Debating the merits of user-generated content

Giving users the means to contribute content is all the rage at Demo -- but does it have any value?

Creativity is alive and well. Twenty-something years after the PC revolution, new ideas and innovation, huge successes and tremendous flops, are all still part of the excitement.

So once again I am off to Demo. This year, 70 companies — mostly startups — will use the conference to present to VCs new takes on technology. For the purpose of full disclosure, let me say that Demo is an event put on by IDG, the parent company of InfoWorld.

If there is a theme, a single blood type, if you will, pulsing through startups’ veins at this year’s Demo, it is user-created content. And on the bleeding edge of that technology is a company called Helium, which went live in October and will announce its Helium Debate technology at the conference.

As opposed to Wikipedia, which uses citizen editors to perfect a single article, Helium offers a forum for experts to submit articles for peer review.

Using a unique algorithm, articles on a single topic are compared side by side, and reviewers rate them. If there are 20 articles, it does not mean that Article A will be compared with the other 19. But, if Article A is better than Article B, and Article B is better than Article C, the system assumes Article A is also better than Article C. Top-rated articles go to the top, offering the reader a variety of perspectives, as well as additional information. Lower-rated articles go to the bottom.

Helium Debate will bring this technology to discussion topics, ranging from whether troop-level increases in Iraq make sense to whether declawing your cat is cruel.

I’m not sure about the cat part, but if a reporter like John Burns — who has covered Iraq from the ground level for several years — enters the troop-level debate, I would read that intently. But, as a colleague of mine says, “People in the business” — that is, the editorial side of the publishing business — “know that most of what the average citizen knows about a particular topic is useless.”

Is this attitude elitist?

Not really. When you’ve interviewed experts and non-experts for more than 30 years, as I have, you come to understand it’s true.

Think of a disaster movie where the pilot and co-pilot become incapacitated and the stewardess asks over the PA system, “Does anybody know how to fly a plane?” If a blogger who writes a hobbyist column on flying remote-controlled airplanes raises his hand, I’d keep on praying.

Yes, there are bloggers who have expertise in their field, but it takes an awful lot of separating the wheat from the chaff to find them. Thus, the value-add of Helium.

Actually, what I find fascinating is the phenomenon of user-generated content itself. Helium, a startup with no marketing to speak of, generated in its first three months 10,000 hits per week from people who just want to be heard.

What is driving people to do this? Is it a pent-up urge that has festered for decades that only now can be satisfied thanks to the Web? If this opportunity for an audience had been presented to the general public 50 years ago, would it have been ignored?

The psychology is very interesting.

Whatever the reason, the facts speak louder than any debate. Drop some sugar on the floor and the ants will come — in this case followed very quickly by the advertisers.