Last week, the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn., reported on a new lead in the case of Molly Bish, a teenager who was abducted and murdered nine years ago. Tragic story, hilarious local-news blooper: Just as the anchor announced, “The possible suspect, Rodney Stanger, seen here …” viewers’ screens flashed to a mug shot of a hamster carrying a clapperboard, under a title reading, “Cold Case Suspect?” The hamster’s expression was delicious—his small mouth and sunken eyes seemed to plead, “Save me, I was framed!” Naturally, someone recorded the station’s mistake and uploaded the clip to YouTube. There, it was spotted by Andrew Sorcini, a 40-year-old film editor who lives in Los Angeles and is better known online as MrBabyMan, his moniker on the user-voted news site Digg. On Saturday, the clip hit Digg’s front page, winning more than 5,000 votes.
The same day, several other items became huge hits on Digg: a report in the Telegraph on the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, a species of mountain goat that was long ago declared extinct (more than 2,200 Diggs); a Wired photo gallery showing natural chemicals that pharmaceutical companies had re-engineered in the lab (553 Diggs); a sublime collection of PhotoShopped images by a Russian artist (2,519 Diggs); and a sneak peek of robot images from the next Terminator sequel (1,324 Diggs). This disparate bunch of stories had one thing in common: They, too, were submitted by MrBabyMan.
Digg is the Web’s biggest popularity contest. People submit links, and the stories that win the most votes rise to the site’s constantly changing front page. According to the Web traffic firm comScore, about 7 million people visit Digg every month, and they’re a clicky bunch—prime placement on Digg can drive tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of visitors to a story. But anyone who’s ever put a link on Digg—not to mention blogs and news outlets that aim to produce Digg-worthy material—is familiar with the site’s crushing odds. On any given day, more than 20,000 stories are added to Digg. A typical link gets just one or two votes. The vast majority never make it past 10, and on a given day, fewer than 200 make it to the front page. * Yet as he did last Saturday, MrBabyMan can post five monster pieces during the span of a few hours, collectively winning 10,000 votes or more.
Andrew Sorcini is the Michael Phelps of Digg. Since joining the site in December 2005, he has submitted about 12,000 links; more than one-quarter—3,394 links as of Monday morning—have been voted to the front page. That works out to about three front-page stories per day. According to SocialBlade.com, which keeps track of the most active Diggers, no other user in Digg’s history has submitted more than 3,000 front-page links, and only one other Digger has crossed 2,000. (The second-place user is Muhammad Saleem, a young, self-proclaimed “social media maven” who co-hosts a weekly podcast with Sorcini.)
MrBabyMan possesses a talent that’s particularly valuable in an era of information overload. You can think of him as a one-man Google—he scours the Web in search of links you love—though a better comparison might be to that of an older archetype, the tabloid editor with an eagle eye for a story of mass appeal. I’ve been a fan of MrBabyMan’s for some time, and I called him up last week in an attempt to unearth the secrets of his success. I didn’t get very far—Sorcini is a genial, friendly fellow, but when I asked about his process, he confessed that he couldn’t describe it very precisely. How does MrBabyMan get so many stories to Digg’s front page? The short answer is that every morning, afternoon, and evening, he checks a long list of blogs and news sites for Digg-worthy stuff. He shoots for adding between 10 to 20 new links to Digg every day, a harvest that requires about four to five hours of Web surfing. (As a film editor, Sorcini is often waiting for computers to process his work, so he’s got lots of spare time to check the Web.)
“The closest I can come to describing it is to say that it’s like instinct,” Sorcini says. “I’ll look at an RSS list of stories, and I can instinctively tell which ones have the best shot at hitting the front page.” He recently read Outliers, in which Malcolm Gladwell posits that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for someone to become an expert at a certain task. Sorcini has been on Digg for about half that time, and he says he keeps getting better at his job. His earliest submissions were duds. “I used to add anything that appealed to me—and anything that appealed to me didn’t necessarily appeal to the Digg community at large.” Over time he’s learned to consign his entries to those areas that are most attractive to Diggers. Judging by Sorcini’s submissions, these seem to be composed mainly of links to amazing pictures; links focusing on malfeasance by authorities (cops stealing money, cops discriminating against minorities); links critical of Microsoft or in praise of Apple or Linux; links praising Obama, critical of Bush, or both; and, of course, links to funny videos.
Sorcini first came to Digg for the same reason that many others did: He was a fan of Kevin Rose, the site’s co-founder, who’d gained a loyal following as an on-air host on the now-defunct cable channel TechTV. (Sorcini chose the username MrBabyMan after a pet name that a girlfriend once gave him in recognition of his “arrested development.”) Sorcini had always been something of a news junkie, especially with technology news. “What turned me on to the way Digg worked was how quickly it processed the news,” he says. “I would see a story on Digg that I wouldn’t hear about elsewhere for a week or two. I feel like I get an inside track to news when it happens—I’m ahead of the curve.” Though he still obviously loves Digg, he now betrays a certain disillusionment with how the site has changed as it’s grown. Diggers are meaner and more juvenile than they used to be, he says; the site has become a lot more like 4Chan, the anything-goes anonymous message board where some of the Web’s most notorious trolls take haven.
MrBabyMan isn’t universally loved in the Digg community. Along with other top Diggers, he’s been accused of resubmitting links that other people found first and of colluding with friends who’ll automatically vote for his stuff. “I’m not going to say the criticism doesn’t hurt my feelings,” Sorcini told me. Indeed, he once threatened to hang up his Digging boots for good—but you get the feeling that he has too much fun scouring the Web to ever go through with such a thing.
Much of the criticism carries the whiff of jealousy. Just follow the BabyMan feed for a few days for proof of his talent at driving the Digg demo into click frenzy. Not only does he find the best stuff, but he packages it perfectly, often tightening up newspapers’ original headlines and unwieldy nut graphs. In MrBabyMan’s hands, an obtuse Sydney Morning Herald headline—”We’re not the bad guys: Google Earth boss”—becomes something nearly impossible to resist: “Google Earth: Don’t blame us for terrorist attacks.” On Monday he found a beautiful and bizarre Flickr photo showing a dog named Pico leaping to catch a rubber chicken, the whole scene set against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. MrBabyMan’s headline explains it all in 56 characters: “Golden Gate + Dog + Rubber Chicken = Pure Awesome (PIC).” As of this writing, that link had 1,492 Diggs.
Despite Sorcini’s unparalleled Digging skill, you won’t find any tributes to his talents on Digg.com. In 2007, after hearing reports that some marketers were paying the site’s active users to post friendly stories, the site’s management decided to pull down its list of top Diggers. Sorcini and his allies suspect another reason for this action—that Digg was afraid that the contributors were getting too much attention, which would hurt the site in any future sale or investment deals. Digg wants to promote the idea that it’s the content—not the submitters—that makes the site fun, Sorcini says. As a result, any celebration of top Diggers and their role in the site’s daily success is frowned upon, he argues.
That doesn’t mean Digg’s top dogs don’t have huge influence. Sorcini, the Digg seer, predicts that my story will get a lot of votes, but it’ll also get a lot of Buries—essentially thumbs-down votes—from the site’s anti-MrBabyMan wing. Consequently, it won’t make the front page. But no matter the outcome of my story, MrBabyMan will still haunt the top of the Digg home page. After all, those dog-jumping-after-rubber-chicken photos don’t find themselves.
Correction, Feb. 4, 2009: This piece originally misstated the number of stories that make it to the front page of Digg.com each day. It is in the neighborhood of 150, not a few dozen. (Return to the corrected sentence.)