User-Generated Content and Future Challenges: New Kinds of Communication

It’s hard to believe that user-generated content (UGC) has only been a mainstream phenomenon since 2005. Even by Internet standards, its proliferation and growing cultural impact have been astonishing.

Through personal blogs, social networks, online communities and discussion boards, product reviews, wikis, news sites, travel sites, and video and photo sharing sites, average citizens are exerting an increasingly profound influence over our culture and economy. Entire industries are being transformed. Retail and travel, for example, will never be the same.

  • 81 percent of people use consumer reviews in their purchase decisions (source: Nielsen Online via BizReport, Feb. 2009)
  • Online reviews are second only to word-of-mouth when it comes to influencing consumer purchasing decisions (source: Rubicon Consulting, Oct. 2008)

UGC is only getting bigger. According to eMarketer, the number of people creating user-generated content online will rise from 88.8 million in 2009 to 114.5 million in 2013.

This rapid success has produced some growing pains for UGC, and with them some critical challenges for the UX community. Chief among them:

  • Quantity – The growing mass of UGC is starting to overwhelm users
  • Quality – When everyone has a voice, which voices should we listen to?

If UGC is to remain relevant, UX practitioners must do more than help people to participate in the UGC revolution. We must make it more manageable and meaningful for users as well.

Quantity: What Do You Do with 1,000 Friends?

The flow of information through social media and other UGC channels has grown so dramatically that many users have reached overload. According to the digital research firm Econsultancy:

  • There are more than 3.5 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, etc.) shared each week on Facebook
  • Towards the end of 2009, the average number of “tweets” per hour on Twitter was approximately 1.3 million
  • 15 percent of bloggers spend ten or more hours a week blogging

More and more people are tuning out in response. Last year, both The New York Times (“Facebook Exodus”) and Newsweek (“You Can’t Friend Me, I Quit!”) covered the growing number of defections by beleaguered Facebook users.

The problem of UGC overload will increasingly drive users to the best and most reliable sources of content, especially if they allow them to filter it quickly and effectively.

Facebook recently implemented filtering to help members manage all the content from trusted sources in their network. Yahoo Answers indicates the reliability of participants, using credibility indicators such as reputation points or scores as a way for users to vet contributions and identify the community’s most respected members. But there is still a long way to go.

Quality: Who is Cityguy224, and Why Should We Care What He Thinks?

What do we know about the people whose opinions we increasingly rely upon through product and service reviews, blog posts, or comments on Facebook pages?

According to studies by Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group:

  • 90 percent of online visitors to social sites are “lurkers” (people who look, but don’t contribute)
  • 9 percent are occasional contributors
  • Only 1 percent are active contributors

These ratios will vary depending on the site and demographic, but the larger idea still stands: contributors of user-generated content are a small percentage of the overall Internet population. They are also overwhelmingly young. A study by Rubicon Consulting found that young people aged twenty-two and under account for about half of the content and comments posted online.

It is ironic that the concept of consumer-generated media, so often portrayed as a democratizing force that empowers consumers to participate in the conversation versus just being spoken to, is actually dominated by a small fraction of relatively young Internet users. Do those movie reviewers on Netflix share your unique tastes and sensibilities in film? Does that affluent middle-aged suburbanite realize that the restaurant reviews she’s reading on Citysearch and Yelp were written mainly by twenty-somethings with different tastes and expectations?

As with the problem of quantity, there has been some backlash, deftly covered in 2008 Newsweek article “Revenge of the Experts,” which discussed a mounting demand by both users and website owners for a more reliable, bankable web.

Cutting through the Noise: Emerging Best Practices

While consistent methods for taming the UGC beast have yet to emerge, the issue is gaining traction, and some promising solutions are emerging across the Web.

Most major e-commerce, media, and social networking sites already allow readers to flag objectionable comments for removal and make some effort to block comments from people who have repeatedly violated the site’s standards. Anonymous online comments, once seen as essential to the free exchange of ideas online—even the success of the Internet itself—are increasingly coming under question by website owners.

The consumer review site Angie’s List was one of the first sites to differentiate itself on credibility by requiring all registered members to personally identify themselves. Now the major news sites are rethinking anonymous online comments en masse.

  • The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months; one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names.
  • In addition to the Washington Post, The New York Times and many other papers have moved in stages toward requiring that people register before posting comments, providing some information about themselves that is not shown onscreen.
  • The Huffington Post website plans changes that include ranking commenters based, in part, on how well other readers know and trust their writing. Site owner Arianna Huffington told The New York Times last April, “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

The debate over anonymity is entwined with the question of giving more weight to comments from some readers than from others, based in part on how highly other readers regard them.

  • Wikipedia users can earn greater editing rights by gaining the trust of other editors.
  • When reviews are posted on Amazon.com, those displayed most prominently are those that readers have voted “most helpful”—and are often written under real names.
  • A popular feature on The Wall Street Journal website lets readers decide whether they want to see only those comments posted by subscribers, on the theory that the most dedicated readers might make for a more serious conversation.
  • Movie rental site Netflix indicates each reviewer’s degree of similarity to you based on their rental and ratings history. Unfortunately the site doesn’t allow users to filter or prioritize reviews based on that score.

An increasing number of sites are using proprietary algorithms to improve their user experience. Yelp uses an algorithm that gives more prominent placement to reviews by “established” community members.

It’s not only websites that are taking UGC to the next level; device manufacturers are getting in on the act, too. Microsoft’s now-defunct Kin phone, aimed at the social networking generation, pooled several social media streams, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Windows Live, and let consumers program their phones so their closest friends’ updates rose to the top, a feature it called “The Loop.”

For an example of a site that’s not just moving toward the future of UGC but is leading the charge, check out www.RottenTomatoes.com, a community site for movie lovers. Rotten Tomatoes employs the total package—filtering, sorting, reputation scores, site activity, community policing, member profile information, and its own proprietary algorithms—to construct a highly personalized, trustworthy destination where movie lovers of all stripes can participate according to their level of comfort, enthusiasm, and sophistication. On Rotten Tomatoes users can:

  • Filter user reviews and comments to see only those by experts, friends, favorite reviewers, site-approved reviewers, or the entire community
  • Sort reviews by date, reviewer, score, and other parameters
  • Evaluate and rank movies using the site’s proprietary “Tomatometer” score
  • Compare the similarity of other community members based on their preferences and activity
  • See rich and detailed member information so readers have plenty of context with which to evaluate the opinions of others and interact with them

Our Challenge

The triumph of UGC has created tremendous opportunities for consumers and brands, and critical new challenges for UX practitioners. These are primarily how to deal with the massive amount of content that is being produced. What is needed now are new methods to filter all of that information for relevance, as well as reputation, accuracy, and similarity of viewpoint. Until all that happens, our growing body of UGC faces the prospect of becoming a collection of noise that users no longer bother to rely upon in the future.

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