Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Destruction of the Internet by Our Own Hands

OK, yes the title may be a little strong, but hear me out.

User Generated Content

I am sure we all agree, one of the best things about the Internet is the advent of encouraging user-generated content (user content). The most obvious example of this, Wikipedia. This is by far one of the best resources on the Internet for knowledge. What has made it so good? The fact that people with the relevant knowledge have the power to contribute and update. This is a huge deal because it opens the floodgates to a wealth of knowledge that could never be procured by one team, or a team of people dedicated to just “finding stuff out”. As you may have noticed on previous posts, I often use to link to “geekspeak” items for translation for any “normal” people that may come across this blog. Of course, Wikipedia is not the only user content site around, there have actually been things long before Wikipedia, and some after such as (but of course not limited to):

  • Bulletin Boards
  • Forums
  • Chat Rooms/”Shout Boards” (especially since some are now recorded and presented in public archives etc).
  • Weblogs/Blogs
  • Podcast’s
  • Product Rating/Review Sites
  • URL Review Sites (such as digg)
  • Open Source Software Projects
  • Social Networking Sites (and the many varieties of them).

All of these sorts of applications can generate a vast amount of content. Which can often end up in search results. Which is great, the more knowledge the better right? Empowering users to almost be the masters of the Internet, where their collective brainpower can easily produce better, more relevant results over any search engine (yes, even Google). So, “where is the problem?” I hear you ask..

The Problem

Robert Scoble recently wrote a blog post “Has/How/Why tech blogging has failed you” where he discusses how blogging has become a bit of a PR scam, and how much of the blogosphere really just consists of a few people “driving” the content and many more simply regurgitating what they have read elsewhere. I found this an interesting read, but it really got me thinking. I don’t think the problem stops there.

I have recently been becoming more annoyed at the way the Internet is going with regards to user content. It really is getting out of control. It seems like every day one of the following happens:

  • I read a blog post that covers the same content as another blog post, with no addition of any content/thoughts/anything!
  • I search for something and click 3+ links which actually lead to the same content, which has just been stored on another website (forum posts are a nightmare for this as I know several sites copy the MSDN forums).
  • I get asked “please send code” on a forum.
  • I read the same crap from a “specialised” source which is pretty much forwarding an RSS feed from the root source, which I am already subscribed to.
  • People blogging for the sake of blogging. Posting content that expresses neither their own opinion or any real thought at all.

So now, what happens when you want to find some information that is not on a “usual” source such as Wikipedia? You go to Google, type in your query, then get page after page after page of plain crap, duplicated crap or irrelevant crap. There is a lot of crap on the Internet! I say bring back the good old days where it was either static content or porn. At least if I couldn’t find the answer I wanted I could find some other entertainment!

Of course, I jest. I think user content truly revolutionises the web, but as always with power comes responsibility, of which lies on YOU.

For example, here are a couple of tweets airing my frustration with outsourced/offshore developers simply going to a forum and asking for very basic programming questions, of which a simple Google would have procured a tremendous amount of good pre-existing content.

http://twitter.com/robcthegeek/statuses/864186964
http://twitter.com/robcthegeek/statuses/864189227

And recently, I have also had a post on one of my threads on RefactorMyCode where the individual concerned has completely misunderstood the whole purpose of the site and selfishly asked their own question, completely disregarding the rest of the thread and community:

http://refactormycode.com/codes/273-common-stproc-code#refactor_13448
In which I responded with a blunt, but IMO correct rant http://refactormycode.com/codes/273-common-stproc-code#refactor_13468

I view this sort of behaviour as completely ignorant and unacceptable. This is NOT what user content is about. To be clear, this is what I believe user content should be:

  • Relevant, topical, subject-based.
  • Understood in what the purpose of the delivery platform is about (e.g. RefactorMyCode being about refactoring, not teaching how to program).
  • Promoted when the content is good and Demoted when it is bad.
  • Honest and written from the contributing users point of view “warts and all”.
  • Conversational content should be allowed to be commented on and discussed freely.
  • Contestable similar to the demotion, content should be able to be flagged as inappropriate, or factually incorrect. If this is the case, it should be highlighted (much like Wikipedia does at the moment).
  • Unique in that content is either newly formed, or derived from other [linked] content, that is extended upon.

Now, while this blog may not be massively popular, or contain massive amounts of posts. I only ever try to post things are (or adhere to) all of the above.

And Solutions?

So, how can we possibly solve these problems? Well first off, I think we need to accept we can’t. As with anything, the second you give people power, you will always get at least one bad apple who just abuses it. That’s what human’s do. So, we just need to be more proactive about passing the right messages to those that do get involved. Here are my thoughts:

  • DO get involved. User content is only generated from actual users.
  • DO Blog, but only when YOU have something to say.
  • DO contribute on forums & Wiki’s if you have the expertise to do so.
  • DO use services such as digg and Wikia to help raise awareness of good sites/content.
  • DO link to content to spread news.
  • DONT just regurgitate other peoples words. Think about what they have said, how does that make you feel? What are your thoughts? Are you keen to see what other people think of your thoughts?
  • DONT create a site that duplicates/archives content from other sites. There is no point. We will find it on the original thank you! If you want to promote a site, promote it, don’t copy it!
  • DONT expect information without trying to look for it yourself. Not only does this piss off people that do contribute, you end up duplicating content that you would have easily found yourself!

I think there is a lot of education to take place here. Too many people just want to be heard, but the problem is that we are destroying the very thing that made user content so powerful in the first place.. Accurate search results.

People just need to be clear about what is good and promote that.
Create, don’t copy.
Look and learn rather than ask and expect someone to teach.

Increasing the amount of noise you make, does not increase the quality of the sound.”

What are your thought’s? What do you think we can/should do to help stem the problem?

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5 comments:

  1. Hi Rob, Looks like you have too much time on your hands. Take a chill pill. As you said, you can't fix this problem. All you can do is find the sites/forums/sources you like and ignore as much of the rest as possible. It will eventually die of it's own weight!

    - David_0223

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  2. Well put Rob. The only part I'd call out is one of your final statements: "Look and learn rather than ask and expect someone to teach." Yes, people should look and learn, but they should also ask and be taught. Although you don't state it explicitly, I know you are referring to individuals on technology (particularly programming) forums. What needs to be qualified is that they should not simply be asking for the answer but should ask for help finding it after they have demonstrated that they have tried already. I don't expect everyone to grok everything the first time. The frustration you and I face is when people demonstrate that they've made no effort on their own to find the answer when the resources do exist. I'm more than willing and enjoy helping those who show an interest in something and the intent to learn but are just struggling to get it. Those who just want me to do their work for them will be left sadly on their own.

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  3. >> I say bring back the good old days where it was either static content or porn. At least if I couldn’t find the answer I wanted I could find some other entertainment!

    Hahaha, yeah, those were the days..... ;-)

    Imar

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  4. Hi Gents, Thanks for the comments.

    @David_0223
    Fair point, and believe me, I wasn't planning on donning my "SuperRob" cape and flying off into the sunset to rid the Internet of the crap. But merely wanted to raise the question. Is there more we can do as software guys to help prevent "crap"? How much power is too much power etc? There are some great examples of this already (digg being a huge one). Could it be done better?

    @Peter
    A very good point, and having read you comment, it did make me think twice. You are of course right, part of the main reasons people frequent forums is to learn. I was [incorrectly] focused too much on the extreme that is "please send teh codez". I think we both share the same viewpoint of "happy to help, but not happy to spoon feed"?

    @Imar
    LOL! A trip down memory lane.. :D

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  5. http://www.boingboing.net/2008/07/23/zittrains-the-future.html

    Irresponsible

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