Co-operative content systems such as wikis
provide a fabulous way for the "Joe Public" to express his thoughts, comment back on topics already mentioned, and add new nuggets of useful information to the online base.
Whilst most Joe Public-s make useful contributions, a few of them (or perhaps their less scrupulous friends) can spoil the cabbage patch for the others. Which means that all such systems need to have limits drawn through something like an FAQ (Frequently asked questions) document, or slightly more formally in an AUP (acceptable use policy). Optionally, the site programmer, owner and operator can require various forms of registration, login or approval scanning to give him some feeling of traceback and to make posting more difficult for autometa - but at the cost of making it harder for the casual visitor who was a good nugget to add. An additional option is to make posting off off-topic advertising material less attractive, and yet another is to apply filters to new data in an attempt to trap unwanted material at the point of conception.
I run a specialist forum here - it's reasonably busy for the niche to which it's targetted. I've got a blog running (you're reading it now - or perhaps its archive if you've not got a box to add your comments), and we run a wiki too. There's even a page rank and review
system that invites comments thoughout most of the main site. Why do we run all of these?
- Because we value and solicit the views of our clients
- Because we can use them to write answers of general interest and just to it once
- Because it gives wider exposure to our knowledge, products and views
- Because we teach the technologies and need first hand experience
- Because we enjoy doing it.
So - how do we check / control the external contributions without being overrun with material which is so off-topic that it dilutes the purpose of the medium, or is otherwise outside the AUP?
One of the best control tools is the user community itself
. If you allow open posting and editing on a wiki, unsuitable messages can be added easily enough, but an enthusiastic community can remove them within quite a short space of time. On a forum, more formerly appointed senior members (moderators) are given similar powers. But in either case, you may want to add in extra tools these days to prevent the level of this extra traffic overloading and depleting through frustration your golden band of helpers. (John, Bruce, I REALLY value your assistance!)
Reviewing material before it's posted
works well enough for a system where the contributions are relatively few, and where an adminsitrator is available frequently enough, and where user's aren't going to be put off by the lack of immediacy. As systems grow and people get more "hooked" on them, that often means that an approval-of-each-post system works well at first, but becomes less and less appropriate as a system grow.
Automated systems for reviewing posts (banning certain user names or certain patterns in the content) is another good way of reviewing material before it's posted and it doesn't suffer from the time delay and workload addition of a manual system - but it's also no more that a rough filter refusing a lot of the clearly inappropriate material, and it's bound to leave some "grey" material if you don't draw the bounds so tight that you reject some genuine traffic.
Registering users before they contribute
is another way to restrict the flyposting of adverts and trolling posts (posts that deliberatly pick an argument or otherwise irritate). There's come to be something of a formula for registering users - the user enters, at minimum, an email address and an authorisation is sent to that email address giving a unique piece of information through which the user can log in. At least it proves that the person registering has access to the stated email address, though it could well be a temporary address just set up for the purpose. After the initial authorisation, a password system will be used to let the know user re-connect ... and with that comes the need for password management and the need to provide a way of re-issuing a password to an occasional visitor who's forgotten.
You'll find that automated posting software of the type you're trying to supress may be sophisticated enough to get through a simple registration system these days. That's why some of the big boy systems check that you're a real user by sending you down a graphic with some letters in a peculiar font ./ at odd angles and ask you to type them back in!
Making it unattractive or pointless to post off topic material
. Ah - the psychology game - why DO people contribute the material that you don't want? Very often, it's to advertise their own products or their own web sites ... even just to provide links to their own websites for the search engines to find. Site ranking depends on many factors, including the number of links IN to your site and the quality of the sites doing the linking, so if you have a respected and wellplaced contribution system people and automata are going to try to hang on to your coattails and benefit from it.
I've seen a couple of bulletin boards and similar systems recently where the site states either "We use a proxy to provide ongoing links, so adding your site here just to enhance your rating is pointless
" or something like "Our robots directives tell search engines that they should not follow links from user contributed pages, so you won't gain anything by adding a link here
". I wait to be convinced by the effectiveness of such statements; I fear that the human poster will think "what the heck - anyone who reads the page will see my ad anyway and now that I'm here I may as well post", and that the automatic progam isn't going to be bright enough to read and understand the warning from the site owner.
, you'll see I've come up with no absolute answers. I'm a great enthusiast for user contributions on the Well House Consultants
web site - and that's because our business philosophy is based much more on helpful networking than agressive competition (hey - it HAS to be for a training company, hasn't it ? ) and because I've got faith in the quality and value of our product. So let the world shout and hear about it. (written 2005-07-26, updated 2006-06-05)
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