Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen's column on Content Creation by Average People.
Weblogs as Simplified Content Creation
Evan Williams, CEO of Pyra Labs , writes:
I find it surprising, however, that you ask the question, "How can we increase the number of people who contribute content to the Web?" and talk about tools that provide structured creation, but fail to mention weblogs.
While some may not consider weblogs "content," contrary to common definition, blogs are not about linking to web pages -- except in that linking should be a part of most any writing on the web. Pointing out sites may have been a place to start, but if you look at what's being published in the blog format today, you'll find it's everything from personal journals, to poetry, to punditry. Blogs are really about the format -- frequent, short bursts of text -- a format that happens to work very well on the web, both for readers ("people don't read on the web") and writers/publishers.
Most importantly, in regards to your piece, this is a format that the average person can produce. One doesn't need to be a comfortable writer in order to post a short blurb about their thoughts on a particular subject/product/site/experience. What's more, even if the average person felt comfortable with a blank piece of paper, the time to write longer pieces is daunting to those for whom creating web content is not a full time job. Blogs let people get their thoughts down quickly, succinctly, and with enough structure to help them along, without being limiting on what they choose to communicate.
If you ask me, you can't do much better than that in getting average people publishing content on the web. And the proof is in the tens of thousands of people who, because of blog publishing tools, now write and publish on the web every day, who never did before.
Jakob's reply: Weblogs are of so highly varying quality that I don't consider them a true solution to the problem. Somebody who is a good writer and has something to communicate will make a good weblog, for sure (see, for example, my current favorite: Doc Searls). But the average weblog is unreadable.
However, I agree with Evan that there are aspects of the weblog format that lend themselves to improved content:
- The basic idea is that you write a short observation or note whenever it occurs to you: this is surely less intimidating than having to write an entire article.
- You can get away with the short notes even for substantial issues because of the weblogs' reliance on links to other sites as the way to present the full story.
- Even if your own writing is not that great, you will still provide a valuable service if you can identify sources of other good content on the Web and link to it. Thus, weblogs are a form of selection-based content creation: you have the entire Web to choose from and you get to post a few links every day. The best current example is Tomalak's Realm: he usually doesn't write anything , so the editorial selection of links and quotes is the only service provided by the site and that is enough to make it the second-most useful site on the Web today (after Google).
Digital Photography: Better Products Coming
Philippe Kahn, CEO of LightSurf, writes:
Thanks for mentioning us. Although I'd like to point out a couple of things:
I'm sorry that I could not convey all this in the total of less than 8 minutes that we had to show all this in real time using the existing PacBell networks......
- Check the October issue of Wired P 270, they printed directly an image that I took of my wife and daughter and made it to the web in 15 seconds. Its print quality. That's part of the technology. Note that the photo that I took of Chris was without flash on the spot without preparation....
- We have several BlueTooth projects with different camera makers. But note that this not resolve wireless acceleration with the cell-phone. That is part of the key technology that LightSurf has built: Accelerating wireless images by at least a factor of 3, which makes this all work.
- There are multiple scenarios that we are working on: Clip-one tiny camera, built-in camera into cell phone and standalone camera communicating with BlueTooth technology. All work off the same end-to-end LightSurf infrastructure. The difficulty is that if you have 10,000 picture-takers at the finals of the Athens Olympics in 2004 that send each a "slightly different version" of the 100 meters dash finish over the air, the back-end infrastructure needs to catch all these photos in real-time, not loose a single one of them and route them appropriately.... That's part of the very complex problem, including acceleration and bandwidth management, that LightSurf has solved over the last 3 years.
Jakob's reply: Looking forward to the new products. Despite my comments, I actually think there are many exciting things that can be done with tiny cameras. I just happen to also like higher-quality cameras. Both will have their place in the future, just as computers will exist in many form factors ranging from ring-sized code-bearing devices over deck-of-card sized PDAs to big-screen workstations.
New Business: Trouble-Shooting Digital Content Design
Mikko-Pekka Hanski from Oujee Oy in Finland writes:
I just had to write. Our organization Oujee Oy is firm, which is founded to help other organizations and individuals to create interesting and quality content. We call ourselves trouble-shooters of digital content design.
We have had projects dealing content with municipalities, our Ministry of Education and enterprises like Nokia and Sonera. As you mentioned in your column we also have had problems with content creation, not with techniques. Finnish people are quite eager to learn new technologies but not so eager to develop their content creation skills.
We have develop a tool - Story model, that should help create quality control. We are broadening the narrative approach to visual and interface design. We have noticed that the main criteria for successful implementation of the Story model is that nothing should be brought from outside. Organizations and individuals must develop their own strategies and routines to create content, therefore it's always a quite long process.
Jakob's reply: I love it: "trouble-shooters of digital content design" - new business ideas every day in this field. I am sure there is a great need for your services.
It is a very good point that the problems in content creation strike just as hard at the usability of intranets and corporate websites. In many of my projects I find that we can only improve the user experience so much by fixing design and navigation. Ultimately, the user actually arrives at the correct page (if the site is easy enough to use), but then what? That page's content has to be good.
Unfortunately it is much harder to institute good content strategies and capabilities in a company than it is to improve the other aspects of Web usability. This is one of the reasons I do so much work on content usability .
Legitimate Reuse of Copyrighted Material
Dror Harari, Product Architect at Attunity Ltd in Israel, writes:
The issue at hand is copyrights and intellectual property. People work best (and here I do agree with you) by taking some piece of work and reusing it, making it better, relating to it, etc. Now the Napster case is somewhat of an extreme case but in today's world litigation is used all too often. I think that without first attending to the issue of legitimate use of copyrighted work for extending our collective wisdom, we would not get people to comfortably put in their own twenty cents. The cultural tools for content creation and sharing are just as important as the computerized ones you mentioned.
Jakob's reply: The problem of reuse of copyrighted material was "solved" by Ted Nelson in the early 1960. His model still seems eminently sensible to me:
- You are never allowed to copy anybody else's material, but you can link to it as much as you want.
- "Links" are defined in a broader sense than the simple "goto" links that are the only ones currently supported on the Web. The first fifty years of hypertext research discovered and implemented many other types of linking, such as inclusion, expansion, and the ability to refer to elements within a node. Thus, you could "quote" a paragraph from one of my articles, not by illegally copying it, but by including it by reference and by linking.
- And finally, the one missing element that will make it all work: whenever your material is reused by somebody else, you get a micropayment.
The sad fact is that just because Ted Nelson wrote all of this up in his book Literary Machines does not mean that it is operational or that it will be easy to implement. We need micropayments (but we need them anyway to make the Web work once it cannot be funded by gullible investors). And we need a software infrastructure that supports richer forms of hypertext and an economic model of linking.
Let's give it five more years. 1-2 years for micropayments and 3-4 years for better software.
Voting as a Content-Generation Mechanism
Rusty Foster writes:
I run a site called Kuro5hin.org , which is aimed at just this goal. We are a news and discussion site, sort of taking up from where Slashdot left off. Any user can submit a story, which goes directly in a voting queue. Any other user can vote whether to post it to the site or not. The collective votes of other users determine what appears to the public, and what never sees the light of day. So the users are in charge, from creation, to editing, to discussion (of course there are comments attached to stories).
We're still in a fairly early stage -- the site has been up for about 9 months now. But it works surprisingly well. It remains to be seen how well we scale, but I thought you might be interested in what some of us are doing toward making all web users creators, not just consumers.
Jakob's reply: Voting is a simple way for users to add value to a website. You could call it the ultimate selection-based content .
In some ways, voting is too simple in that it only selects, it doesn't really generate anything new. On the other hand, simplicity is good and increases the number of people who can participate.
Some forms of voting do generate new content. For example, audience polls will result in new knowledge based on the aggregated wisdom of the audience. The Web is swarming with opinion polls which I don't like because of their biased samples. You cannot just take the traffic to a website (bias #1) and bias it even further by only counting those users who bother responding and assume that the results have any way of being representative of the general public.
You can poll your audience and assume that it is representative of itself.
Even better: a zero user interface design for voting with your mouse clicks or puchases. Several sites have lists of "most popular items" - this is a form of editorial control exercised by the users without the need for explicit actions. The very act of using the site contributes to making it better.
Napster and Buying Old Content
Ronni Bennett writes:
Although your column this week is not strictly about content sharing of other people's work such as with Napster, two recent experiences of mine suggest a useful future for these programs.
First let me say that I could not agree more that "Distributing copies of other peoples' creations without permission will never be a great use of the Internet. Whatever the courts decide, in my view it is certainly a moral copyright violation to surreptitiously take and spread the fruit of someone else's labor." But look at these two examples:
The point is, I would have happily paid some small price for the song, and would have appreciated not paying so much for the book. So what if, over time, publishers/copyright owners of music and print material (maybe old movies too when the technology gets there) that is unlikely to sell in numbers large enough to make it worthwhile to re-publish, uploaded text and music and charged people for downloading. Not a lot of money because there is little effort in producing such a site - upload the music once; scan in the text once. (Maybe it's a new Web business I should go into ;-)
- I had ignored Napster beyond professional curiosity of reading the news because I'd assumed it was mostly kids sharing hip-hop music and I'm not interested. But when a friend told me she'd found some great old recordings, I downloaded the program and first thing, found a song I'd been looking for in old record shops for 25 years - "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" by Long John Baldry. 25 years I couldn't get this recording out of my head, Jakob, and at last, I've found it. I am so pleased to own it again.
- I'd run across references to a 1978 novel I wanted to read for a variety of reasons. It is out of print, and the library doesn't have it. On rare book sites it was listed for more than $200, which is extreme for a non-collector. At last, I found a damaged copy online for $40 and splurged. (BTW - it was worth it.)
This would be a great service to make use of micropayments (and whatever happened to that idea?) But until something like what I've described emerges, I will (guiltily) download other people's creations because technology has created the possibility and there is no alternative.
Jakob's reply: I completely agree that the ability to locate and buy old content is one of the major benefits provided by the Internet. Nothing need ever go out of print again.
Having books or records disappear from the market is certainly annoying - it just happened to me when my 1989 book Coordinating User Interfaces for Consistency went out of print. Even today, it is the best work on consistency and interface standards, but it only sold a few copies per year, so when the last printing sold out, the publisher could not justify another printing. ( Update 2003 : the book is back in print .)
However, I don't think that old content will necessarily be micropayment content. Certainly, it should be charged at lower fees than new content (anything you sell after the first few years is pure gravy), but it would not be fair to assume that an entire book could be had for five cents the way you can get an article (once we get micropayments). Maybe a book that currently costs $40 could be reduced to $10 after five years and $5 after ten years, but I am not sure it should drop below that.
Creating an economic model for old content and for the pricing curve over time will be an interesting challenge. There is so much good stuff ahead as soon as we get a payment system for the Web.