Could Just 1 Character Turn A 4 Day Old News Story Into A Front Page Digg?

You would think it is impossible for one small detail to have a dramatic effect on whether a story is promoted on Digg. Here is how it happened, decide for yourself…

I hadn’t been following the news for a couple of days, so I popped over to one of my old haunts, The Register to see if there was anything I should know about. Occasionally, especially if I visit The Register early morning in Europe, I can pick up some interesting fresh stories that are fairly exclusive, or have some different angles.

I was greeted with this story about Wikipedia:-
Wikipedia scandal story

Great story (scandal and controversy), hot subject (Wikipedia), pretty naff headline (“Farewell, Wikipedia?”)

In fact the headline wasn’t a total disaster, it caught my eye, maybe because it could also suggests an end to Wikipedia itself, but maybe that suggestion is a bit subtle.

So I highlighted the very clear “comment” paragraph and hit my “Ultimate Digg Bookmarklet”

Ultimate Digg Bookmarklet?


I couldn’t get this to display correctly as a dragable link
I picked this up some time ago in the comments on a blogspot blog, you can probably find it if you search hard enough – supposedly it works in all browsers, and not only picks up the URL and Title, but also the story paragraph you highlight and outputs it in a popup window. It is very useful.

I decided to just use the “comment” paragraph for my headline and story description, and forget the original title.

I ended up with the following:-

24 Year Old Fake Wikipedia Professor Forced To Step Down?

After pressure over the weekend from Wikipedia’s Il Duce Jimmy Wales, the encyclopedia’s most illustrious fake professor Ryan Jordan has resigned his post at Wikia Inc.

I did add one small detail from the original title that just seemed to add a little more curiosity… a question mark “?”

I hadn’t read the whole article in depth, and there could have been a good reason for The Register’s use of the question mark in their title.

The Power Of ?

All I did was submit a story I thought was good, seemed to be original from a reputable source, and which might be of interest to people on Digg.

A couple of hours later it was up to 5 Diggs, and I also noticed a number of similar stories that had quite a few more Diggs. Doing a little searching I discovered the story had been breaking over a number of days. With my submission effectively the same story, though with different commentary, I didn’t expect it to get much reaction.

I am not a top Digg user, and had never had a story promoted before. I have a few friends on Digg, but we are talking 10s, not 100s or even 1000s.

16 hours later I was again browsing through Digg, mainly to see if there were any interesting comments on a story about StumbleUpon I had digged (it is a really good guide).

I was actually extremely shocked when presented with this:-
Wikipedia Digg

As of this writing the story is still live on Digg, it hasn’t been buried.

I Am Not A Copywriter

If this story was being written by Brian over at CopyBlogger or maybe Michel Fortin then they would probably be able to tell you why that particular headline was successful.

I counted at least 20 maybe 30 stories on the same subject, and those were just the ones that didn’t get buried. I am sure The Register being looked upon as a credible source helped, but lots of credible sources were reporting on the same story, and many of the headlines I have seen were very similar, but without one small detail.


It wasn’t until I started reading the comments on the Digg story that I realised why the story might have been Digged, though honestly it wasn’t something that was “engineered for success”. All I did was submit a story…

Half the comments were actually related to the question mark, such as

Why is there a question mark in the title?

Hes copying fox news with the question mark. Adds mystery and intrigue hehe.

and many others…

So did one character turn a 4 day old news story into a front page Digg?

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  1. says

    Excellent post. I’ve similar things happen over and over again. All it takes is the right word, or punctuation mark, and they’re all over it.

  2. says

    When I first started blogging I wanted to make all my headers a question. Needless to say It wasn’t long before I stopped.

    Using questions is a great way to prompt an interaction with your readers and I now include one inside almost every post, if not in the header.

  3. says

    Hey Andy,

    Let me share with you probably the real key. My friend and top copywriter John Carlton talks about this when creating headlines, especially for magzines like National Enquirer, Globe, etc. Some people call it sensationalism. He calls it:

    “The incongruent juxtaposition of seemingly irrelevant ideas, facts or events.”

    For example, when it was revealed during the autopsy that Steve Irwin accelerated his own death by removing the stingray’s dart from his chest (causing him to bleed in the waters and lose more blood a lot faster that way), the headline on the National Enquirer was:

    “Autopsy Shocker! What Really Killed Steve Irwin…” or “Steve Irwin Commited Suicide?”

    The element of intrigue was used, here. But also, the incongruency here is “Steve Irwin” and “suicide.” (Especially after everyone knew it was a Stingray’s dart that killed him.)

    Similarly, in your headline, your incongruent juxtaposition is:

    “24 year old” and “professor.” In fact, you have two more: “fake” and “wikipedia,” and “forced to step down.”

    Close it off with a nice little question mark, and you really have a very intriguing headline. Not sure what Brian Clark will say, but that’s my take. :)

  4. says

    What Michael said sounds very right.
    Each phrase of the title makes me want to read the the next phrase.
    “24 Year Old” > “Fake Wikipedia Professor” > “Forced to Step Down”…

    … and then the question mark tells me that there’s more than one side of the story; so I want to read it.

    Cool thoughts, thanks Andy and commenters.

  5. says

    Thanks everyone for the comments so far.

    Michel I tend to agree (how could I not) though there were umpteen other submitted stories with very similar elements

    Here are a whole load of other titles people have used. Some of these are actually more recent stories.

    • Phony Prof Triggers Wikipedia Uproar
    • Editor scandal rocks Wikipedia
    • Fake Wikipedia prof defaced 20,000 entries, errors not fixed
    • A Prominent Editor at the Popular Online Encyclopedia Is a Fraud
    • Fake Wikipedia prof altered 20,000 entries
    • Fake Professor Causes Wikipedia Controversy
    • BBC NEWS | Americas | Fake professor in Wikipedia storm
    • Wikipedia hit by identity crisis as student admits posing as professor
    • A Contributor to Wikipedia Has His Fictional Side
    • Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales fires lying ‘professor’
    • Wikipedia reels under revelations of deliberate lying
    • EssJay Resigns From Wikipedia
    • Wikipedia SysOp (essjay) finally steps down.
    • Wikipedia’s Wales Reverses Decision on Problem Admin
    • Does The Mistaken Identity Of A Wikipedia Editor Reflect Worse On Wikipedia
    • Bogus Wikipedia Prof. was blessed then promoted

    I haven’t seen any prior story that received more than 15 Diggs in the last 7 days, though I didn’t check those that were buried.

    @ Paula that is a different situation, because it is an original story, and despite how much I enjoy your writing, I think The Register might be looked on by Diggers as a more credible news source… most of the headlines above were also taken from international news sources.


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