Sunday, 5 October 2008

Bad news for UGC from "Private Eye"

User-generated content (UGC) is all the rage these days. It's at the heart of many social networking web sites, and is increasingly becoming monetized as well. For example, there are web sites where you can upload a video from your phone, and earn a very small amount of money each time someone else pays to download your video.

For people working in technical publications UGC presents a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, gathering feedback from real users is always valuable and helps build a user community (and from a commercial viewpoint builds customer loyalty as well).

On the other hand, companies have a degree of responsibility for goods they sell, and they therefore need to provide accurate and authoritative instructions and reference material. An open and unmoderated user forum or Wiki might not always be the best vehicle for providing that kind of information.

Many advocates of UGC in general, and of wikis in particular, are fond of claiming that over time the Wiki will always be right, because anyone who finds an error will correct it. To my mind this assumes a degree of altruism which might not always be present, and so should not really be relied on. Wikipedia for example may be a useful source, but only if it is used with the same degree of critical evaluation as any other source.

An interesting example of the way that Wikipedia might be misused and might inadvertently contribute to the perpetuation of false information comes from the current edition of Private Eye, the satirical British magazine (Private Eye, no. 1220, 3-16 Oct. 2008). In an attack on the sloppy research practices of one sports journalist on a national daily newspaper, Anatole Kaletsky includes the following story in his "Hackwatch" column:

IDLY sabotaging the user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia following the UEFA cup draw back in August, a user of the b3ta web forum going by the name of "godspants" made a few amendments to the entry for Cypriot team Omonia Nicosia.

He (or she) noted that they were sponsored by Natasha Kaplinsky, that their former players included Jean Claude Van Damme and Richard Clayderman, and claimed that "A small but loyal group of fans are lovingly called 'The Zany Ones' - they like to wear hats made from discarded shoes and have a song about a little potato." As you do.

Writing up his pre-match report on Omonia's match against Manchester City for the Daily Mirror on 18 September, sports hack David Anderson decided to do some in-depth research. Thus it was that Mirror readers were informed that City manager "Mark Hughes will not tolerate any slip-ups against the Cypriot side, whose fans are known as the 'Zany Ones' and wear hats made from shoes".

Brilliantly, by the rules of Wikipedia - which relies on "verifiablility - whether readers are able to check that material added has already been published by a reliable, third-party source" such as "mainstream newspapers" - this is now officially true.

This may just be an amusing story, and I don't know how the community of editors on Wikipedia will handle it. (They probably did not foresee that something that was clearly a spoof would be used so uncritically by someone from the mainstream media.) But I see this also as a warning against relying too heavily on any user generated content.

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