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I’ve been thinking a bit about the many different flavors of user generated content models; wikis, blogs, discussion boards, etc, and trying to come up with some sort of framework about what works best for which purpose. It seems that non-fiction user generated content can be categorized into three different types:

    1) “One right answer” content (e.g. dictionary definitions, lyrics to a song, plot summaries etc)

    2) “Many right answer” content (e.g. recipes. I have one recipe for meatballs. You have another. Both produce meatballs if followed, so both are “right”. Yet your meatballs may be juicy and suculent while mine may just suck.)

    3) “No right answer” content (e.g. Answers to question like “Who was the greatest shooting guard of all time?” or “What should we do in Iraq?”. These are conversations that can be debated without ever getting to a “right answer”).

These seem to match up best with three models of organizing user generated content:

    1) Wikis. Anyone can contribute and edit content, so only content that is generally agreed to remains in place. (Not quite the same thing as being “right”, but certainly a proxy). The contributing authors’ names are de-emphasized because identity of the contributor is not important when dealing with some canoncial truth. Wikipedia is of course the best example, but others include wikiXbox360 (a Wetpaint powered site) [game cheats are a great example of "one right answer" content], Battlestar Wiki, the Wikia sites, and many more.

    2) User generated databases, enabling rating and reviewing. Allrecipes.com allows users to submit, rate and review recipes, so that my horrible meatball recipe gets buried and your wonderful meatball recipe bubbles to the top. The same principles apply to Youtube, and to the reviews from sites like Yelp, Flixster and Amazon. Reviews somehow seem to behave more like “many right answer” than “no right answer”, perhaps because they are not meant to be part of the give and take of an argument. But because the identity of the reviewer, recipe contributor, or videographer is important (as an indicator of quality, or based on history, as an indicator of your liklihood to approve), the contributing author’s name is central to these sorts of databases.

    3) Message boards and blogs. Although some claim that the web is a conversation, its only primarily blogs and message boards that carry out this promise. It’s here that you see call and response behaviour carried out, both within a message board or blog (through comments discussion) or across blogs as posts spur counter posts. In this richness of debate, once again, identity of the author is critical, as is the case in an offline conversation. “Who said that?”, or “Where did you read that” is a common response to a quoted opinion. With no objective measurement of truth or value (unlike “one right answer” and “no right answer” models), rating and ranking makes less sense and each comment stands on its own and can be responded to independently.

    Even within a single topic, there is room for all these models to coexist. For instance, in travel, Wikitravel provides the objective facts about travel destinations in wiki format. Yahoo!’s Trip Planner and TripAdvisor use ratable user generated databases to the “many right answer” problems of sample itineraries and hotel reviews. Lonely Planet’s Thorn tree and GridSkipper lead with Q&A style message boards and thought provoking blog posts to start conversations. Each have their place.

    When there is a mis-match between model and content type, there can be bad results. The best example of this was the LA Times’ experiment with a wiki editorial a couple of years ago. Mixing a “one right answer” model with “no right answer” content led to chaos!

    If I could, I’d make this post a wiki as I think there is “one right answer” to this model for user generated content, and I’m not sure that I have it right yet. As the next best thing, I’d welcome comments.

    Update: Some good comment discussion below from folks like Rich Barton (Founding CEO of Expedia, Zillow), Gil Penchia (CEO of Wikia) and others. If you’re reading this in RSS, its worth clicking through for the comments

11 Responses to Wikis vs blogs vs user generated databases: which to use and when?

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