I wanna be like Kev: Unpacking Digg’s complicated legacy

kevin rose digg ceoLast week’s sale of Digg for a paltry $500,000 closes the book on what was once among the most inspiring stories in Silicon Valley. It is impossible to separate Digg’s legacy from that of founder Kevin Rose. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Rose had as much to do with Digg’s failure as he did its success. That makes his legacy a complicated one.

Digg’s early promise

Digg provided one of the most inspiring startup creation myths in history. Kevin Rose had an idea for a website. He hired freelancers to build the first version of the site, paying each $12 an hour. He paid $1,200 for the Digg.com domain. Fast forward 18 months, and Rose was on the cover of BusinessWeek, having “made $60 million in 18 months.” The numbers may have been inflated, but the excitement was very real. In less than two years, Rose had moved from idea, to product, to stardom.

old digg screenshot social news

And what a product it was. Digg addressed one of the Web’s key problems: How to find what is interesting and novel in a limitless sea of possibility. Curated aggregators like Fark and Slashdot could go only as far as the capacities of the curators allowed. To exceed this limitation, Rose tapped the wisdom of the crowd to “digg up” the best stories online. This idea, combined with a design aesthetic that was always at the forefront of “Web 2.0,” created one of the most important startups of its era. It also created, in Rose, a new aspiration for a legion of 20-something nerds: “technologist as celebrity.” In the era of Entourage, “tech startup founder” seemed to be as good a way as any to acquire the millions of dollars each of us felt we were due.

I was one of those nerds. In 2007, I wanted to be Kevin Rose. Today, however, both Digg and Rose have greatly declined in prominence. Rose’s on-again off-again relationship with Digg is to blame. This lack of focus means reconsidering the praise with which he had previously been showered.

Revision3

Hot on the heels of Digg’s ascent to prominence came Revision3, which assured Rose’s continued ascent to fame. Revision3 was founded in 2005 by Rose, and, among others, Jay Adelson — then CEO of Digg. Though not tightly related to Digg, it did provide the means for Rose to produce the video podcast Diggnation, on which he and co-host Alex Albrecht recounted Digg’s stories from the previous week. This gave unique incentive to Digg’s users: The right story could land them air-time on one of the most-watched video podcasts of its time.revision3 kevin rose digg

It also provided a platform for Rose’s personality, which was far from the traditional conception of a CEO. Rose was undeniably cool, with the laid-back confidence of a person who had made it. Diggnation itself seemed cool as well — at least to my 23-year-old self. With drinking (sometimes to excess), swearing, and foul humor, Diggnation appealed very strongly to me. It appealed to legions of others fans as well, as demonstrated by the podcast’s many well-attended live events. However, Rose wasn’t finished creating new products. His passion for “new” would continue, and would continue to be a distraction from Digg.

Pownce and other distractions

First among these was Pownce. Essentially a souped-up Twitter, Pownce launched in late-June 2007 and was founded by Rose, Leah Culver, and Daniel Burka. Eighteen months later, Pownce would be purchased by Six Apart and shuttered due to a lack of growth and revenue. This wasn’t just a distraction to Rose, but also to Burka, who was one of Digg’s top designers at the time.

pownce microblog twitter kevin rose social media

Rose’s fascination with Twitter continued with WeFollow, a Twitter directory Rose launched at South by Southwest in March 2009. Though later acquired by Digg (for some reason), WeFollow was of such minor prominence that it lacks even a Wikipedia entry to remember it by. Its chief feature, as reported by CNET’s Harrison Hoffman at the time, was “the unique advantage of Rose’s star power.” Not much to show for such a major distraction from Digg, which employed Rose at the time, and which had threatened to fire him if he continued such distractions.

Then came Rose’s career as an angel investor. Having taken millions off the table during Digg’s later funding rounds, Rose began to put that largess — and his near-peerless social graph of the Valley’s best and brightest — to productive use. Today, Rose’s portfolio reveals a rare talent for investing, and lists holdings in Twitter, Zynga, Square, Foursquare, Fab, and Path amongst its assets. However, this wasn’t without cost to Digg. As Rose’s interest in investing grew, his interest in Digg waned.

Rose would return to Digg full-time as CEO in early 2010 in an attempt to save the company, which was now floundering. However, he gave up this role just six months later as a new CEO was installed. Rose’s work resulted in the ill-fated Digg 4 redesign. Plagued by launch difficulties and departing significantly from the site’s earlier methodology, Digg 4 would be the final nail in the website’s coffin as Reddit began to dominate the space.

Though a visionary founder, Rose’s uncommitted relationship with the company may have been Digg’s undoing. Even when with the company, Rose’s attention was often on other new ideas. After such a promising start, Digg’s story today is one of squandered potential. This casts Rose in a far different light than when he graced the cover of BusinessWeek all those years ago.

Kevin Rose today

The dream of the startup founder is still very alive today. The continued popularity of Jason Calicanis’ This Week in Startups demonstrates the continued fascination with rags to riches stories in tech. However, Rose is no longer the figurehead of that dream.

Facebook has become the premier entrepreneurial story of our era, and Mark Zuckerberg may be the most well-known CEO in the world. Facebook’s ubiquity today can be attributed to Zuckerberg’s leadership as much as anything else. From all accounts, he works tirelessly on a singular focus: pursuit of his vision for Facebook. This is a stark contrast to Rose’s serial entrepreneurialism. It also supports a lesson I learned from This Week in Startups during my days of startup mania: Having an idea is nothing, how you execute on that idea is everything.

As for Rose? He’s still way ahead of the game. Rose founded yet another startup, Milk, in early 2011. This team released one application, shut that app down less than a year later, and then was acquired by Google. Today, Google has Rose working for Google Ventures, the company’s VC fund.

Today Kevin Rose is a millionaire VC with nearly unmatched connections in the Valley. He has a proven ability to bring products to market. If he has new ideas, he has the skills and VC connections to make those things happen. We may not have heard the last of Kevin Rose.

So, in 2012, I guess I still want to be Kevin Rose. But I’d rather be Sean Parker. Why not Zuckerberg? Come on, Parker is so much cooler. Sean Parker is so cool that Justin Timberlake played him in a movie and still wasn’t as cool as Sean Parker. We should put him on a stamp, or something.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Mobile

Swapping an iPhone for a BlackBerry made me appreciate the physical keyboard

BlackBerry is preparing to release the BlackBerry KeyTwo, a new phone with a physical keyboard. If you've never used one, and are a touchscreen typist, what would it be like to swap? We changed our iPhone to a BlackBerry KeyOne to find out.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in August, from ‘Arrested Development’ to ‘Dark Tourist’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime right now (August 2018)

Prime Video gives subscribers access to a host of great movies, but sifting through the massive library isn't easy. Lucky for you, we've sorted the wheat from the chaff. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Movies & TV

David Harbour is 'taking risks' with Jim Hopper in 'Stranger Things' season 3

With a sophomore season as strong as its first, Stranger Things is now moving on to season 3. Here's everything we've learned so far about the Netflix series' upcoming third season.
Mobile

Samsung confirms the Galaxy S10 won't be the first 5G phone

It may be no more than a sparkle in Samsung's eye, but the Samsung Galaxy S10 is definitely coming. Here's everything we know about what's sure to be Samsung's most amazing creation so far.
Smart Home

4 reasons my love affair with Amazon is fizzling

I used to be an avid Amazon shopper. But some things have happened recently that’s made me question my loyalty to the retail giant. And to be honest, I’m not sure if I can trust them any longer.
Mobile

iOS 12 is more evidence you should buy an iPhone, not an Android phone

The next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 12, will be compatible with devices all the way back to 2013’s iPhone 5S. Android phones from the same era didn’t even see 2016’s software update. It’s further evidence you…
Computing

Can we get an apology? Two big MacBook fails that Apple should fix at WWDC

WWDC is just around the corner, but if you're hoping for a new MacBook Pro, don't hold your breath. Even though it'll probably only be a CPU bump, there are two significant problems with the current MacBook Pro that have been ignored for…
Smart Home

Is Apple showing up late to the smart home party, or just not coming?

Apple’s WWDC 2018 featured a lot of little announcements, but what was largely missing was news on the smart home front. Is Amazon planning on being late to the smart home party, or are they planning on attending at all?
Mobile

5 obviously stupid iPhone problems that iOS 12 doesn’t even try to fix

At WWDC 2018, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its iOS operating system. iOS 12 introduces quite a bit of changes -- visually and under the hood -- but there are still some basics that it doesn’t address. Here are a few of…
Health & Fitness

Ugh. I’m done with fitness trackers, and so is the world

In 2016, everyone was tracking their fitness. In 2017, people grew tired of it. In 2018, I’m done with it. I’m going tracker-free in my workouts from now on.
Computing

MacOS Mojave brings evening elegance to your Mac experience

The MacOS Mojave public beta is out now, with an official release coming later this fall. Chock-full of quality-of-life upgrades, we took it for a test drive to get a sneak peek at what you can expect from the next major update to MacOS…
Gaming

Google might be planning a game console. That doesn’t mean it will happen

A new report suggests that Google is working on a game console, code-named Yeti. The reports about Google's game console are likely true, but that doesn't mean we will ever see it.
Home Theater

Why I still won’t wear wireless headphones

Wireless headphones promise liberation from cords, tangles, and snags, but there’s just one issue holding them back: battery life. And until manufacturers figure it out, sales numbers prove consumers aren’t yet biting.