or least) common denominator. It is the smallest positive integer that the given set of numbers all evenly fit into. That is exactly what finding the lowest common denominator for a piece of content does— it tries to find the smallest integer (or, most interesting content) that the set of numbers (or, the people consuming the content) can fit into (or, enjoy together).

So, to use an example: let's say we have a biologist and a chemist. Their "Lowest Common Denominator" might be science— the highest level topic that they both agree is interesting. Throw in an economist, and the LCD might become math. Throw in an artist, a construction worker, a computer geek, a WalMart greeter, a stay at home mom and a professional athlete, and you find that Two and a Half Men and funny cat pictures are all they really have in common.

Lowest Common Denominator doesn't mean stupid— it merely means "this is the highest level that everyone involved can agree on."

This brings us to Digg. Digg started out as a place for tech news, and it attracted a geeky following. It caught on, and soon found itself getting popular. As more people joined, the diversity of topics expanded— political and scientific stories started to seep in more. Digg had two choices— either stay dedicated to tech news, or do whatever it could to increase its popularity.

Eventually, the interesting domain specific stories couldn't make it to the front page anymore because not enough people on the site were interested. Instead, funny pictures became the lingua franca on Digg.

So, how do we fix this? Digg v4 aims to rectify this problem by making it so you follow people rather than everything. This means the death of the Digg Effect— no longer will we all see the same thing, but rather, we will just see what our friends post. This does not fix the problem, however. Let's say you are a chemist— unless all your friends on Digg are chemists, and all their friends are chemists, chemistry articles will still have to be diluted (either in terms of quantity or level of depth). It doesn't even have to be based on profession&mdash I'm from RIT and want to hear RIT news, yet that will never find its way onto my Digg front page. On top of that, this leaves you with a very closed source of information. You will only get news from people who you follow— people who think the same way you do, and have the same beliefs.

In order to fix Digg (or any other large site), it is important to understand and embrace the Lowest Common Denominator. If you could follow and post to topics, rather than people, the problem would be reduced. Digg, Reddit stole your concept six years ago. They are onto something with their subreddits, and they owe you one. Take the subreddit concept, and improve on it— for example, maybe add advanced filtering controls?

I want to be able to say: "Digg, my front page should show me all posts about RIT or programming. Also, show me anything from the World News topic that has more than 600 Diggs, and any funny pictures my friends have dugg." That is what would make Digg useful for me— not just the Facebook/Twitter/Google Reader clone they are about to launch.

About Gregory Koberger

I'm a freelance developer and designer, formerly of Mozilla. I talk a lot about web development, technology and user experience — sometimes on my blog but mostly on Twitter.

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