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Wikis vs blogs vs user generated databases: which to use and when? February 13, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Internet, Uncategorized, user generated content, web 2.0.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the many different flavors of user generated content models; wikis, blogs, discussion boards, etc, and trying to come up with some sort of framework about what works best for which purpose. It seems that non-fiction user generated content can be categorized into three different types:

    1) “One right answer” content (e.g. dictionary definitions, lyrics to a song, plot summaries etc)

    2) “Many right answer” content (e.g. recipes. I have one recipe for meatballs. You have another. Both produce meatballs if followed, so both are “right”. Yet your meatballs may be juicy and suculent while mine may just suck.)

    3) “No right answer” content (e.g. Answers to question like “Who was the greatest shooting guard of all time?” or “What should we do in Iraq?”. These are conversations that can be debated without ever getting to a “right answer”).

These seem to match up best with three models of organizing user generated content:

    1) Wikis. Anyone can contribute and edit content, so only content that is generally agreed to remains in place. (Not quite the same thing as being “right”, but certainly a proxy). The contributing authors’ names are de-emphasized because identity of the contributor is not important when dealing with some canoncial truth. Wikipedia is of course the best example, but others include wikiXbox360 (a Wetpaint powered site) [game cheats are a great example of “one right answer” content], Battlestar Wiki, the Wikia sites, and many more.

    2) User generated databases, enabling rating and reviewing. Allrecipes.com allows users to submit, rate and review recipes, so that my horrible meatball recipe gets buried and your wonderful meatball recipe bubbles to the top. The same principles apply to Youtube, and to the reviews from sites like Yelp, Flixster and Amazon. Reviews somehow seem to behave more like “many right answer” than “no right answer”, perhaps because they are not meant to be part of the give and take of an argument. But because the identity of the reviewer, recipe contributor, or videographer is important (as an indicator of quality, or based on history, as an indicator of your liklihood to approve), the contributing author’s name is central to these sorts of databases.

    3) Message boards and blogs. Although some claim that the web is a conversation, its only primarily blogs and message boards that carry out this promise. It’s here that you see call and response behaviour carried out, both within a message board or blog (through comments discussion) or across blogs as posts spur counter posts. In this richness of debate, once again, identity of the author is critical, as is the case in an offline conversation. “Who said that?”, or “Where did you read that” is a common response to a quoted opinion. With no objective measurement of truth or value (unlike “one right answer” and “no right answer” models), rating and ranking makes less sense and each comment stands on its own and can be responded to independently.

    Even within a single topic, there is room for all these models to coexist. For instance, in travel, Wikitravel provides the objective facts about travel destinations in wiki format. Yahoo!’s Trip Planner and TripAdvisor use ratable user generated databases to the “many right answer” problems of sample itineraries and hotel reviews. Lonely Planet’s Thorn tree and GridSkipper lead with Q&A style message boards and thought provoking blog posts to start conversations. Each have their place.

    When there is a mis-match between model and content type, there can be bad results. The best example of this was the LA Times’ experiment with a wiki editorial a couple of years ago. Mixing a “one right answer” model with “no right answer” content led to chaos!

    If I could, I’d make this post a wiki as I think there is “one right answer” to this model for user generated content, and I’m not sure that I have it right yet. As the next best thing, I’d welcome comments.

    Update: Some good comment discussion below from folks like Rich Barton (Founding CEO of Expedia, Zillow), Gil Penchia (CEO of Wikia) and others. If you’re reading this in RSS, its worth clicking through for the comments


1. joe - February 13, 2007


as usual an interesting topic and impressive insight offered. And as usual i have less time to respond than i would like. My quick thoughts…

I agree that wikis are particularly useful for one-factually-correct-answer situations. The key element of a wiki is that new user contributions can erase past user contributions. A wiki for movie reviews would be pretty frustrating as each new user deleted the review before them and inserted their opinion as the truth. On the other hand, a wiki for movie quotes could be very successful.

Not sure i as clear though about the distinction between “many right answer” and “no right answer” questions. Aren’t these sort of the same thing? My input would be that in pratice, the choice between a UGC database model (movie reviews) and a dialog model (blog comments) tends to be less about the nature of the question and more about the kind of user interaction you are seeking to create. If the goal is to engage a community in a discussion – people use the comment model that encourages dialog over time. If the goal is to accumulate (and then usually filter) the best individual responses, people use a database for its searchability and flexibility. One could use either for many open ended topics (“What did you think of that movie?”) – but one would get different results.

Interestingly, threaded comment models with voting – like Digg’s comments page – begin to merge the two together. One can have a response, a mini-discussion around the response, and still filter the best submissions to the top. Add good tagging and it would even be searchable like a UGC database.

My bet is that we will continue to see people come up with innovative user interfaces and interaction rules that find ways to bring the best elements of both worlds (interactive discussion and, for lack of a better term, response atomicity) to user generated sites.

we’re sure gonna try anyway.

2. Jay Gould - February 13, 2007

I have actually been giving this a lot of thought lately myself in developing a “framework test” for new ideas, and I have to say I think you’re going about this the wrong way.

I don’t think its the platform that is most important (wiki, blog, database, etc), but rather its a a set of key features that the site must include in order to give yourself the best chances for success.

My framework test is inspired by an article Max Kalehoff, VP of Marketing at Nielsen BuzzMetrics, who on June 23rd 2006 titled “Game Mechanics Applied to Marketing and Brands”. His article was actually inspired by Amy Jo Kim, who studied experimental psychology as an undergrad and received a Ph.D. in Behavior Neuroscience from the University of Washington, and now teaches game design at USC.

She listed five items and characterized them as ‘game mechanics’, which are collecting things, earning points, providing feedback, exchanges, and customization. Some of these are believed to be primal response patterns built inside the human psyche, which make them so powerful.

People often claim there is no science to building the next top online destination, but when you analyze prior successes there clearly is a framework you should follow.

When developing my ‘framework test’, I used some of Amy Jo Kim’s ‘game mechanics’, but I’ve added a couple other points that I feel are essential when developing new ideas.

3. Rich Barton - February 13, 2007

This is a great framework, Jeremy. One that we’ve been using at Zillow for a while, because you sent me early thinking on this a while back. Our goal at Zillow is to build a vibrant community of folks discussing real estate, and we use all of these models right now (though it’s very early days). We have have a wiki for Real Estate 101 type topics (eg, “Credit reports explained” http://www.zillow.com/wikipages/Credit-Reports-Explained). We have UGC databases for claimed homes (we’ve had over 400k owners claim their homes), for sale homes (http://www.zillow.com/postings/Postings.htm), Make Me Move prices, etc. And, we have forums for support issues. Thanks for helping us think this stuff through.

4. gil - February 13, 2007

Wikia now has rating and reviews – with Wiki.. and just launched three new sites today that combine the best of ratings and review with the peer-review nature of wikis

http://politics.wikia.com – POLITICS
http://entertainment.wikia.com – CELEBRITY AND ENTERTAINMENT
http://local.wikia.com – LOCAL NEWS BY ZIP CODE

5. jeremyliew - February 14, 2007

Interesting discussion…

I agree with Joe that DIGG has found a good mechanism to combine discussion with voting.

I agree with Jay that social incentives are a very important part of getting users to contribute content (or do anything) and that Amy Jo’s game mechanics are a great way of thinking about.

I disagree with Jay that the framework isn’t important – mismatches can still get chaotic, and if the social incentives are right, they may just get chaotic faster.

Gil – What does it mean to review or rate a wiki if the wiki entry can change? Does my initial comment or vote still carry weight after the wiki has been updated to incorporate my comments? I’m not sure how that gets handled unless you assume long term stability in the entries…

6. Wikis, Blogs, Forums and User Generated Content - February 14, 2007

[…] article useful to you? YES or NO  (flag this hub) Discussion on User Generated ContentFacts, OpinionsUser Generated Content and how to think about the best medium for it.WikisWhat types of information […]

7. lawrence coburn - February 14, 2007

Wow, there’s some quality discussion here.

Gil, I’m glad you brought up the Wikia example. I saw the launch of the new channels, and my initial reaction was sort of a vague sense that something was amiss – if I had read Jeremy’s post prior to playing around with Wikia, I would have said “mis-match between model and content type.”

For example, in the politics channel, someone recently wrote a short, opinion based piece with the gist of “Republicans are fools, never vote Republican.” There was a thread of folks agreeing and disagreeing, as you would expect. However, because this is a Wiki, someone could go in and change the first piece to read the exact opposite, rendering all of the following comments meaningless. To check this, I did in fact change the original opinion. (i’ll change it back in a bit)

I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts about how the Wiki format will deal with this “many right answer” environment, where folks can just undo the opinions they disagree with, in the process, wrecking the conversation.

Also, one other example of how media types can be merged – the site that I work for is a classic db of user reviews. We recently added the ability for people to comment on the individual reviews – either to rebut, agree with, or build off of them. In the previous format, people would rebut reviews with another review – which sort of polluted the database with stuff that wasn’t reviews.

Another benefit of this format – I hope – is that it’s another way for the reviewer to get feedback / recognition on their review, which in the case of our community, is a major factor for why people use the site. It’s also a positive that a new comment/rebuttal on a review triggers an email alert that brings the original reviewer back to the site. So this particular example is a case of mixing structured review content with conversational comment content. So far so good.

Anyway, thanks to everybody for sharing.

8. Game mechanics applied to social media: "Easy to Learn, Hard to Master" « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - March 28, 2007

[…] web 2.0, start-up, Internet. trackback Jay Gould (President and co-founder of Bolt.com) recently commented on one of my posts and posted himself about Amy Jo Kim’s fantastic work on game mechanics and how they apply to […]

9. gil - April 13, 2007

Some good questions here. Let me attempt to answer…

Wiki is a tool for enabling collaboration, but that doesn’t mean DE FACTO everyone will edit. When a new user comes to the page, they get queues on what is expected from them and adjust their behavior accordingly. So for example – if you go to http://foodie.wikia.com and you’re checking out a recipe, you realize that the author doesn’t want you to modify it – but that they’re ok with your fixing a spelling error or formatting problem… and it turns out that if you believe people are basically good, they rarely disappoint you.

10. Web 2.0 has been driven by variablization « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - November 26, 2007

[…] with lower expectations out of beta products, the widespread adoption of user generated content and emerging best practices in how to use user generated content, the costs of content creation have dropped dramatically and become […]

11. Idetrorce - December 15, 2007

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

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