Quality control and the role of experts in social media

What happens when the quality control process moves from the front to the back end of content production, as it does with peer production of content?

Here’s an interesting take on this topic by John Blossom:

(we recommend reading the full entry, but here are the main arguments)

How does one address the need for high-quality content in a context-driven publishing environment? Here are a few thoughts as to how and where quality content will survive and thrive:

Accept that quality is a process of continuous improvement. While forming well-researched articles and information sources does require a great deal of quality control, the experience of the Web points towards evolutionary quality control as the most promising route for publishing. Having every fact and figure exactly right at a fixed point in time was a “must” in the era of print-oriented publishing. Content management systems and simpler tools such as weblogs and Wikis have make it far simpler to publish revisions online, but editorially we’re still caught oftentimes in the print-oriented quality cycle. The experiences offered by search engines and social bookmarking services suggest that people perceive quality on a given topic as a highly movable feast. Being able to evolve content quality on a continuous basis therefore becomes at least as important as any initial efforts.

Accept that quality is best implemented as a social process. Although Wikipedia’s editorial processes are far from perfect and worthy of some skepticism, Wikipedia has served as a critical proving ground to demonstrate that open social editing processes can scale effectively. The PLoS ONE experiment with online collaboration is developing peer-reviewed scientific research articles successfully through an open comment and review process that supplements traditional peer reviewing. Not every peer review process need be as open as PLoS ONE or Wikipedia but as the Web offers the broadest opportunity for peer input it would appear that the quality of audience engagement in developing materials is perhaps as good a measure of quality as the engagement of audiences in a finished product.

Accept that quality is as much about aggregation as it is about the one right pure answer. As much as tools such as Wikis, weblogs and social bookmarking are about what people write they’re also important for what they bring together as reference content through links, comments and embedded content. Social media is challenging search engines as a starting point for finding answers to questions in part because people come to trust the insights and expertise of specific communities to provide both their own insights and insights from their own research. Answer-oriented communities such as Yahoo! Answers, WikiAnswers and LinkedIn Answers provide audiences the ability to vote on answers to specific questions – a competitive aspect to publishing that helps to both aggregate potential high-quality content and to rank its value.”

In an earlier entry, John Blossom also strikes the right note on the interplay between lay members and experts in a social media environment, though I must admit I’m still somewhat sceptical on the premium content bid:

Keep relationships toe-to-toe. More established media methods for featuring experts online tend to make the expert person the “star of the show.” While this may work well for personalities featured briefly on a site social media tends to favor relationships that evolve over a much longer period of time. Don’t make experts invisible but make it clear that they are but one of many contributors in the community. This is important not only to everyday members but as well to experts who are eager to get uninhibited feedback and ideas from their target audiences.

Don’t expect experts to be community leaders. While experts may be looked up to by your online communities their workloads oftentimes are such that they will not be in a position to anchor those communities any more than other members. In fact, having a dominant expert, widely recognized or self-proclaimed, can inhibit the formation of the peer contributions which build up the broadest base of content possible. Allow experts to use your publishing tools in a way that provides them with a chance to provide thought leadership in your online community without expecting them to take on anything but a “just another contributor” profile within the community.

Consider premium packaging for selected levels of expert access. To go back to the Davos analogy, you didn’t fork over a pile of cash to Bill to have that chummy conversation, but you did pay a pretty hefty tab for the conference. The potential for subscription access to social media seems fairly antithetical to many at this time but as pointed out by Reid Conrad, CEO of NearTime, in his SIIA Previews presentation the smaller the social media community the more effective and important the subscription model becomes for making the most of focused groups creating a high level of contributed value. The technology and methodologies used to implement social media are inherently egalitarian but in a world where some people want to be more equal than others we can expect to see social media “country clubs” sprouting up fairly rapidly – with key experts in tow.”

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