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Posted on Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 5:59 a.m.

Former Digg CEO Jay Adelson: Friends and algorithms will both influence social media search

By Nathan Bomey

Friends can help decide what online content you should see, but that’s not enough.

That's the philosophy of Jay Adelson, former CEO of social news sharing Web site He believes there’s a role for real-time search functions through tools like Twitter and algorithm-based search engines like Google in the evolution of the Web.

Adelson will speak Friday at the University of Michigan’s Innovative Speaker Series class, organized by the Center for Entrepreneurship and student club MPowered Entrepreneurship. The Detroit native will also speak Friday at the FutureMidwest conference in Royal Oak.

Adelson, who announced earlier this month that he would leave Digg, spoke to’s Nathan Bomey this week. Excerpts from that conversation:

Jay Adelson.jpg

Former Digg CEO Jay Adelson

Photo courtesy of Give me the brief synopsis of how you left Michigan, and will you ever end up back here?

Adelson: I was born in Detroit, I grew up in Southfield and graduated from high school and moved on to college at Boston University in Boston, got my first job in San Francisco and moved out there.

And basically I just spent my vacations in the Detroit area. I met my wife in San Francisco, we have a family out here.

But I’ve got to tell you, obviously growing up there and spending time there, there’s a lot to be said about the Michigan area. It’s probably the most affordable place to move in the United States right now.

I don’t know what the future holds. We’ve talked about moving closer to the family. It would probably be a family choice over starting a business there or something, but I’m still not sure. How do you think the advent of real-time search will impact tools like Digg in the future?

Adelson: That’s a good question. When Digg started, we were already addressing a transformation of the publication cycle of news from a 24-hour publication cycle to what seemed like at least a three or four-hour publication cycle.

When we move into the Twitter universe, we go to this next level, which is a real-time publication cycle. Making that transition isn’t simple.

If you think about the traditional Digg system, you have the opportunity for vetting and collaborative filtering to happen. It just takes time.

People think about it as fast, but in my world, three hours is a really, really long time. We really needed to be able to create systems at Digg that could process enough signals from enough different places that the collaborative filtering could happen in real time.

And real-time search, in the simplest form - there’s no filter. There’s no vetting. So the purpose of Digg was really and continues to be to add that other layer.

So what those signals would be was the question that I was asking, and (new Digg CEO) Kevin Rose was asking, a year ago. And the announcements we made at South by Southwest and the changes we are making are really the first shift towards using those additional signals. There’s so much talk about using your friends as the filter. How much credence do you give that in the future of social media?

Adelson: The way you asked that question, I know you understand, I know you get it. Because you’re right - your social network or your friends, by definition, are not necessarily like you.

And so while they may have similar interests, they’re not necessarily going to do a good job of saying what news may or may not be of importance to the world and to you.

By the way, be careful who you tell that to, because there’s a whole lot of business out there that’s currently predicated on this idea that, in fact, friends are like you and they provide a good filter.

What friends are good for is attracting your attention to something. There’s something about your friends touching something that you trust and so therefore it’s a very good way to, I guess you can say, offer an additional layer of filtering after some initial filtering has already happened, because then you might be more likely to engage with that content because a friend has.

That’s the way you really have to think about it. You read these interviews with Mark Zuckerberg where he says Google’s cold algorithms aren’t the future. But it’s hard to ignore the profitability of Google. Where do you see the pendulum swinging right now?

Adelson: Scale used … to mean purely algorithmic. Scale today - it’s really leveraging human resources and algorithms. It’s not mutually exclusive.

You need a certain amount of cold algorithmic components for fairness, and you need a certain amount of human components in order to really process this notion of importance in real time.

So I definitely think there’s a role for people in this process that is absolutely required for it to scale properly and to be useful. How confident are you that there’s a defined role for Digg in this paradigm?

Adelson: I feel like they already have one. Digg’s initial role was to prove that humans could be valuable in this process.

I don’t think a lot of folks considered collaborative filtering really as a viable, scalable option before Digg came along.

At least on paper, and certainly in testing, their new set of products take it to the next level very successfully in that scale. The proof will be in the pudding when the product comes out. How do you envision the Apple iPad changing content consumption?

Adelson: I think the answer is a little bit simple, in that today there is an increasing amount of mobile computing. People are using their smart phones to consume content.

It’s a little hard to consume content on an iPhone or on a small device. On the other end of the spectrum are laptop users - and you have a very small community of business users or techie people who actually carry a laptop around with them. But it’s not a very convenient form factor for consumption of traditional media or new interactive media.

What the iPad is doing is it’s filling that gap in between, to consume certain types of media, whether it’s video or newspapers or what have you. What do you think the so-called old media need to do to survive what’s going on with new media and to take advantage of it?

Adelson: It’s somewhat complicated depending on which old media we’re talking about. The simplest answer is to look at the music industry. … The labels that move quickly are probably going to consolidate and survive. The labels that move slowly are dying.

In news and traditional media, the traditional publisher is facing a very similar problem. Their subscription revenue isn’t gone. It’s not growing, but it’s not gone.

And so they understand that if they invest quickly into digital, they disrupt their own subscription base, and it’s a very difficult decision to make when you’re dealing with that profound of a revenue jump, because they certainly still get the significant majority of their revenue offline versus online.

You can imagine, if you’re at the strategic table of one of these traditional media players deciding when and how far to get involved in digital, you might be tempted to take as long as possible.

The guys that wait too long, they will go out of business. They will go bankrupt, they will disappear, and they will ultimately be consolidated.

The ones that jump in early will own digital, but they will also face a massive revenue change and probably have to adjust the expectations of the shareholders. You have a lot of experience in cybersecurity, and we have a number of IT security, network security companies in the Ann Arbor area. There’s just so much growth there right now. Where do you see most of the opportunity?

Adelson: That’s a good question - it’s a refreshing one. Probably the biggest security area is not so much in networking and IT security, it’s in personal security - because with the elimination of traditional privacy and the sheer volume of touch points that is being amplified, the individual security world is going to go through a massive boom with the proliferation of social media, social technologies.

That being said, there is an IT and network ramification to all of this. There is a tremendous amount of, I guess you could say, corporate espionage, corporate protection, intellectual property protection and so forth that has a natural effect when the personal security world starts to see its effect.

And I see that a little bit on the consulting level, particularly with identity management systems, things like Facebook Connect and so forth, where you see people moving from site to site and needing some form of validation and security.

On the network security side, it’s a different reason why I think there’s opportunity there. Most of it has to do with fear over cyber terrorism, and, to some degree, corporate espionage.

We see (denial-of-service) attacks on the incline. We see the situation with Google and China as just an example of people continuing to lose the battle on the war in cyberspace.

There’s certainly opportunities there to get involved, build new hardware, build new software monitoring tools and also find new ways to encrypt and secure data. All of this is happening at once. So I think it’s as robust an industry as it’s ever been, if not more. Are you considering security as a destination for you as your next thing?

Adelson: I’m considering everything. I literally have not had time to think about anything other than my job for 20 years.

What’s amazing about this moment in my career is that I’m stepping back and looking at all these things I’ve touched and enjoyed throughout the course of my entire career.

It really is just starting points, to think, do I want to go full force into a startup again? Or do I want to help others go into this process themselves? I’m even considering education and going into academia just because I think I enjoy helping others achieve these things more than I want to do it myself anymore.

I’m looking at all these different options and I made a promise to myself and my family that I would take many months of introspection and analysis before I would jump into anything new. U-M has a movement of student entrepreneurs. What advice do you have for them and give us a short preview of your talk on Friday.

Adelson: I do believe that entrepreneurialism requires a certain amount of insanity. By that I mean we’re raised with, and society impresses upon us, these artificial limits, limits that we set on technology, on physics, on economics, on social elements, on what can be expected of us and the world around us.

These limits are really just faults. They’re there to provide the same comfort that a baby has when it’s swaddled, because you know it gives you a clear and concise understanding of the world around you. It makes you comfortable.

But entrepreneurs have to have a little bit of insanity - they have to see beyond those limits and ignore them.

Contact’s Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or or follow him on Twitter. You can also subscribe to Business Review's weekly e-newsletter or the upcoming breaking business news e-newsletter.



Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 4:26 p.m.

Very insightful post Nathan. If possible, could you shed some light on the term "corporate espionage". With the advances that Google is making in real-time search, it seems like they're already moving away from strict "cold algorithms" and adding a sense of friend/social media dynamics to their evaluations.

Susan Cybulski

Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 12:46 p.m.

Great interview, Nathan. Michigan would be glad to get Jay back!


Thu, Apr 15, 2010 : 8:02 a.m.

Just one of the many people "from" Michigan.