Jan 9

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

Digging The Madness of Crowds

Earlier today, O'Reilly found itself at the center of a controversy on the popular news site, Steve Mallett, O'Reilly Network editor and blogger, was very publicly accused, via a Digg story, of stealing Digg's CSS pages. The story was voted up rapidly and made the homepage, acquiring thousands of diggs (thumbs-up) from the Digg community along the way. There was only one problem: Steve didn't steal Digg's CSS pages.

The real story is that Steve's and LinuxFilter sites are built on Pligg, an open source project that recreates the user, story, and voting backends behind Digg. Pligg in turn is based on a Spanish Digg clone, Menéame, and Menéame is where the copying originally took place. Pligg copied Digg's CSS files, so Steve's sites had them too. Steve had assumed the open source code didn't violate copyrights, as we all do, and was surprised to learn otherwise. Things were muddied because Steve had been automatically [update: Steve says there were no bots involved] submitting stories from his other sites to Digg (because a Digg front-page story gets a lot of traffic), which leant credence to the claim of "spammer" made by the poster of the "Steve's stealing Digg's CSS" post. The main claim of stealing CSS was superficially true, but substantially false.

In the meantime, of course, there's a small matter of hundreds of thousands of readers and thousands of active voters voting up the article about how "O'Reilly writer Steve Mallett" is a thief and a spammer. Only if you took the time to read through the hundreds of comments do you get to intrepid readers who tracked the copying back through Pligg (kudos to Digg reader caldroun, who was the first to identify pligg). But it was obvious by the rapidly-increasing Digg count that nobody was doing research (or even reading to see whether the claim had been refuted), they were simply indicating their condemnation of someone who had transgressed against the Digg community. The anonymous and quite pointed ("negative, but apparently true", as one person put it) article was designed to raise maximum ire in the minimum of words.

This is a classic Web 2.0 problem: it's hard to aggregate the wisdom of the crowd without aggregating their madness as well. In this case, the situation was amplified because it wasn't just any site that Steve was accused of ripping off, it was the very site that the community belonged to and identified with. Every news site figures out what to do when thumbs-up turns to bums-up: Slashdot has issued retractions, often updates stories, and regularly posts collections of "further details on ..." notes. BoingBoing updates stories as soon as new facts come to hand, even if it means they've admitted "whoops, that wasn't true at all!". It's more complex with community sites, because editors don't make the editorial decision to run a faulty story but nonetheless have to live with its consequences. And everyone has to deal with the situation when their site has been used to further someone else's agenda. Digg is still learning how to deal with this, and I look forward to seeing how they tackle it in the future.

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Comments: 60

  Ash [01.09.06 07:30 PM]

I'm one of the Pligg developers. We took the Meneame code in early December and translated it to English. We then decided to add new feature and make it easier for other to use and translate to other languages. We did not realize, until now, that the CSS was taken from Digg and modified to fit Meneame. We just never thought to compare. Now that we do know this, we will rectify the situation.


  Anonymous [01.09.06 07:49 PM]

On a community news site where the users submit the stories, the proper way to turn "thumbs-up" into "bums-up" would be to submit this story as a correction to the previous one, wouldn't it?

  Dan Diephouse [01.09.06 08:04 PM]

Who looks at websites anyway. RSS is where its at. (That means that if you're reading this you must be a loser (and that since I wrote this I must really be a loser)).

  Justin Mason [01.09.06 08:22 PM]

Funnily enough, I came across this through the RSS feed ;)

Unfortunately, I think the Digg community come out of this fiasco quite badly -- the comments are a torch-wielding-mob-fest.

  bill [01.09.06 09:03 PM]

As shown by these comments and similarly asinine comments on hundreds of other "dugg" stories, the majority of digg users are immature, unitelligent children.

  bill [01.09.06 09:04 PM]

...and I can't even spell "unintelligent", haha.

  SK [01.09.06 09:31 PM]

thanks for comming clear on your charges, a new digg story linking to this is close to make it to the homepage. Lets just hope you are being 100% honest otherwise digg users will tear you guys apart again.


  PJ Cabrera [01.09.06 09:41 PM]

This has a simple explanation:

Who ELSE doesn't read the articles in question and do research, but ...



  Michael Phillips [01.09.06 09:42 PM]

This is the problem with a young news site such as Digg, especially one where there's already a fledgling sense of community without the presence of seasoned members to keep the newbies in check. Earlier today (yesterday) there was a story on Digg about how it's "killing" Slashdot, but precisely because of this kind of mob mentality run rampant, I sincerely doubt that claim.

  jacobo [01.09.06 09:45 PM]

(sorry for english)

Question, why pligg and meneame has the same layout?

I am working with the meneame code, but im trying to make a different layout.

  Nrbelex [01.09.06 09:45 PM]

You'll be happy to know that a correction digg has now made the front page with a link here.

  mr-internet [01.09.06 09:48 PM]

It is getting good coverage on Digg now so likely will get the coverage it needs. But as Pligg has mentioned (well done Ash) had the CSS code at Pligg not been borrowed from Digg then none of this would have happened.
Am I fair to say that Steve would have known that the Pligg code was a hybrid of Digg (the story was big news recently).


  Ryan [01.09.06 09:48 PM]

True, the digg community is filled with immature, unintelligent children, but I've yet to find a better place to quickly scan tech headlines and find some other sites of interest.

Ha, maybe some kind of grammar test should be added to the digg registration form ;-)

  Bobby [01.09.06 10:00 PM]

Posession is 9/10ths of the law, and you8, sir are in posssesion. Would you like to come with me down to the station?

  Stephen [01.09.06 10:31 PM]

++O'Reilly :)

This was one of the first Digg posts that when I applied the filter +1 Useful there were actually a substantial amount of posts rated. It still made it hard to read anything of value though until I went to at least +2

Interestingly is that with a few clicks of the refrsh button people are removing their Digg vote...

  Zonkzor [01.09.06 11:00 PM]

I think allot of the mob mentality comes from lack of consequences from writing useless posts. There can be 50 "omg this guy is the suxors lets kill em" posts and they will just stay there. On Slashdot, generally only well thought out posts that make valid arguments stick around. With a Slashdot style moderating system the mob's mentality is more likely to be a logical one.



College Cheapskate

  Zonkzor [01.09.06 11:02 PM]

Woops sorry the sig on my last comment didn't come out looking anything like it showed in the preview.

  Scott.. [01.09.06 11:08 PM]

I think your article shows plausible deniability, but that doesn't mean he is innocent. He, of all people, should have been aware.

What about the mothers out there that assumed downloading Celine Dion was legal, but forgot to investigate the legality?

  nesjo [01.09.06 11:16 PM]

Much ado about nothing. As if anyone really cares about your site. Spammers.

  zenomorph [01.09.06 11:32 PM]

"Steve had been automatically submitting stories from his other sites to Digg"

Automatic sumbmission *is* spamming.

  DaveHimself [01.09.06 11:45 PM]

This "mob mentality" made me aware that CSS is not only occasionally stolen, but that the stolen data may also be recycled by unsuspecting or uncaring 3rd parties. Good job mob.

PS. O'Reilly Radar is guilty of stealing the Engadget logo anyway. :)

  eeeeeeeeeyore [01.09.06 11:46 PM]

Just goes to show you that you should've come up with an original idea instead of taking from someone else. Pligg is just a loophole for taking a current hip site and using it for monetary gain. Some appology, blame someone else for contributing to the theft of code. Shame on both you, this site, and the original source of this problem 'Meneame'.

Good Day.

One of the "unintelligent kids" from digg.

  Jerome Ignis [01.09.06 11:51 PM]

Digg is just popular as Kevin Rose used The ScreenSavers to promote the site... I remeber that his words were, "A Friend of mine created it" Pretty sad that this site has no restrictions on what is printed, as most of it could be deemed libel like this one.

  Lykos [01.09.06 11:55 PM]

I love Digg for the variety of stories there, but the mob mentality is right. Here's an example. Go to and do a search on "feds visit student".

There's 2 stories, one 23 days old and one 17 days old (as of now). The first has over 2100 diggs, the latter has 20.

The first is the outrage of the mob that loves the idea that Bush is evil and so assumes the story MUST be true. The retraction, in which the student admits he pulled it all out of his ass has gotten 20 diggs (over 2 weeks later).

Now, I can't blame Digg entirely as I'm mostly a lurker there. I don't have time to digg the stories to bring them up but I was able to find (and digg) the second story while no one else seemed interested in the facts once it made them look like asshats.

My 2 cents.


  hayseed [01.09.06 11:57 PM]

i'm sorry but you would think an O'Reilly Network editor would be smart enough to take a look at the css for the source code he was using and see blatant references to "digg".
Basically if you download the Menéame code to make a digg type clone (which is perfectly legit i think)you find yourself with the framework for the site but a very ugly looking one imo. So someone had the idea to apply the css style sheet from to a Menéame installation they had set up. What they found was that all of a sudden their site looked just like dig because Menéame had used the same css class names etc...Anywoo the moral is if you are borrowing code that has already been borrowed at least look in the source to see what is going on - the fact that the css has tons of references to "digg" instead of "pligg" might clue you in that pligg has lifted the code directly.

  Drumsnwhistles [01.10.06 12:04 AM]

The 'digg mentality' is the only thing that bugs me about that website. There are many level-headed interesting people there but their voices often are drowned by the ones who really just want to start a mob gang-bang for the sheer adrenaline rush, and have absolutely no regard for what is and isn't true.

For what it's worth, I clicked through to this story from the RSS feed, where the CORRECTION had made its way to the top.

  yeah [01.10.06 12:05 AM]

the digg story you mentioned came out right when the nsa scandal was breaking so that is why it got so many diggs. And in light of the current events even bush supporters thought it was true and mostly defended the action instead of saying it probably didn't happen lol

  vivek [01.10.06 12:16 AM]

Well I just read both stories. I can see comment from digg owners too. Worst part is the name O'Reilly with this story. I guess only OSDir is part of O'Reilly network and not rest of the sites.

  alphgeek [01.10.06 12:24 AM]

So...the original story is invalid because digg readers are 'immature, unintelligent children'? Ad hominem attacks make it so easy to avoid the real issues, don't they?

Perhaps we could be made aware of the actions O'Reilly is taking to correct the breach of copyright? I presume the offending sites were immediately taken down until the copyright violation is corrected? Im sorry but I wasn't aware that ignorance was considered a reasonable defence in most Western legal systems.

I'm not sure why some here are considering a digg vote to be an endorsement of a particular article. I thought the intention was to promote interesting articles to the front page so that they can be read by others. I have certainly 'dugg' stories because I felt them were important, even though I disagreed with the premise.

  X1NN [01.10.06 12:31 AM]

In my mind, what transpired today showed that in some ways digg worked. I like many others read this story first on digg earlier today. I also thought it was bad form that code was stolen. I did not research it, nor did I do anything else. (I've got better things to do) But then tonight I say the "retraction" also on digg, came here read the article and some comments and became satisfied that O'reilly was legit, (again without researching if his claims are true). So to me, yeah digg tried to string him up, but digg also cut him down when the error was realized. What's so terrible?

  Alexander De Large [01.10.06 02:18 AM]

The solution to the immature comments at Digg is simple. Digg needs to use the same system that it does for main page stories in the comments, ie, the comments are not displayed under the stories unless they are themselves Dugg. This fractal like, recursive like system will immediately demote the n00b OMG WTF 'dugg' 'no digg' sux0rz comments and leave only the ones that are of value. Its obvious really.

  Werner G. [01.10.06 02:26 AM]

So what if he didn't steal the code himself? That's no excuse if you're caught driving a stolen car. Oh, but officer, I bought it off a man in the pub.

The fact that he obviously didn't check the code he used at all would indicate that he's a not particularly thorough developer.

  Simon [01.10.06 03:43 AM]

Strange how people don't like to accept blame and look at other people to blame when turns up they are wrong.

Retractions on a community site should be placed at the top of the front page as a static article for a few days. Furthermore depreciation of digg users votes based on response to these types of stories may help.

As you said Nat, it will be interesting to see how Digg (assuming they bother) addresses this issue. I remember it took Slashdot a while to get this right. Perhaps Slashdot is not so yesterday as everyone is proclaiming.

  Doc [01.10.06 04:12 AM]

I am one of those who "Dugg" the original story. I did check the story's claims, but I did not research further. This experience will temper my judgement in the future.

Digg does allow you to "UnDigg" a story, but I doubt it will do much good.
I will Digg the posting referencing this story.
My apologies to Mr. Mallett and to O'Reilley.

  Steve Mallett [01.10.06 04:16 AM]

One brief correction: There were no "automatic" submissions to Digg. If we had something we wanted to promote we submitted it, but there was no bots, or anything rediculous like that.

  DeadMertz [01.10.06 04:18 AM]

Unfortunately, this is both a feature/bug with the Digg design.

Welcome to the one-click lynching (or superstar, depending on the day.).

  billg [01.10.06 04:25 AM]

1. I don't agree with the usual description of Digg and similar sites as "news" sites. Digg isn't in the business of writing and producing news. They're in the business of encouraging anonymous and pseudonynous posters to point to stories posted elsewhere on the web. That's the equivalent of someone saying "Hey, did you see that story on page 2 of the morning paper?" No news is created, no value added, in either instance. Importantly, Digg makes no attempt to check the veracity and accuracy of any of these postings. Yes, the notion is that the other Digg readers will do the fact checking, but that notion is of dubious credibility and, in any case, happens after the fact, The time to check veracity and accuracy is prior to publication.

This particular incident also shows something about the mindset of many Digg readers. (They're readers with shared interests, not community members. They don't even know each other.) It shows their readiness to believe just about anything anyone says so long as it attacks a larger institution. Two more precise words for that are naivete and gullibility.

  Claymore [01.10.06 04:56 AM]

So "We didn't steal it, someone else did. We just used it." is an Ok excuse? I'll have to remember that.

  Unity [01.10.06 05:09 AM]

Oh dear, so the old 'look and feel' business resurfaces once again.

Before bandying around the idea that someone's CSS code has been 'stolen' people really need to revisit the two pivotal 'look and feel' cases of the 1980's/90's; Lotus vs Borland and Apple vs Microsoft, the latter being the patent infringement case in relation to Windows 3.1 & 95.

The general principle these set is that the 'look and feel' of websites and software in general lies outside the realm of intellectual property law. there are exceptions to this - original website graphics and icons are subject to copyright - but to argue that a CSS file is subject to copyright is akin to arguing that one owns the copyright to two-column layouts, rollover buttons, or the use of 12pt Helvetica body text in articles, which is an absolute nonsense.

CSS is a mode of operation based on open standards - a set of methods and nothing more. It does not have same status in intellectual property law asd programme code or graphics, making this a none issue.

  Karl [01.10.06 05:11 AM]

Lisa Williams once coined the phrase "citizen editing" versus "citizen journalism" and that is a perfect way to frame the Digg vs Slashdot debate.

There is room for both approaches on the web and there are positives and negatives associated with each.

I hate to see anyone get slandered when they don't deserve it, especially on a service like Digg or Slashdot, since I host one myself.

It will be good to see Digg evolve, as Simon mentions, to further learn from pre-existing efforts like Slashdot, that have trod this road long ago.

  Pillguy [01.10.06 05:35 AM]

I still believe you should take you sites down. The simple fact is no matter where they came from, they are plagarized. Do you think it is OK to but a stolen car? No it is not.

The "RIGHT" thing to do is to be honest and take the sites down, because NOW you know they are from proprietary sources. It took Kevin and his crew a lot of time to put that site together. If they want it to themselves, they deserve it.

  Steve Mallett [01.10.06 05:49 AM]

Pillguy: work is being done to make replacements. At the moment I'm not changing anything... after this incident I don't want to make it look like I've something to hide.

I'm prepping a full statement ATM.


  Steve Mallett [01.10.06 06:07 AM]

My statement after a lot of reading, writing, and a restless night:

  grizwald [01.10.06 06:08 AM]

sorry .. but the sites this guy made ARE IDENTICAL to digg .. and it even has references to digg in the code. i dont care either way .. but to pretend 'oohh i didnt know' is pretty stupid.

i didnt really care about this story, but now that you are pretending to be innocent makes me want to puke.

  Jay Adelson [01.10.06 07:17 AM]

Digg is watching...

We at Digg are obviously upset that all of this happened, and we stick by Steve's side of the story. If code is released as "open source," it isn't his fault that it included stolen code. (The fact that it was stolen is unfortunate, but not Steve's fault, is our point.)

I think there are ways to help address this in the future, some of them involving features we plan on implementing.

In any case, we appreciate the professional tact with which Steve handled this and are glad that this issue was resolved so quickly. The same collective wisdom of the masses can help quash a story as fast as it creates one.

-Jay Adelson (CEO, Digg)

  RRS [01.10.06 07:24 AM]

I'm sure Steve was well aware of the similarities to the CSS and HTML code. Thought it may blurr the difference between his and their sites to provide more traffic to his own. Come on.

  Mike Drips [01.10.06 07:30 AM]

Copyrighted CSS files? Gah! I've never been to any of these sites, and in fact just saw this story off of an RSS feed.
Looks like a mountain being made out of a molehill by a rather incestuous group. I see a lot of ego and alpha male gorillas beating their chests and stomping their feet rather than some positiive interaction.
While I can appreciate copyright, irregardless of the CSS files in question, there are limits to the uniqueness of web sites simply based on the code architecture of the web.

  Cyanbane [01.10.06 08:19 AM]

I quit reading Digg a few months ago except for the rss feed. Every now and then a nugget of gold will fly through there and I pick it out to read, but as a whole I don't read digg anymore for a couple of reasons:

a.) There is just so much content now. I do think whatever method they used to "bubble" up works fairly well, but I see the stories over and over and most of it is just speculation *which is going to happen with user created content, I just don't care to read all of it*

b.) the "torch wielding masses" and the judgment passing can be eliminated by just not reading the comments. I gave up comment reading way before I stopped reading the site.

c.) Sometimes it seems that everyone who reads digg, has a complete understanding of every single programming language ever created and also can tell you how to use them on a Stroustrip like level. I am not a huge fan of slashdot either, but at least the people over there sometimes profess to be experts for either/or (java/ms/ruby crowd).

I have submitted stuff to digg, and I actually got back some decent comments on it, so I know there are people who read it that do want to have an intelligent discourse on subjects, I just hope that they can implement some controls to let the fires start slower.

Until then I am just going glance at the RSS and read the other tech sites. I wish them well, and hope they get over these �growing pains�, but until they do they just don�t seem to be a site I want to spend my time at anymore.

  ricardo galli [01.10.06 10:06 AM]

I'm the original author of meneame. I'm not sure, but I _could_ be partially responsible of all this mess. I started the programs from scratch, at the bigining I used the digg css have a html basic structure and to test and check the scripts

During the development the structurte has changed a lot (we wanted much simpler and ligh structure), all images were replaced by our own, and they are CC licensed (as explained in our site). All of these was explained in the FAQ from the very begining.

Although we never [intended] to distribute any third party image of even digg css, it could had happened accidentally (in fact we had another bigger problem that was discovered by another person that downloaded the code a that early stage of the development: our Google AdSense codes were also accidentally included in the tar file).

So, _perhaps_ some original CSS copy was included there and later distributed also accidentally. If this is the case (just the possibility is making me feel very sad), I assume all responsability.

Anyway, all the files (source code, css, html, images) we use at is available at:

Please, translate this message to Jay Adelson or any other Digg responsible. If some Digg file were accidentally distributed along our files, it was my fault (I didn't receive any message from anyone involved, so I don't know the chain of events, can someone give me more information to track back the events please?).


PS: I was also accused in Digg (twice) of stealing Digg source code.

  dreww [01.10.06 10:28 AM]

steve's hobby/business is ripping off "web 2.0" sites, using open source implementations written by other people, cloning look & feel and then spamming the hell out of them. so, he may not have technically stolen digg's exact stylesheets, but his sites will always substantially resemble digg's, because that's his M.O.

Whatever gets him page views and ad clicks.

the fact that o'reilly is involved with him, a fact i was not aware of, is just another symptom of their regrettable trend to be the publisher of every book sold to nerds with no real focus on content quality or the expertise of their authors.

  owen [01.10.06 10:37 AM]

this is one of the many reasons I don't use Digg or any other community aggregated site - there is just too much noise in the signal.

I actually think that this links to the wikipedia issues about accuracy that have surfaced here previously.

There is a reason that over tens even hundreds of years that editorial models evolved the way that they have - editors CHECK things and are responsible for accuracy, plagiarism, etc.

In past editorial lives I have fired people for plagiarism. I have abjectly apologized for inaccuracies by my writers that I and our very real fact checking staff did not catch. I have also stood up to threats of lawsuits when we were in the right. I think every even partly serious editor has faced these issues.

Although wikipedia is watched carefully, and as a result is mostly reasonably accurate, it is absolutely NOT 100% accurate. I find the biases more of a problem truth be told.

But these small issues are magnified a thousandfold in community sites with no policing. Even mature sites like slashdot that take their mission seriously and DO police the content still have issues.

Finally - there is no copyright protection on a layout - which is what CSS is. Individual graphical pieces may be protected, but not the arrangement.

  Perrin Harkins [01.10.06 12:13 PM]

Does copying CSS really count as "theft"? HTML and CSS are about as open as code can get, despite the compulsive application of copytight notices these days. Griping because someone else copied your HTML just sounds ridiculous. Is this what the web has come to?

  Joel Sanda [01.10.06 02:04 PM]

"This is a classic Web 2.0 problem: it's hard to aggregate the wisdom of the crowd without aggregating their madness as well."

How's that? Slashdot, which replicates this kind of gossip mongering with indiscriminate ease, was around well before 'web 2.0.'

This is a social problem, not a technological problem, and has no more to do with 'web 2.0' than my writing notebook. This is gossip - with a wider audience and longer staying power - at least until the next 'crisis' is voted up on a peer-reviewed site.

  Steve Mallett [01.11.06 10:26 AM]

Someone's comment to me yesterday: "It's Web2.0, but it's the same old internet." Funny.

  Roger Lancefield [01.11.06 05:15 PM]

There he goes again! The unconscionable rascal continues to steal the results of other people's hard work. Highlight Steve's last comment in Firefox, right-click on the selection and choose 'View Selection Source'. See the problem? Yep, those P tags. Has he no shame? He's gone and done it again!

My company has been using the P tag to mark-up paragraphs for years and now this Johnny-come-lately arrives on the scene acting like he's been using P tags for this purpose for eons. HTML has lots of tags Steve, so it's kind of suspicious that you just happen to use the very same tag that we've been using all this tme. No doubt you will claim that you were unaware that we had dibs on the P tag. But ignorance is no excuse Mr Mallet. Tell it to our legal team who, by the way, will be contacting you at start of business tomorrow.

What you should understand Steve is that each and every line of the the HTML, JavaScript and CSS that we all lifted from books and source code was thoroughly vetted in order to ensure that no one's intellectual property had been unwittingly appropriated. Sadly, you don't appear to aspire to the same rigorous standards. Your mother must be very disappointed that you've turned out to be such a bad one.

  Douglas Clifton [01.15.06 05:19 PM]

digg: skim the submissions, skip the commentary

  ryan [02.02.06 11:22 AM]

Great article. Group think will always be a problem for community sites, but it's good to get the truth out there and point out the ineptness of internet fanboys!

  Mike Levin [07.16.06 05:22 PM]

The dilemma is that a site that can drive a lot of traffic and help set opinion does not ACTUALLY tap into the wisdom of the crowd, ala James Surowiecki's book. Several conditions have to be met for your crowd to be wise, including having a diverse sampling of people from different backgrounds, etc. Now I can't say with certainty, but the Digg crowd I would guess skews towards the technologically elite with a lot of spare time on their hands. This creates an ever-present "latent potential" for a whopping game of pile-on.

  oda kapisi [01.18.08 05:14 AM]

How's that? Slashdot, which replicates this kind of gossip mongering with indiscriminate ease, was around well before 'web 2.0.'

  Linda R. [07.10.08 06:32 PM]

Digg really changed the way people read news on the internet.

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