Newsweek does UGC drive-by

by Mathew on March 8, 2008 · 19 comments

People keep saying that the blogosphere is rife with poorly-researched or ill-considered commentary, but I keep coming across pieces in the traditional media that are just as bad, if not worse. The latest example is a piece from Newsweek about how “user-generated content” is on its way out, and experts are now on the rise — complete with Jason “I work people to death” Calacanis and his Mahalo people-powered directory as one of the starring examples of same.

Among the others mentioned are About.com, which has been around for at least six years (although the piece justifies its inclusion by noting that its traffic has grown), and Google’s Knol, a service that’s still in beta. Strangely, no mention of Citizendium, despite the fact that the piece contains plenty of criticisms of Wikipedia — which apparently finds itself “in frequent dust-ups over inaccuracies.” And the Newsweek story has the requisite scare quotes from supposed experts, including:

“People are beginning to recognize that the world is too dangerous a place for faulty information,” says Charlotte Beal, a consumer strategist for the Minneapolis-based research firm Iconoculture. Beal adds that choice fatigue and fear of bad advice are creating a “perfect storm of demand for expert information.”

Here’s a handy tip: When someone says that something is “a perfect storm” of something, 99 times out of 100 they are full of crap. And speaking of crap, Andrew “I hate the Internet” Keen says that one of the reasons for the decline of UGC (which is assumed) is that “no one wants to advertise next to crap.” I’m tempted to say that if that were the case, then there would be a lot fewer ads in Newsweek magazine and plenty of other media outlets, but that’s almost too easy. Still — I guess I said it anyway.

The Newsweek piece has plenty of other jewels, including the mind-boggling statement that this new trend of services using experts (which it says could be a “Web 3.0″) comes “during dark days for the ideal of a democratic Web” — a statement that is completely unsupported by any actual evidence, even the anecdotal kind. But probably the worst is when the article refers to a “series of mini-scandals” involving UGC, such as:

Last summer researchers in Palo Alto, Calif., uncovered secret elitism at Wikipedia when they found that 1 percent of the reference site’s users make more than 50 percent of its edits.

Using a phrase like “secret elitism” is a great way to pump something up, but it stretches the meaning of the research the piece is referring to almost to the breaking point. In fact, the study found that while in the beginning a small number of users did most of the work, over time more people have been shouldering the effort. There is still a small group of senior editors — but isn’t that what the Newsweek piece is claiming is the new way to do things anyway? Apparently when Mahalo does it it’s genius, but when Wikipedia does it it’s “secret elitism.”

  • http://www.ipdemocracy.com Cynthia Brumfield

    It's funny…I read this article last night (or rather scanned it) and my fleeting reaction was “huh?” I figured that because I wasn't really concentrating that I just didn't absorb it. Now that you've deconstructed the piece, I realize that I was merely experiencing a gut reaction to crap.

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  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I had the same reaction — and then it started bugging me, and I
    couldn't stop thinking about how stupid it was. Blogging it was the
    only solution :-)

  • http://www.onlinemediacultist.com Eric Berlin

    Amazing to see fear and ignorance of new media find its way into a usually high quality pub like Newsweek.

    But as you note, content is content, right? It can come in good, bad, and ugly increments whether it's published by “users,” “experts,” or some point in between.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    True, Eric. Maybe it was a slow news week :-)

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com/antje antje wilsch

    heh, nice one Mathew “I like to put people's nomikers in quotes” Ingram :)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Antje “almost always agrees with Mathew” Wilsch :-)

    On Sat, Mar 8, 2008 at 5:00 PM, Disqus

  • http://www.duncanriley.com Duncan

    Well said

    Any thoughts on Jason Calacanis saying that Web 3.0 is Web 2.0 with an editorial layer?

  • http://eecue.com Dave Bullock

    Wait, dead tree media thinks that UGC is on its way out? Wow, never would have seen that coming. Funny thing how publications can't see for the forest for the dead trees they're printed on.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Duncan. I guess my only comment would be that a) everyone
    wants whatever they're working on to be Web 3.0, and b) Jason has been
    trying to sell that story ever since he started Mahalo.

    There's already a pretty well established understanding of Web 3.0, I
    think, and it is what most people are calling the semantic Web.
    Although Mahalo is interesting in a lot of ways, I think it's a
    stretch to include it as part of Web 3.0.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I guess it's not really that surprising when you put it that way, Dave :-)

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  • rex tinsley

    yawn. i think you're getting hysterical over nada. content is content – bloggers, MSMs, whatever. but this one quote from calcanis doesn't seem unreasonable: “The more trusted an environment, the more you can charge for it.” that will be the key in the future. if UFG is going to stand the test of time, it will need to satisfy that requirement. otherwise, keen will be proved right

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Rex, but what the heck is UFG?

  • http://www.salberg.org Lawrence Salberg

    Newsweek used About.com as an example. Let me just laugh outloud for a moment. HA HA HA…. Okay, sorry about that. No, actually, that wasn't enough laughing. GUFFAW SNORT CHUCKLE!

    Isn't About.Com going under or something? Didn't I read that recently that they are having financial problems.

    Yes, we can all find nice-and-neatly packaged encyclopedic information at hundreds of sites. I like to nod (respectfully) toward the original CompuServe and friends. Useful at times. I occasionally get a little info from About.Com. But I never get the full answer I'm looking for there. Don't know what iTunes is? Mahalo and About.Com are great starts. Want to hack your Ubuntu Linux to play iTunes? Better find some UGC somewhere or else.

    Today's UGC, if it isn't extremely temporal or base, is tomorrow's moderated and polished general information and all those sturdy sites.

    Newsweek and its old school media pals believe, in their heart of hearts, that all information must be edited and packaged by professionals. And every week, some Joe Schmo from nowhere does something somewhere via UGC that out does anything we've seen before from the best journals, magazines, and television shows. They all have their place in the world. Despite the fears of the old school media, no one in the blogosphere and other UGC-mediums is advocating (or believing) that both can not peacefully coexist – each serving a worthwhile purpose. Yet, on the other side of the tracks, they probably have plans to assassinate Matt Mullenweg thinking their subscription rates will return to pre-2000 figures. They continually spew out nonsense (like this Newsweek article) that makes them look, well, suicidal.

    Hey, bottom line: If they want to edit, package, and polish information in slick glossy magazines, all well and good. I haven't read a Newsweek magazine since 1987 (in high school) but I am a news junky. What magazines have I read since? Economist. Rolling Stone. Mother Jones. Wired. (and I'm a right-wing extremist). But those mags offer insight that I just can't find in Snooze Week with their little required book review column, their little required A/P world news beat, etc. Where's the insight? Where's the break throughs? I'd have to read 100 Newsweek magazines to get a really solid unique perspective. Else I wouldn't know if I was reading Time, or U.S. Snooze and World Distort. Who could know?

    But I read a new and unique story every day on a blog somewhere. Or, for those that have the patience to watch videos (not me), they see something interesting on YouTube or some other video source. I just discovered winelibrary.tv. That guy is nuts and is super entertaining to watch – and I don't even drink Wine or care about it. I'd hate to see the twisted wreckage of Newsweek staffers even trying something like that. It would be like watching George Bush do the Salsa. (Sorry, El Presidente, love ya anyway!).

    If N/W is going to keep hiring these dorks who don't know kuh-rap about the internet and think they can put their head under the covers for a few minutes and then write about their insights with any intelligence, they are going to be out of business soon. Ziff-Davis Media just bit the dust. Why? Because they have done nothing interesting for nearly 10 years as the net has gotten more interesting. I think every other issue was “25 Ways to Speed up Windows”. What? Let me guess… uh,… defrag my hard drive? I saw that same “tip” about 50 times over the past 10 years when I flipped through it and left it on the shelf.

    Let me know when Newsweek hires John Dvorak from Ziff-Davis Media. Maybe I'll actually visit their website.

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  • Cory Hendrickson

    There is some validity to the statements. The balancing act lies in the ability for users with knowledge on the subject to contribute. I don't know if 'secret elitism' is the correct term, but there is value. The problem lies in the lack of viable options for expert opinions. More offerings lead to diluted content. Looking forward to whoever can aggregate this content.

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