Before I went home this summer I had the opportunity to talk with Steve Twedt, a reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who teaches one of the few journalism classes at Carnegie Mellon. I told him about the Idealab and the user driven system I’ve been writing about here. The first big question he asked deserves a well thought out response: “What if the users don’t contribute?”
Steve is right; a developer can’t rely on user contribution unless he/she is sure users will contribute. Since one can never actually be sure about that, we are left with three simple tasks: hedge our bets, up our odds, and cross our fingers.
First things first, how exactly is this system relying on its users?
- Generating news content – the site will provide a platform for bloggers, citizen journalists, and professional journalists to distribute their work to a globally targeted audience. If that platform isn’t used (i.e. users don’t contribute opinion pieces, personal accounts, etc.) then that makes for a bored audience, and eventually, no audience at all.
- Performing moderation – democratic moderation is scalable and seems ideal for a community oriented system. Unfortunately, as you always hear around election time, democracy doesn’t work unless people participate.
- Assigning metadata – machines will take the first stab at tagging new content, but it won’t be effective (or accurate) unless people double check the computer’s work.
- Participating in social process – social processes can’t be facilitated without an interested society to use them. If users don’t use the tools provided for conversation, activism planning, polling, etc. then it’s as if the tools weren’t provided in the first place.
Tactic 1: Collect a user-independent content base
Computers may not have the critical thinking capabilities of a human, but they are a lot more reliable. With that in mind there are a few ways we can use computers to create bare minimum levels of content and process. This way even if nobody else helps out at least the system offers something worthwhile.
Since a lot of relevant news is already on the Internet there is no reason we can’t take a page out of Adrian Holovaty’s book and start pulling it together automatically. This means that stories and articles from external blogs and news sources could be found, tagged, and linked to without the users having to lift a finger. This publicly displayed body should probably be limited to a short blurb rather than a complete mirror (for legal and ethical reasons), but the users would be pointed to the original source.
All types of external news content would be important for the global scale system I have in mind. Local news sites like a city paper, however, would want to link to contextually relevant content such as local blogs or peer analysis of local stories. These papers would also have the benefit of having paid staff doing original reporting; some articles are being generated in house already. In either case the system gets a nice content base before user contributions even start to enter the picture.
Tactic 2: Provide internal incentives
When thinking about a user’s decision to participate on a website I go back to standard economics: if the benefits of contributing outweigh the costs then the site gets the much needed activity, otherwise the user goes his or her merry way. Even if we minimize the cost by providing a great user interface, there has to be something to entice the user. Below are a few examples.
- The megaphone effect – for some people simply being able to have a say in a public agenda is enough (i.e. “my comment will shape things” or “my vote will help decide the future of this post”). Larger sites have more voices to drown out the individual, but at the same time there are more people who will potentially see the results.
- Visible recognition – all user contributions must be formally recognized by the system in a way that the individual can see. This might be in the form of statistics, rankings, karma points, or personalized archives. Whatever the mechanism, the important part is that the user is acknowledged for providing time, thought, and content to the site. Without this, users will think of their contributions as just being dust in the wind…
- Gaining status – the system can take recognition to the next step by providing small amounts of earned status as a reward for quality involvement. Newgrounds is an example of a site that does this, giving people slightly more power the more they vote and providing access to “secrets” for more active users. I have heard warnings not to take this too far, since you don’t want people to “game” the system.
- Potential for feedback – when I comment on Digg I spend the next day or so checking my profile to see what sort of response the community has given to my incredibly witty comments. (Digg is particularly brilliant because this feedback also serves as a moderation tool.) The potential to see how your perspective compares with the group’s is often an attractive reward for contributing in itself.
You will notice I ignored money. This omission isn’t necessarily a surprise, but I want to point it out since money might eventually be an attractive/necessary incentive technique where user contributions are on the scale of being entire articles. Newgrounds, for instance, offers a $500 prize every month to reward the creator of the best new animation.
Tactic 3: Personalize the user experience
There is a surprisingly accurate observation that in any particular social system 80% of the content is generated by 20% of the users. In other words, a few people are doing most of the talking/work. Intuition would imply that the 20% comes from the people who care enough to pass the “participation threshold.”
In an earlier post I talked about how tagging can be used to better connect users to content and community. What if the system helped bring every user to the communities and content that they genuinely care about? This might be a local community, a professional community, or something else. My theory is that everyone would become a part of at least one “20%” – drastically increasing the overall site’s participation.
The first tactic alone will result in a site with content. Providing incentives and personalization will take things to the next level by prompting users to help shape the public agenda. If you look at some of the more successful social news sites (Digg, The Huffington Post, Slashdot, etc.) I’m sure you will see most if not all of these trends. The next step is to take the personpower and use it to make sure the conversation doesn’t devolve into spam, misinformation, flame wars, and overall noise.
(This post pertains to a bullet point from Tying it All Together – User aggregated/moderated content)