Monday, October 26, 2009

From the telephone tree to eHow

Woo hoo! Finally someone that makes absolute and perfect sense to me. I knew when everyone discussing social and emerging media @sciwri09 kept quoting Clay Shirky that he must be important, but I never imagined that I'd find my head shaking in agreement throughout most of his 2008 book entitled Here Comes Everybody.

Throughout Here Comes Everybody, Shirky uses Internet mainstays such as MySpace, MeetUp, and Wikipedia to evaluate how the Internet impacts current - i.e. modern - group dynamics. His key premise - that "revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors" (Shirky, 160) - is actually quoted on the book's cover.

I was particularly intrigued by his discussion in Chapter 5 where he argues that despite the fact that everyone has access to the same tools to contribute to an online space equally, it has yet to lead to a "huge increase in equality of participation" (123).

According to Shirky, less than 2 percent of those who use Wikipedia ever contribute anything to the ecosystem yet millions derive information and resources from the site. The same could be said of Flickr or any of a number of mailing lists that I've joined over the course of my professional career to keep up on topics in journalism, public relations, science writing, etc. For example, whereas I might occasionally contribute a handful of photos to the public Flickr stream or a comment on a PR listserv, my contributions pale in comparison to the more active participants who are posting hundreds of photos at a time and/or actually initiating discussions on the listserv.

As Shirky states:"The most active contributor to a Wikipedia article, the most avid tagger of Flickr photos, and the most vocal participant in a mailing list all tend to be much more active than the median participant, so active in fact that any measure of 'average' participation becomes meaningless...As we get more weblogs, or more MySpace pages, or more YouTube videos, the gap between the material that gets the most attention and merely average attention will grow, as will the gap between average and median" (127).

Though Shirky didn't mention eHow, it seems an apt comparison because it encourages users to submit answers to questions/problems they're knowledgeable - or think they're knowledgeable - about. Some might argue that the site operates differently because writers are offered either a small stipend upfront or nothing, in exchange for a share of ad revenue, but I would disagree, to a point. Yes, eHow offers some writers a stipend - but it's small enough to be laughable given the submission requirements. Others with less popular posts/submissions may never see dime.

In a recent USA Today article, eHow founder Richard Rosenblatt credits his success with his decision to be a different type of publisher. Rather than guess what users want to read, Rosenblatt scours the Internet to gauge the most popular Web site links, clicks and searches. "We only make content we know there's a need for," he told USA Today writer Jefferson Graham.

According to stats posted in the USA Today article, eHow.com attracts about 50 million users a month - more than cnn.com, twitter.com and even weather.com.

The site works somewhat like Wikipedia. Anyone can post an article on eHow and see it on the Web site almost instantaneously. Where eHow differs from Wikipedia is that instead of letting other users edit and revise the content, though, a team of paid employees actually patrols eHow and removes roughly a quarter of unsolicited posts for reasons including inaccuracies.

Though I have rarely used eHow, I like the fact that at least 20 percent of the answers/articles are penned by real people who have some knowledge of the particular topic, whether it be how to apply wallpaper, make low-sodium smashed sweet potatoes or write an eHow article. It's peer-to-peer sharing rather than the talk-down approach often perpetuated by the mainstream media (no offense to my MM buddies, who really do push the powers-that-be to let them write above the seventh-grade reading level.) The style of writing is much like blog posts; succinct and conversational. The site's submission guidelines strongly suggest that writers keep their articles to between 400 and 600 words, so the content is generally heavy on facts instead of fancy writing. One critical downside is that, unlike Wikipedia, the articles are generally short on source and/or reference material. (This is why I don't look to eHow for health information.)

All in all, I think Shirky is right on in his final assessment that for those born before 1980, new technology will "always have a certain provisional quality...When a real, once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad, as with the grown-ups arguing over the pocket calculator in my local paper." Having been born in late-late 1978, I tend to live in both extremes - I remember life pre-Internet, yet my professional experiences working for TV, wire service and newspaper companies have exposed me to these new tools and often trained me to use them as they emerged. It's a strange line to straddle, but one that like Shirky I hope to maintain so that I don't ever believe that one ideologys about technology is absolute.

2 comments:

800word said...

I did like how Shirky described early moments of Wikipedia, when it still was Nupedia. It required experts to start working, check and recheck, but if they started at some point, it would take indefinitely long for them to continue working... Besides, I did enjoy in this book as well. He is a bit sarcastic...

Aline McKenzie said...

Ah, but remember Marx's warning: whatever seems totally natural and inevitable is almost surely contrived and historical. And stop calling him Shirley.