The Right Problem

How user-generated content solves the problem media doesn't know it has

In June of 2001 as a federal judge sealed the fate of the Napster file sharing service, executives at the five major record labels seized upon an opportunity.

The recording industry's legal victory cleared the way for the launch of more than a dozen music-selling Web sites that had secured various rights from the labels. The dawn of the ubiquitous digital entertainment era appeared near.

But looks can be deceiving.

With Napster no longer a threat, the labels scaled back their licensing initiatives and within a year most of those 12 sites weren't around. Instead, the labels pushed forward with MusicNet and PressPlay, digital retail stores they wholly owned, creating a walled garden where consumers needed to subscribe to both -- at $10 per month per service -- just for access to music streams from all the labels. If someone wanted to purchase a song, that ran another $2.50 per track.

The move showed an incomprehensible misunderstanding about the reason for Napster's success. Predictably, the two digital stores faded into obscurity while file-sharing networks continued to thrive. And herein lies the fundamental problem facing nearly all traditional media companies as they move into the digital age: identifying the problem customers have solved.

Despite the music industry's lament to the contrary, people were willing to pay for music online. They just couldn't easily pay for music. The Web showed them they could access information quickly yet when they tried to find music online in 2001, it was nearly impossible, because the record labels steadfastly held music back. But the customers didn't, ripping their CDs into digital files, which Napster made searchable.

The fact that Napster was free was incidental. The fact that Napster was easy wasn't. This is an oft-overlooked reality of this history. Instead of adopting the ease-of-use customer solution, the music industry sought to protect its business model with MusicNet and PressPlay.

Today, the news industry faces an analogous issue. File sharing has been replaced by user-created content on blogs and Twitter as well as social networks where information sharing is fast and common. The story of Napster, though, gives modern media executives an interesting roadmap for successfully building communities and tapping into the user-generated involvement that can open up new growth and revenue opportunities if they understand one simple idea: User-generated content isn't the problem. It's the solution to the problem the traditional media didn't know it had.

There wasn't much to see at the dawn of the Web.

There weren't many software tools for the average citizen, so you needed a bit of technical acumen if you were going to post something to the Web. Because of that, those who did build Web sites became information hubs. It wasn't uncommon for people to send links, bits of digital information or random thoughts to these folks in hopes that they'd be published out to the world.

Matt Haughey was one of those "senders" although not because he couldn't build Web sites. He just never got around to it. Until 1998. A Web designer at UCLA, Haughey decided it was time to have a Web site of his own so he built a piece of software - today we'd call it a Content Management System -- that enabled him to publish information to the Web using a spare computer at his job. He also figured one or two of his friends might want to post information as well, so he built a simple database that enabled him to add users.

When the site launched in 1998, nothing much happened for six months. Which is about what Haughey expected. Then something weird happened. People began to show up. Within a year, thousands of people stopped by and hundreds had joined. Metafilter was born.

"I never really planned on it being big, but when you start building a database-backed Web site, making one Web page is about the same as making 10,000, so it grew," wrote Haughey.

Metafilter wasn't the first or even the biggest group blog, but it has come to represent one of the tenants of digital culture: Conversations drive the Web. Metafilter grew for the next few years, an oddity of the early Web that Haughey -- and others -- couldn't quite explain. Surely the site was about conversations, but he didn't know the problem his site solved. Why was Metafilter so popular?

He had trouble answering that question until Sept. 11, 2001 when a post went up about a plane crashing into a building. He watched as threads rippled through the network, as people vented, communicated and existed during the long, difficult days after the terrorist attacks on New York City. And it was then that he realized the problem his software solved: How do you have near real-time conversations with like-minded people around the world?

Metafilter was just that place, an ancestral grandson to places like The Well, and cousin to conversation hubs like Twitter and FriendFeed. It was a manifestation of user-generated content that, at times, used stories and information from traditional media outlets as a starting point for conversations, but more often than not veered into something less formal. It was a virtual campfire.

In an age social networks and dwindling privacy, Metafilter eschews most moderation (they delete roughly 10 comments per day out of 3,000 submitted) and user profiles while charging a $5 lifetime fee to those who want to post on the site, a decision that has kept the main posting community to around 40,000 people.

"We're an old site with old-seeming features, so we don't really have much of a reputation for visibility beyond user profiles that show all your output," wrote Haughey. In other words, to participate users have to read.

It's a bit strange to think of building a user-created community simply around conversation, but Haughey's Metafilter illustrates what can happen when you turn a conversational community over to users with just the smallest of barriers. Yet sometimes that conversation is just the beginning. Boing Boing built its network around the idea of free-flowing exchanges between its readers and editors.

In 1988, Mark Frauenfelder and Carla Sinclair launched bOING bOING magazine, one of a handful of weirdly successful techo-punk magazines that emerged from the desktop publishing revolution and extolled the virtues of science and technology, published science fiction writing and explored ideas of futurism.

The magazine was only around for 15 issues but the idea never quite died. Frauenfelder revived the 'zine online in 1995 and by 2000 it had evolved into a group blog where the four editors -- Frauenfelder, Xeni Jardin, Cory Doctorow and David Pescovitz -- sifted through links provided by the site's readers and surfed the Web to find the most interesting things happening around the world.

Like Metafilter's users, the four Boing Boing editors could each publish at will. Usually they did so with their own commentary around users' submissions or wholly original thoughts and musings based upon their professional interests and accidental happenstances. The real genius, though, is that the Boing Boing team figured out that its users had solved the crowd-sourcing problem (before the term crowd sourcing was invented). Instead of trying to know everything, the editors allowed the readers to tell them what was happening in the world while each editor acted as the information filter.

"Each Boinger posts as they please -- everyone is familiar with the rules of the road, from what constitutes copyright infringement to what might be libelous -- and particularly interesting or controversial subjects tend to get shared internally for sanity checks," Boing Boing managing editor Rob Beschizza wrote.

Ironically, the emergence of social media publishing tools hasn't made the life of a Boing Boing editor easier, because users are now publishing their thoughts through social networks like Twitter, Facebook and countless other microblogging networks. So it's not enough to simply wait for users to submit their thoughts -- the Boing Boing editors had to chase down those bits and bytes.

And if users wanted to publish their own content -- another solution to a problem -- the Boing Boing team decided to both participate in that creation process and encourage it. "One reason Boing Boing became a huge success is because of the taste and relentless curiosity of its authors, and how well it combines aggregation with additional insight, opinion and criticism," wrote Beschizza. "There's even more original material now, including feature writing, creative competitions and original artwork."

Today, Boing Boing is amongst the most influential sites on the planet, at least according to places like Google and Technorati, which are both in the business of tracking these things. And the 12 million monthly page views and the 600,000 RSS feed subscriptions does little justice to the cultural influence of the site, which acts more like an epicenter for activity than a black hole, seeking to pull everything back to it.

"In the last few years, [Boing Boing's] gained a thriving and fascinating commenting culture, but I find that community is the wrong word for it, because community is much wider than the set of people who are vocal enough to want to comment on a post," wrote Beschizza "Community also implies, to me, an element of exclusivity that's impossible in the age of Twitter, where the edges get blurrier every day."

For those who doubt the importance of user-created content, Metafilter and Boing Boing offer powerful examples of what happens when readers are invited into the process. But neither Metafilter nor Boing Boing have answered the big question: How to gauge whether the content created by users is trustworthy. At Slashdot, the editors have allowed their users to solve that problem, too.

Launched in 1997, Slashdot is the grandfather of the user-generated news sites. Dubbed "News for nerds, stuff that matters," it -- like Boing Boing -- is one of the go-to Web sites for anyone interested in technology and geek culture. And like Boing Boing, people from around the world submit stories -- some culled from traditional sources, some from blogs, some from personal experience.

It's here, though, that Slashdot's editorial structure diverges. Once a user submits a story, the Slashdot crowd helps determine which ones are "greenlit," a term that means a story is pushed from the pool of stories to the front page by voting the story up or down, by giving a particular story an up or down rating. That ranking helps the Slashdot section editors determine which stories are promoted to the main Slashdot pages.

It's a rather ingenious scheme that takes into account both a user's previous interaction with the system and the individual story ranking to create a trustworthiness scale to help editors determine what stories would make the front page. That scale is even more important considering the site has 5.5 million readers each month, each of whom can submit stories.

To put that in perspective, if Slashdot were a newspaper, for instance, it would rank as the second largest news organization online, according to online audience statistics for print newspapers from the Newspaper Association of America. Yet with millions of readers submitting content, Slashdot retains strong editorial oversight with the help of its karma system.

Users who submit stories that are greenlit and receive up-rated comments are ranked higher and tracked through the site's back-end system. Work submitted or commented on by someone with good karma is deemed, by the system, more trustworthy. In other words, the system tracks and rewards those who play nicely and penalizes those who don't, giving Slashdot founder Rob Malda and the editors a snapshot of the "trustworthiness" of Slashdot users who are actively participating in the system.

Ultimately, Malda and the other editors determine what is greenlit to the site, but it's the karma that makes the Slashdot system more reputable than traditional sources. "It's not really a quality measure (like many people think it is) but just a measure of trust," Malda wrote. "A user with no karma or very bad karma can't be trusted. Users with excellent karma can be given a little more slack." Ultimately, Malda and the other site moderators have the final say in what goes on the site, just as editors at a newspaper have final say over what goes in the newspaper. Even here, though, Malda's methodologies are more open -- more democratic -- than most news outlets, which adds far more trust and reliability to the system. Because if Slashdot gets something wrong, there is no hiding the mistake.

"I ultimately select the stories for posting on Slashdot manually," Malda wrote. "I use the reader feedback as one of the most important metrics in that decision, but I feel free to trump them whenever it suits me. But any reader can see the same raw information that I see for making my decisions. I find this balance works very well for our needs."

Years ago, the music industry misdiagnosed its problem in the digital, networked environment. Instead of building models that embraced the solution that consumers wanted, the record labels spent much of its effort trying to shut down piracy.

The result: The industry saw revenues drop from $14.3 billion in 2000 to $10.3 billion in 2007, which was the first year the sale of digital singles and albums sold more than $1 billion. Without those digital sales, that number would have dipped to $9 billion. That's eight years after Napster debuted and five years after it was shuttered. A long, dry spell that consumers filled with file sharing.

The traditional news industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, are facing a similar decline. Like the music industry nearly a decade ago, executives have a choice. Do they follow the music industry, erecting walled gardens around their content, fighting consumers and forcing them to segment themselves? Or do they embrace what their readers, who are also their paying customers, are doing?

As Clay Shirky suggested in his blog post "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," there's no one right solution to the problem the traditional media faces.

But there is only one problem: How do people want to interact with content online?

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