Monday, February 8, 2010

Herding Web 2.0 Cats: Contributions to Content

This is the first of three posts looking at the details of a functional framework for Web 2.0 / social media introduced in the previous post.

Tim O'Reilly's coining of the term 'Web 2.0' was based on an observation of the rise of a new breed of web company, based on a model of collaboration and socialisation rather than the traditional model of publisher/consumer. As I mentioned in the last post, O'Reilly talks about two different kinds of contributions that users of social media make to a web site that they didn't under the old model: contributions to the data set and contributions to the platform (he didn't use those exact words, though). We also added a third to that list: contribution to the social network. This post breaks down the first of these types of contributions to start filling out the details of our social media framework.

Contributions by users to the content of a site are perhaps the most obvious of the three different contributions, and we think think that there are three different types (how's that for symmetry, eh?): primary contributions, secondary contributions and passive contributions.

A primary contribution is typically the main purpose for which a social media platform is developed. For example, a photograph uploaded to Flickr, a 'tweet' on Twitter, or a video uploaded to YouTube would be considered primary contributions. A primary contribution tends to stand alone - that is, the contribution is worth the community's attention in and of itself. The primary contribution is often a 'package' of content. So, for example, a user doesn't simply upload a photograph to Flickr, they also attach metadata such as a title, tags, a description and so on.

A primary contribution - Flickr photo page, consisting of photo and metadata.

A secondary contribution, on the other hand, is not a standalone contribution, but is submitted as a response to a primary or other secondary contribution. The classic case is a text-based comment, but on Flickr would also include actions like adding to the photographer's list of tags on a photo page or adding the photo to a list of favourites. On a site like, a secondary contribution might be an up or downvote for a comment or link, while on YouTube it might be a rating of a video, or even a video-in-reply. Secondary contributions represent, on an individual level, a reaction to something on the site, and in an aggregate sense indicate the community's perception of that thing. Secondary contributions allow for dialog between users of a platform, thereby allowing communities and social networks to form.

Secondary contributions in the context of the primary contribution above.

Passive contributions are examples of O'Reilly's idea of "harnessing collective intelligence". They come about not as an explicit contribution on the part of a user, but rather as a consequence of their use of the platform, whether that be a primary or secondary contribution or simply through clicking around the site. Passive contributions tend to be contributions to aggregate data derived through some algorithm implemented on the platform: it may be as simple as a view count of a photograph or video, or could be as advanced as Google's PageRank algorithm based on web author's linking behaviour or Amazon's recommendation system based on purchasing patterns. Through the tracking of user actions and the application of algorithms, the platform can add value to the user experience, adding to the appeal of the platform. Think of the predictive search in Google, or the use of tag clouds to handle the problem of building taxonomies.

Contributing content to a social media platform is one of the key ways in which users establish their position within an online community and add value to the platform itself, and is the most obvious difference in the way Web 2.0 works compared to the old publisher/consumer model of Web 1.0. Instead of relying on a large database of proprietary information (the Web 1.0 mantra of "content is king!"), Web 2.0 harnesses the concept of "human computing" to build content that in many cases is more compelling than what you find with Web 1.0. With the incorporation of social elements to the online experience, the next most obvious difference is the formation of social networks supported or enhanced by social media. Contributions to social networks will be the topic of my next post.

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