User-generated content? Bah!

An article has been making the rounds recently titled, “The Internet? Bah!” Written by Clifford Stoll (of Cuckoo’s Egg fame) in 1995, it explains how the Internet will never take over the world:

Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Except, of course, that the Internet did take over the world, and virtually everything the article pooh-poohed has come to pass.

I have some sympathy for Stoll, though. His blindness to the revolution to come and the possibilities therein reminds me of my own attitude, circa 2001, toward Amazon allowing user reviews on its site.

I thought it was a terrible idea. Most people don’t know how write, so you’ll mostly get terrible reviews. You need a professional for that sort of thing. Or so I reasoned.

Boy, was I wrong. Some key things I missed:

  • Voting can be used to sift the best content to the top.
  • There is value in even a simple user review like “it broke after a week”. Or even simpler, a review that adds extra factual data about the item, such as a table of contents.
  • More importantly: Even if, say, only 10% of the population can write a really good review, most of those 10% are not professional reviewers. In fact, the person best qualified to write a review of a given product is almost certainly not a professional reviewer.
  • Related, a sincere review from a layman with domain knowledge and passion is far superior to a trite one from a professional writer who tried a product for just long enough to review it. This goes triple for obscure/niche products.
  • The long tail means that you can’t afford professional reviews for every product in the catalog, and that you need user-generated content to get coverage (even a simple review being much better than nothing, especially online, where you don’t have the product right in front of you).

Fortunately for Amazon and its customers, Jeff Bezos had a much more benevolent view of the average user and the quality of content they would create. And fortunately for the world, no one gave me veto power over the massive trend toward user-generated content.

  • Atul Kapur

    That’s why innovators like Jobs and Bezos are called “visionaries”!