With all the excitement around user-generated content, and so many new sites launching that depend in large part, if not exclusively, on it, relatively little thought seems to have been given to the question: what if it works?
We were early fans of TripAdvisor a 2004 Model of Excellence award winner. Yet TripAdvisor's phenomenal success came with a hidden price. It is now routinely held up as an example of a data provider that became a victim of its own success. Look up a particular hotel on TripAdivsor and you can find dozens of user reviews. Do they provide information? Yes, lots of it. Do they provide insight? Not really, because they are invariably and passionately contradictory. One person loves the hotel; another had the worst experience of his life. How does a user of the TripAdvisor site extract value from such extreme inconsistency? It's not easy, and it can be frustrating even to try. That's not a good user experience.
Some of the pioneers in user-generated content are acutely aware that user-generated content can quickly turn into user-generated information overload. Yet, discouraging user-generated content is contrary to the business model and editing or policing it creates costs that make the whole model less attractive and more complicated. What's a publisher to do?
One excellent example of how to encourage user- generated content while maintaining its value is provided by review site yelp.com. View a typical hotel review on Yelp and you can click on a "rating details" link that elegantly and instantly summarizes all the dozens of full text reviews that appear below for you to read -- or not.
There's an important underlying lesson here: value is not created by amassing the greatest amount of stuff online. It is created by making information accessible, digestible and actionable. These are some of the tasks routinely performed by data publishers on a daily basis, and it's one of the key reasons that the data publishing business is thriving right now. We are in the right place at the right time with the right skills.