Monday, January 23, 2006

User-Created Content: Market Goods, Cavemen, Schadenfreude

Ethan Prater at Jigsaw dropped me a note after my last post on user-created content and encouraged me to push my thinking a bit further. Specifically, he asked how I'd think of the content that users place into Jigsaw's contacts marketplace. As I understand Jigsaw's business, there are two different categories of information and value that they're getting from their users:

1) Contact information

2) Metadata & feedback about contact information

The first case is a classic "selfish self-entry" good. Either I am entering my contacts into Jigsaw in order to make cash money ('Buy, Sell, and Trade Business Contacts" is their tagline) or I am entering my contacts into Jigsaw in order to better manage them, and to derive some business development value ("trade your contacts") from them.

Metadata about contact information is a bit trickier, and forgive me, Ethan P., if I divert from your actual business model a bit to expound upon it. One of the other taglines on the Jigsaw front page is, "Accurate Data: Because Members Build and Clean the Database." That 'cleaning' bit is what I would refer to as metadata -- meaning, feedback that this is a bogus contact, an outdated contact, or a useless contact - I imagine someone writing in, "this guy may be the VP of Spending Money on Large Humming Boxes, but he takes 18 months to make a decision."

This is exactly the same kind of user-created content that steers the ship at Craigslist -- users can flag any post as miscategorized, spam, etc. -- and that eBay relies upon, with their famous buyer- and seller-rating system. It's the same kind of content that Amazon Reviews runs upon - the guy on the street giving good directions, which he has no particular reason to give.

It's difficult to identify why, exactly, users do this - I'd say that it falls at the delightful juncture of psyche where human beings depart from the rational choice models and start acting like, well, humans. Depending on what you belive, it might be called schadenfreude content, or perhaps caveman content.

The person who discovers that a Jigsaw contact is bogus (or, on Craigslist, that the posting is inappropriate in some way) is very unlikely to be fooled into wasting their own time on that content / contact again -- they've discovered that it's bad, and they'll move on. From a selfish perspective, throwing even another mouse click after that bad content in the form of punching a simple bogosity button only increases their sunk cost. So why do it? Is it because we instinctively recognize that on the other side of the oft-referenced "tragedy of the commons" lies a triumph of the commons, where lots of feedback snippets from lots of people can actually create broadly beneficial value? Or are we simply mad enough at having been misled -- whether it's an abstract anger at a bum steer in a piece of anonymous information, or a very directed annoyance at some scammer who's trying to take our money -- that we strike back through negative review?

I don't know.

In any case, we act; we vote; we warn the other grubby apes that here lay sour berries, here lurk leopards, and we suggest that the tribe move on.

Here is what I would posit: That the urge toward fairness and truth is so strong that it overpowers economic gain - and economic gain can actually get in the way of this impulse, by making people question their own instincts. So without knowing exactly how Jigsaw is managing their user-driven data-cleaning feedback system, I'd strongly recommend that they pay their users for this act in status and righteousness, not money. Compensating them for their contacts is an entirely separate transaction; monitoring the data quality is a moral crusade that I think we all are deeply primed to engage in, regardless of what the dystopian economists tell us about our amoral motivations.

Next post: data exhaust, perhaps the only category of user-created content that *might* qualify for the soulless rubric 'user generated.'

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