User-generated content: what went wrong and why it still matters

The buzzword user-generated content (UGC), aka “crowdsourcing”, is starting to sound a little 2007, with the cool kids having moved on to hype social travel, itself a subject worthy of a future post.  So what was the original promise, why didn’t it pan out as expected, and is there still a future for it?

The Promise

I’ll lay my own bias on the line up front: I’ve been contributing to wiki-style “user-generated” sites like Everything2, Wikipedia and Wikitravel for over ten years now, and was sufficiently impressed by the last of these to throw away a steady job and take a stab at spinning off Wikitravel Press as a commercial publishing business.  Coming from a software development background and thus familiar with the battle between open source software created from the bottom-up vs closed, commercial software decreed from the top down (see Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar for a primer), it seemed obvious that the traditional cathedral model of guidebook publishers deciding what to sell, toiling away behind high walls to package it up, and selling the end result at a stiff markup was doomed to eventually lose to the raucous bazaar of travellers swapping free tips online, with the cream percolating to the top in the spirit of same happy collaborative anarchy that created Wikipedia.

My initial experiences at Lonely Planet only served to reinforce my belief.  Until recently, the company has revolved entirely around a well-oiled machine for turning authors’ raw manuscripts into polished guidebooks, with tight focus and strict quality control, and this model has served them well over the 38 years that they were competing against other guidebook publishers trying to do the same.  But now that the competition can get their content for free from countless contributors around the globe and distribute it at virtually zero cost, how can they possibly afford to keep paying not just the writers themselves, but editors, proofreaders, cartographers etc as well?

The Reality

Funny thing is, it turns out that crowdsourced content in general (and travel content in particular) isn’t quite the panacea people expected to be.  A few user-generated travel sites have certainly prospered, most notably TripAdvisor, which takes the hands-off approach of letting anybody post anything about everything and leaving it to the reader to sort out the wheat from the chaff, providing only a taxonomy of places and points of interest for navigating through it all.  This works great if you already have a hotel or two in mind, want to read about them in detail, and have your bullshit detector fine-tuned well enough to filter out the reviews by touts and fruitcakes; alas, it’s next to useless if you’re trying to, say, find a nice winery inn to stay in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley, since information about regions is hopelessly scattered, or even a nice, affordable hotel in Tokyo, since you’re given a list of 640 and made to sort through them yourself, with no way to figure out if you should be basing yourself in Shibuya or Shinjuku.

Wikitravel set out to address this by taking a leaf from Wikipedia’s book and allowing users to edit as well as write, with the explicit goal of creating a readable end-to-end travel guide, instead of just a scattershot collection of factoids and opinions.  Now eight years old, the site is still trundling along and even slowly increasing its Alexa rank as of late, but it has never quite achieved the mass-market impact of Wikipedia.  The reasons why are varied and complex, and being taken over in 2006 by a used-car company and frozen in time interface-wise probably didn’t help, but at the end of the day the problem may boil down to a series of fundamental tensions between the open-to-all wiki model and the intention of a travel guide:

  • Wikitravel is meant to serve travellers, but it’s business owners that benefit the most from a good review.  Thus, while each traveller has a weak individual interest in ensuring that each entry is accurate and realistic, the business owner of that entry has a very strong incentive to ensure that it does not.  This is much less so at Wikipedia, where articles are rarely used by consumers to make purchasing decisions.
  • Wikipedia has an explicit goal of creating a neutral encyclopedia and a raft of policies that work towards this end: points of view, citations, references, etc.  Wikitravel has to rely on the subjective opinions of anonymous travellers, and when they are in conflict, it is not possible to say who is “right” and who is “wrong”: the only possible route is to strip out anything disputable and leave behind bland trivia.  This is not helped by the steady stream of Wikipedians coming in under the misconception that, as in Wikipedia, dull, unopinionated writing is a good thing.
  • If writing a neutral review is hard enough, then curating a neutral list of top attractions, best places to eat etc is even harder, especially for country or region-level articles.  These tend to be constantly subject to edit wars, with residents and business owners pitching for their own places and surreptitiously trying to remove others.

None of these forces are insurmountable, and those articles on Wikitravel that are watched like hawks by benevolent neutral caretakers can shine like finely polished jewels, but they do explain why the quality of Wikitravel articles varies so widely, why there are less truly usable Wikitravel articles than there are informative Wikipedia articles, and why none of the many companies out there trying to create automated guidebooks purely out of Wikitravel or other user-generated travel content have really pulled it off.  Other travel wikis, like TripAdvisor’s Inside, lack Wikitravel’s sense of community and thus fare even worse on all counts, the odd quality contribution drowned in a sea of spam.

Nevertheless, Wikitravel content is still used even by shiny new startups like Triposo, simply because there is nothing better out there.  The traveller, however, is not thus constrained, and that’s why they still willingly pay a premium to the traditional guidebook publishers for guaranteed quality, coverage and cohesiveness.

The Future

What then?  In the PC industry, the epic battle between open-source Linux and closed-source Windows fizzled out when Apple came out of the left field with OS X, which married open-source internals (Darwin) with a closed-source user interface (Aqua) smoothing out all the warts.  OS X now runs not only in Macs, but (disguised as iOS) in iPhones and iPads.  Apple pulled ahead of Microsoft in stock market valuation last year.

Likewise, I suspect the winner of the travel sweepstakes will be neither “UGC” nor “experts” alone, but the first travel company that manages to harness together a solid base of open content to build on, the raw power of a million travelers contributing and correcting, the iron fist of editors and curators pummelling it into shape, and the slick usability of a professionally designed and laid-out travel guide.  The pain point is money: pulling this together will not come cheap and the days of people paying $50 for a travel guide are almost over, yet in order to take off, the content must be deep, open to the world and not plastered with blinking banner ads.  Who will dare to take on the challenge?

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