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The Value of User-Generated Content, Part 1

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (07-Mar-2006)

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Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has something to say that they think will benefit, or in some cases agitate, others. That, however, doesn't necessarily mean we should provide them with a medium to voice these opinions or to allow them to impose them on others (that's if people actually bother to read it)—especially within a corporate environment where personal bias and self-interest will have a negative impact on intranet content created by members of the official intranet teams.

The increased prevalence of user-generated content (UGC)—discussion groups, blogs, wikis—on the Internet has caused these media to seep into enterprise environments for uses in a more functional capacity (as opposed to the casual nature we've seen thus far). But does UGC have any place on a corporate intranet populated with content engineered by official intranet content providers? Can users and UGC create some kind of content Utopia where users selflessly share their expert knowledge without expecting any personal gain, or is it going to be a case of the inmates running the asylum?


What is User-Generated Content?

Engineered content is created by established knowledge experts and content owners who are part of an official intranet team. Engineered content is usually expert-edited, meaning it's passed from the content provider to an authority on the subject matter—a sort of quality control stage where the content is verified and edited by an expert if necessary—before it's posted onto the intranet. Since this type of content has a high level of oversight, many users consider it more reliable and credible.

UGC, on the other hand, is created by users themselves. It can be in the form of posts on discussion groups, personal or departmental blogs, or wikis. UGC can come from many of sources—and in much greater numbers than engineered content—with varying degrees of content oversight. Unfortunately, UGC is also more likely to contain biased information, blurring the line between fact and interpretation. In this respect, UGC can end up telling readers more about the author than on the subject matter. Users might view UGC as being less reliable in their decision making process.


User-Generated vs. Engineered Content

If an intranet populated with engineered content is like the 60 Minutes news show, where stories are worked on by veteran reporters and producers, then UGC is a call-in program where viewers themselves provide much of the content—in the form of opinions and questions—for the show. But the differences between user-generated and engineered content extend beyond the issue of who's providing it. There are issues of:

Ownership: Engineered content—commissioned by official intranet teams—is clearly intellectual property belonging to the organization, but who owns UGC? When users provide commentary using corporate resources, will the company or the author own the intellectual property?

Quality and Relevance: Since any user can create UGC, via multiple points of entry, it's more difficult to control the quality and relevance of the content being input.

Structure: Depending on the medium used, it might be difficult to structure, classify, and index (for search engines) free-form UGC.

Credibility: Since all users can become potential content providers, little is known about the credibility of the person and the content being posted

Oversight: If anyone is allowed to create intranet content, how will submissions be governed and moderated (if at all).

The Pros and Cons of User-Generated Content
Pros Cons

Many more methods of content entry, making it less restrictive.

A wider content provider base means more areas of knowledge can be covered.

Provides knowledge experts who aren't part of the intranet team with a medium in which to share their knowledge.

Allows all users the choice of becoming intranet participants rather than just spectators.

Might cause content overlap or duplication.

The credibility of the source and the content might not always be apparent.

The easy availability of content submission media might cause less-than-helpful users to post biased or questionable content.

Very difficult to organize and structure free-form UGC.


Moderating User-Generated Content

The biggest issues affecting the use of user-generated content in a corporate intranet is the credibility and oversight of the information being provided. Depending on the medium used, it might be difficult to manage who provides content and what they post. A user blog made up of personal opinion and commentary is a far cry from extensively researched and engineered content.

There are three ways in which UGC can be treated:

  1. Pre-production moderation: Content is submitted (or edited) by users but isn't made available in the production environment until it's reviewed and verified by a knowledge expert. If they deem that the content is relevant and will be useful to users, the content is made live. Pre-production moderation will ensure the highest level of quality, but there's a delay between the time content is written and when it's made live.
  2. Post-production moderation: Content is submitted (or edited) by users and is immediately live, viewable by everyone the moment it's posted. Knowledge experts review the live content and make necessary changes (or delete entire entries). Post-production moderation makes content availability much quicker but may contain more errors or irrelevant submissions. The integrity of the intranet will depend on how quickly questionable or irrelevant content is caught.
  3. Peer-based moderation: Content is submitted (or edited) by users, is immediately live, and is not moderated by official knowledge experts. Users basically govern other users' submissions. If they notice errors or questionable content, they report it to official intranet owners for action. This community driven editing process relies on the conscientiousness of users to ensure the integrity of the content. UGC can also be rated (e.g., on a scale of 1 to 5) by other users to give readers an indication as to the quality of the content.

Some users think, however, that UGC moderation is an oxymoron. They believe that user-generated content must remain a grassroots initiative, and that any attempts to police it will go against they spirit of UGC. But in a corporate environment, there must be some measure of oversight to ensure the quality and accuracy of content—especially when content posted on an official intranet might be used in the decision-making process.


In the Next Part...

In order to find a happy middle ground when using UGC, and not to appear overly controlling, a formal set of content posting guidelines should be agreed upon by both the intranet owners and users. And like most things in the corporate world, there's an etiquette that everyone needs to abide by. These issues will be dealt with in much greater detail in part 2 where I'll be discussing some popular UGC mediums as well as what users can do to ensure that they're taken seriously and not seen as simply editorializing.


Copyright © 2006 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.