Monday, January 23, 2006

Google Maps ego-surf: Everything is higher resolution at the Googleplex!!

Google Maps updated their satellite imagery, offering higher resolution in many places. Of course I had to check out my house - an increasingly less obscure form of ego-surfing. Since I live only a mile or two from Google, I scrolled over there to check out the uniquely weird/cool architecture of the Googleplex. Surprise! The world suddenly gets sharper, more crisp, and clearly resolved, right where the landfill ends and Google begins, even if the roads don't quite match up.

It's kind of cute -- sort of like those airbrushed graduation pictures we all had at age 18. If I were organizing the world's information, I'd probably do the same thing.

Q: Guys, when are you going to stop being coy and make 'Googleplex' resolve in the same way that 'Buckingham Palace' does?

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 That 'cleaning' bit is what I would refer to as metadata -- meaning, feedback that this is a bogus contact, an outdated contact, or a useless contact - I imagine someone writing in, "this guy may be the VP of Spending Money on Large Humming Boxes, but he takes 18 months to make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.'

Monday, January 09, 2006

User-Created Content: Selfish, Social, Selfless

I continue to be fascinated by everyone's determination to wrap user-created content into their new web services, despite their flamboyant display of ignorance as to *why* users actually create content. Here are three distinct models that can help you think about why users create:

1) Selfish UCC. Delicious bookmarks and Flickr photos. I primarily bookmark and take pictures for myself -- because I want to remember, or because I like something. I use these web-based apps instead of client-side equivalents because I personally get more value out of them. While the social benefit is apparent, I view that social benefit strictly through a selfish lens -- instead of emailing pictures to my Mom, I can just point her at Flickr. I encourage other people to use these sites for selfish reasons as well -- it makes it easier for me to keep track of their UCC. Another great example of selfish UCC is every auction on eBay. Those sellers are not putting those auctions up there to help anyone but themselves - any general benefit is strictly a secondary effect. It's not necessary for any individual item of UCC to relate to any other item - a picture or a bookmark has its own stand-alone value.

2) Social UCC. Blogs, Slashdot comments, and Yahoo Groups are great examples. People create content in order to express a point of view within a larger conversational context. There is usually an implied audience and an implied reference in most of this type of content. Why do people create conversations? It's somewhere between selfish and selfless - call it social. We want to take part in something larger than just ourselves, but we expect to benefit as well. In this case, personal and general benefit are deeply intertwined, and each item of UCC relates to other items of UCC.

3) Selfless UCC. This is the one that leads most everyone astray. The single great example of selfless UCC is Wikipedia. If I am an expert in subject X, I already know all about it. I do not benefit personally from writing down that information and sharing it with the world -- I am primarily doing it so that you, the reader, can benefit; or out of some sense of "greater good" and contribution to something shared and larger than just myself. It's a very noble aspiration that drives this kind of UCC, and it's not particuarly surprising that this makes it the most rare. Implied for this sort of content is a weak sense of authorship -- if I am personally attached to the content, it begins to look much more like a conversation.

The obvious non-UCC example of this strong authorship point is newspaper reporters vs. columnists - a column is a conversation, whereas a byline is subsumed (largely) by the headline and content of the article.

There are particular issues inherent to each different type of UCC:

1) For selfish UCC, the issue is relevance and commensurability. If I take notes on something for my own purposes, there's no reason for me to care whether it accords with anyone else's notation in any sort of commensurable way. Delicious tries to address this problem by suggesting tags that other people used on an item; this drives convergence on certain terms, making their programmatic understanding of what that item is more robust.

2) For social UCC, the issue is personal opinion over-riding fact. Every conversation implies ego and point of view, and in reading a conversational thread, one has to constantly be asking "what was their motivation in saying that". Bias is inherent to the medium.

3) For selfless UCC, the issue is quality. As people are endlessly pointing out, there is a lot of crap in Wikipedia. You may not agree with someone's opinion on Slashdot, and you may not find my bookmarks in Delicious useful, but there are strong incentives in both contexts for me to at least try to make my content accurate. In the selfless context, well, the incentives aren't just as strong.

This suggests obvious remedies in product design:

1) For selfish UCC, take note of Delicious' example and try to drive general relevance without interrupting the selfishness of your users. Delicious prompts me with terms others have used, making my selfish life easier while making relevance of my actions more general.

2) For social UCC, create programmatic mechanisms (like polls or votes or star ratings) that allow people to quantify their point of view on some abstract scale. This will benefit the user (by allowing them to say simply, "I am *very* Republican," for instance) and benefit everyone else -- who can then say, "He's *very* Republican, and I can easily assess where he's coming from."

3) For Selfless UCC, use human editors to manage quality, and try as much as possible to create "superuser" editors to do this for you. The cost-benefit ratio is outstanding, so get over the stone-ageness of it and go make money.

If you apply this model to a lot of the "Web 2.0" websites out there, it readily explains why there are such issues with the user-created content on most of them. UCC is a two-edged sword, and must be used well to avoid injury.

Note on terminology: I deeply dislike the term "User-Generated Content" (UGC). People don't generate (a mechanistic or animalistic term), they create. Creation is a deeply human act, and we should celebrate it.

Update: Find more at the follow-up post "Market Goods, Cavemen, Schadenfreude"