Why the Popularity of Bit.ly and Twitter-Sharing Means Good Things for Digg

Last Updated Jul 20, 2010 10:11 AM EDT

Bit.ly, a URL-shortening service made popular by its barnacle-like relationship to Twitter, is one of the Web's most-watched start-ups, and Om Malik has theorized that Bit.ly and its copycats may be on their way to replacing sites like Digg. In actuality, the rise of services like Bit.ly may herald even more popularity for anonymous sharing communities because, well, they're anonymous.

GigaOm has based its Bit.ly projections on rumors that Yahoo (YHOO) may be eyeing the New York startup in hopes of an acquisition that will boost its new social-aggregation business model. Bit.ly is valuable because it does more than just shorten URLs: it provides extensive analytics for each link you create with it. Because several popular Twitter clients use Bit.ly by default to shorten shared links (in service of Twitter's 140-character limit) Bit.ly has become an apt tool for measuring what links are trending on the Web right now. And as any social Web geek will tell you, the tech world loves to play in any pile of real-time social data, because such data can be very, very valuable. As GigaOm says:

The most important aspect of Bit.ly is not that it can shorten URLs. Instead, its real prowess lies in its ability to track the click-performance of those URLs, and conversations around those links. It doesn't matter where those URLs are embedded -- Facebook, Twitter, blogs, email, instant messages or SMS messages -- a click is a click and Bit.ly counts it, in real time.
The huge scope of the service, GigaOm says, will position it to replace smaller communities that have heretofore been used as barometers for what's popular on the wider Web:
By clicking on these URLs, people are essentially voting on the stories behind these links. Now if Bit.ly collated all these links and ranked them by popularity, you would have a visualization of the top stories across the web. In other words, it would be a highly distributed form of Digg.com, the social news service that depends on people submitting and voting for stories from across the web.
The potential here for advertisers, social-buying sites and news companies is nothing short of massive. But contrary to what Malik says, it's also very different from what's offered by Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon and Del.ici.ous.

Here's the catch: whatever you share on Bit.ly is likely to be disseminated via Twitter, Facebook or another social Web tool in which the use of your "real" identity -- name, networks and geographical location -- is common. (Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is one of the Web's biggest proponent of what he calls Web "integrity," or the use of real-world identity online.) And because Twitter and Facebook are so often linked in various ways to other media of communication (blogs, personal sites, Flickr (YHOO) pages, etc.) that gives Bit.ly two distinct characteristics that actually inhibit real sharing.

The first: that it's heavily tied to your real identity, and therefore, your real-world friends and contacts. This has obvious implications for the kinds of links you disseminate: you may think twice about tweeting out a link that reflects unfavorably upon the persona you're attempting to construct online.

The second inhibitory factor is that your real-world friends and contacts might not have the same niche interests as you. If most of the people in your social graph are, say, friends from work, then the chances of them sharing your long-tail interests -- model airplanes, Renaissance fairs, kite-surfing, whatever -- are slim. So the material that you end up sending out on Bit.ly isn't necessarily a reflection of your true interests.

In short, audience matters. And it affects what you share.

Digg, Reddit and other sharing sites use special interests -- not other vectors like proximity, or pre-existing relationships -- to bring users together. That's why Reddit has "sub-Reddits" devoted to nearly every conceivable genre of information. Of course, that makes Reddit and Digg (and to a lesser extent, Del.ici.ous and StumbleUpon) less valuable than Bit.ly when used to evaluate what's "trending" across the Web right now. But despite their small communities -- all are under 5 million active users -- the social bookmarking sites do a much better job at highlighting the fringe material that so often trickles its way into mainstream viral channels.

In other words, Bit.ly can't actually show you the "top stories across the Web." In fact, it will only show you the top stories that people are comfortable associating with their online identities.

Now that Google's (GOOG) Gmail and Facebook have set the precedent for using real names and identities online, users may find themselves in more acute need of an anonymous, interest-based community where they can find other people with the same proclivities and the same deep interests. The obvious example is programmers; one of the most active communities in Reddit, for example, is "Proggit," the programmers' channel. It stands to reason that programmers would be early adopters, because they're on the Web constantly. But the mind-share that takes place there is nothing short of stunning, and other professions could benefit massively from it. (Example: on Proggit, an IT worker can anonymously ask for coding help without advertising to the rest of his social graph -- which may include his superiors -- that he doesn't know how to do something.)

To be certain, Digg and its brethren are not growing quickly; in fact, Digg is nary growing at all. But to a large extent these sites are still niche destinations unbeknownst to much of the Web-using public. That may change when the average Facebook user begins sharing more and more -- and realizes that the mainstream tools aren't right for everything.