The Unsocial Web

A piece by Donna Bogatin on why many more people read web sites liked rather than contribute to it has in itself spawned enough responses to become something of a summary of why the social web, citizen journalism, user-created content etc may not be quite the revolution it appears. Here’s how I see the responses:

  • I just want to watch. The more stuff is out there, ironically enough the less incentive there is to contribute. There’s probably a graph for this somewhere. People will contribute if they think their contribution is worth it. That means a) other people like it, b) it doesn’t take up too much time c) the stuff isn’t there already, or likely to be and d) that contributing to a site comes after browsing a site. (see Not On My Own Time, Thanks, below.) The logical conclusion of this is that while contributions may rise exponentially, gradually the number of contributors dwindles until a hardcore of contributors remains (see The Weirdo Factor below).
  • The Weirdo Factor. We newspaper journos have known this for a while. The kind of people who contribute, or contribute most, don’t represent a good cross section of ordinary readers/users. Readers’ letters are always great to receive, and they may contain useful and interesting stuff, but they tend to come from the same people, or group or kind of people. And that means an editor would be a fool to treat his mailbag as a cross section of his readership. Same is basically true of the Net.
  • Not On My Own Time, Thanks. Digesting Time isn’t the same as Creating Time. Most people probably browse sites like and at work. This means that the more content there is on these sites at work, a) the less productive workers will be, and b) the less likely they’ll actually upload their stuff — since that will probably have to be done at home, in a separate session. If you’ve already spent a couple of hours on at work, why would you spend more time on it at home?
  • People Don’t Like Hanging Out With Weirdoes Taking the above a step further, many users are going to be discouraged by the general tenor of discussions at places like Digg. Flaming and generally being rude may seem like a life to some people, but most people don’t like it very much, and are not going to expose themselves to ridicule by posting to such sites. (They are also not going to want to expose themself to being ignored: what happens if you Digg something and nobody comes?)
  • Freedloading off a freeloader Then there’s the reality that the social web is largely a Commenting Web, not a Creating Web. Not all of it, of course: is a very creative place. But photos are always of things, requiring only that someone have a camera and be there, and take a good picture. Writing is different. Writing is not just about commenting on what other people are writing. (Well, OK, this post is.) Writing is also about reporting  – about actually going out and finding information, digesting it, writing it up and then distributing it. Blogs, the foundation of Web 2.0, were built on the idea of commentary. But commentary always has to follow content, since without it there can be nothing to comment on. We shouldn’t confuse sites like as content sites, since they simply aggregate links and comment. In the end, this freeloading element will have to be added to by something more substantial for it to grow. Netscape’s new site understands this, although I’m not convinced making a couple of calls to add to a wire story constitutes news gathering (but then again, a lot of journalists have done that for years, so who am I to quibble?)

The bottom line may be, just may be, that after huge bursts of participatory interest, that may even last a few years, the kinds of people who keep Slashdot going are going to be the people who keep and every other user-driven, Web 2.0 site going. I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I love Slashdot, and there are some extraordinarily intelligent people on there (as well as some who could spend some time in the open air) — but it’s not a group that’s, er, broadly representative of the citizenry at large. They’re hugely dedicated, very focused, very knowledgeable about their sphere and have opinions coming out of their ears. A bit like folk who wrote letters to newspapers, come to think of it.

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