Social media darling Digsby learns hard lesson
What's your computer doing when you're not looking?
In the world of social media technology, lessons are delivered swiftly and often learned the hard way. Just ask Digsby, the third-party Instant Messaging application that went from Internet darling to evil tyrant in the blink of a blog posting.
In an Aug. 13 posting, “Digsby Joins the Dark Side, Uses Your PC to Make Money,” tech lifestyle outlet Lifehacker.com used its broad reach to deliver a scathing rant against Digsby for what it considers less-than-transparent business practices.
Among the chief complaints are the multitudes of ads users have “the option” to view during the software installation. But, based on subsequent comments posted in response to the article, the general consensus among most regular Internet users is that ads come with the territory.
Then there is the optional ad-in software, such as toolbars that allow you to search, compare and bookmark your browsing experience while cluttering your browser window and installing the dreaded tracking cookies on your PC. Again, it's not uncommon to find these ad-ins in the majority of free software downloads, even if Digsby’s presentation of six different ad-ins is bordering on gauche.
So why the all the hoopla?
Digsby software, by default, redirects any spare computing power on the user's idle PC to grid computing tasks. You might have heard about grid computing efforts like SETI@home which attempts to distribute the computational tasks of searching for extra terrestrials among more than 3 million supporters' home computers. Digsby uses Plura Processing to manage their grid computing for less noble causes like 80legs.com, a for-profit web crawling service, among others.
Hold everything! They are going to use my computer for "searching the web" without explicitly asking for my permission? What exactly are they indexing, and how do I know they aren't accessing something illegal with my computer? Why are they trying to hide this in the first place?
To be fair, they do give you a way to disable this absurd nonsense—though they bury the setting behind a "Support Digsby" item on the menu, with no clear description on exactly what they are doing with it. It's clear they are abusing their users, but since they technically explain it in the TOS and let you disable the feature, they weasel out of any responsibility.
It seems that Digsby violated one of the unwritten commandments of the Internet; loyal users don't mind giving you just about anything they have, as long as you ask permission first.
Vaguely referenced in the fine print of the Terms of Service - and briefly mentioned in an obscure Digsby blog posting more than eight months before - is the warning that Digsby intended to test new revenue models and users would be the participants in these experiments unless they manually unchecked a menu option after installation. It all went horribly wrong when loyal users, which are not necessarily the same thing as careful readers, actually learned about the effort and felt terribly duped.
Digsby immediately announced changes, promising that the next software update would move the functionality in question to a more obvious location in the menu. Additionally, a pop-up link to more information would be available, and in fact would not go away until closed, for users wanting further details on Digsby's grid computing. By not removing or disabling the functionality, did Digsby fumble the PR opportunities to retain its fleeing customer base? Although dotSyntax, LLC, makers of Digsby software have been unresponsive to TucsonSentinel.com's requests for comment, they responded in kind - via their blog - to the Lifehacker article.
We want to make it completely clear to all users so Digsby is not doing anything you don’t want it to do. The above changes have been on our to do list but the article really opened our eyes about how few people know about this functionality. Our goal is to create the world’s best IM client and social media tool. The only way to accomplish that goal is with transparency and communication so we can keep working with you to make a better product.
The backlash has been a textbook lesson in making mountains out of molehills, with many detractors promising to remove Digsby's IM client in favor of competitors Pidgin and Trillian. Perhaps the lesson here is not that creative revenue models are bad ideas or even that grid computing, regardless of the purpose, is necessarily evil. The lesson is that the social momentum of the Internet giveth and the social momentum of the Internet taketh away. Dueling blog entries and defensive arguments over semantics do nothing to help Digsby's case.
Watch for other social media moguls to over-publish and present new ideas in an opt-in mode where the user makes a conscious choice to participate.
Is it irony or poetic justice that a company known for their communication software fell victim to a series of miscommunications?