Monday, August 31, 2009

Beware the Intersection of Social Networking and Pay-for-Content

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably aware that the validity of information on internet websites is becoming increasingly questionable. I’m not talking about persuasive writing (particularly political), which has built-in bias; nor am I talking about wikipedia (although others are). I’m not even talking about recent scandals among mommy-bloggers and the occasional daddy-blogger. I’m talking about the places that (supposedly) are providing unbiased content created by real people. Let me tell you, there are problems with this information – and the more “social” the source, the worse the problems seem to be.

Let’s look at three examples; all sites where I‘ve written in the past and/or still write. All pay for content written by members; all have a strong social networking component; all rank content based on member ratings. All have contests and promotions to spur the membership to write more and to write on topics that generate more income for the parent site. The three are,, and

Associated Content pays members using several metrics (up-front payment, pay-per-view) for content across a wide variety of topics. Members may submit written, photo, or video content on any topic; and can also claim so-called assignments. As with any pay-for-content site, earnings per posting have a low average value and some content will earn nothing at all. Highly popular topics can garner high earnings, however highly popular topics also receive heavy coverage. In order to be prominently displayed in search results, articles must receive multiple “recommended” ratings from members. On the community forums (available only to members), members openly pimp their content. One such thread is called “What's your worst performing article on AC this week? Share your link!” These forums are sanctioned by, and located on, Associated Content. What does this mean to you? It means that, to be prominent, popular content must be generated by members of the AC clique – good, high-quality content provided by outsiders essentially need not apply.

The quality of content on Associated Content is also iffy. Take this passage from the site’s content in an article about structural geology: “The effect of this is you have a clear sight of a valuable mineral deposit, but because of earth movements it suddenly vanishes [emphasis mine] from before your eyes.” Ask anyone who knows anything about geology – nothing happens suddenly in geology. Peruse some general information articles on the site, and you’ll soon realize that many are cobbled together from websites, especially wikipedia, and the author has little or no first-hand knowledge of the topic. Poor content elevated to high prominence: that’s a hallmark of paid content ranked in a social networking environment. advertises that they can tell you how to do almost anything. Maybe: but you’d be wise to look elsewhere most of the time. eHow has the same basic problems as Associated Content: cliques of established members who brag – brag! – in on-site, sanctioned forums about RRCR5S. That means “read, recommend, comment, rate 5 stars”; a method for elevating a friend’s content over that of some dirty interloper's. Since rating is anonymous, they easily get away with down-rating competing content. The higher the rank of the content, the more reads it gets – and the more reads it gets, the more money it earns. Ipso facto, an impetus for socially networking oneself all the way to the bank.

eHow content is likewise suspect. Members get points for claiming “top requested articles,” though the point system seems to be mainly for egoboo. Members, however, dump all manner of rubbish into those “how-to” articles. For instance, an article about “How to Water Your Lawn and Conserve Water” informs us that, “Watering every three days seems to work well for high heat situations. If you follow that schedule, you should water at least half an hour each day.” Of course, the author lives in Seattle – wonder how well that advice works in LA, Dallas, or Denver? Or on “How to Use a Froe,” the writer – like almost everyone alive today – clearly has no idea what a froe is or what it’s used for, and merely re-worded the advice from an online traditional woodworking source (clumsily, at that). The RRCR5S folks stop by to leave comments such as “I'm very impressed. A well researched article on the mysterious, misunderstood Froe,” and another clique member picks up a few pennies for cheating on an exam., a division of, a division of eBay, says it offers “unbiased reviews by real people.” Well, some of their people aren’t real – and neither are their reviews. Epinions differs from the other two in that there is a strict rule against pimping one’s content on the community message boards. However, members may subscribe to email alerts and RSS feeds from any other members, effectively causing the site to perform the pimping for the authors. Ratings are public (to members, anyway) so there’s a consistent atmosphere of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Site members called “Advisors” have higher weight to their rating, and get paid a monthly stipend – obtaining an advisor position is based partially on the number of ratings placed, so members seeking the position feel obliged to place many ratings. This leads to rating of content that hasn’t been thoroughly read or read at all, essentially word-counting. Members also rate the usefulness of content written on topics about which they themselves know nothing, allowing unscrupulous members to post faked reviews that have bogus information and experience. A recent posting reviewing a 7-inch circular saw said of the tool, “The saw moved effortlessly and followed the curves of my lines with no problems, and with very little binding. I think this is the sort of job this saw is meant for because it really performed it's [sic] best while doing this." This is, of course, rank bullshit – anyone who has ever used a circular saw will confirm that you cannot cut curves with this type of saw. Another highly-placed member once wrote an entire review about a “Cuisinant” appliance.

Since earnings are a function of review placement and review placement is a function of how many friends stop by to automatically rate the review “Very Helpful,” the politics of social networking is highly important to Epinions membership. Just as at eHow and Associated Content (as well as similar sites like and, friendliness counts for far more than communication skills. Epinions also runs sweepstakes and pay-per-review promotions; and each time there’s another promotion, the “bogosity” factor increases.

So what is the intersection of social networking and content for pay? Sadly, it’s content that you just can’t trust. Unless you already know a lot about the topic you’re researching, you’re liable to end up with information that’s been mis-copied, badly reworded, or just plain fabricated.

Caveat surfor: Let the surfer beware (I made that up).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Internet, Social Networks, and the Fallacy of Peer-to-Peer Communication

I don’t know about you, but wherever I turn these days I see “peer-to-peer forums” and “online communities” and “open innovation.” Well, sure, they’re not the same things, and yet they do share some common characteristics; central to which is the theory that if one asks a question of everyone in the world, someone out there is bound to have the right answer. The buzz a few months ago was open innovation (see InnoCentive); wherein a multidisciplinary cadre of bright minds would incubate solutions to problems in completely different fields. It sounds fascinating – and, at least according to the company’s PR, it works.

That’s not what I want to discuss, however – I want to discuss the poor man’s version, so-called “peer-to-peer” forums. More than anything else, they’re a sneaky way for a company to abrogate its responsibility for customer support by pawning it off to its fan base. If you’ve used Intuit’s TurboTax product in recent years, you’ve seen such forums: Intuit calls theirs “ask the community.” The great unwashed form a social network and lend their expertise; usually garnering “ego-boo points” for answering many questions, sometimes getting additional points when their answer is chosen as the “best” by the person who posed the question (a puzzling thought – but more on that later). So what’s wrong? you wonder…

Have a look at a few such forums of various flavors:

eHow: Definitely one of the worst sites for getting "advice" on everything from losing weight to getting pregnant. People “earn” money for posting their advice, and the more one possts, the more money one makes. It’s also social, with little mini-forums and friend lists and the like; but the core is the advice pieces. Not to put too great a spin on it, but a lot of the advice is bogus or simply paraphrased from another source (what some might call plagiarism). After all, unless one is a genius, eventually one should run out of advice topics, right? but some eHowians never seem to stop. To make matters worse, eHowians have a forum where they can pimp their articles to get high ranking from their adoring sycophants.

Yahoo answers: one of those places where people vote on what’s a good answer and the person who asked the question gets to choose the best answer. Excu-u-u-se me! how can someone possibly know what’s the best answer if he had to ask the question in the first place? Overrun with trolls as well, with most questions drawing as many smart-ass replies as serious posts.

Adobe Software Forums: one software company that’s decided to outsource a chunk of its support to its users. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting a good answer here; about par for the course. Try asking twice from two different accounts to see how the answers vary. Be careful to say nothing whatsoever negative about the company or its products, or you will suffer the flames of Adobe Hell – one has to be strange to like Adobe, and these people show it.

TurboTax Ask the Community: do you really want to risk an IRS audit based on the answers you get from some guy sitting at home downloading porn in one window while he answers tax questions in another? I’m no tax expert, but a third of the answers I’ve seen here are wrong – or at least off-topic – and most of the rest simply cut and paste the relevant IRS forms.

AT&T Uverse Peer-to-Peer Forums: this bunch puts the “flame” in flaming assholes. Never, never, never suggest that their favorite product is anything less than perfect; for if you do you’ll need asbestos underwear. You’re not going to get any answers here, either, so don’t bother.

Social Networking is supposed to be the next big thing, and that’s what this is all about – bringing eyes to a site so that one can sell more software, advertising, and the like. However, these networks spawn numerous problems, among which are
  • an “us against them” mentality that creates and reinforces insular attitudes, and
  • competition to become more “expert” in whatever the topic, all too often demonstrating the Peter Principle
Social Networking may be fine when it comes to flirting and sharing one’s personal hopes and tragedies, but these five examples demonstrate that once you start asking people to be smart, it’s at best hit-ot-miss. More often, it’s just plain “miss.”
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