A few weeks ago, I thought about writing an article on Apple Pay and posting it on one of the tech-site forums that I frequent. People were using the forums to discuss the merits of Apple Pay, but these discussions were filled with both missing information and actual misinformation. This made it difficult to draw any conclusions, and arguments ended up going in circles.
I hate when arguments go in circles and nothing ever gets settled. It happens in tech-site forums. It happens in education. It’s an incredible waste of energy that can stall forward progress. My plan was to write down what I thought I knew and then crowd-source anything that I had wrong or didn’t know. We would debate issues in the comments until we reached a level of consensus, and then I would update the original post with the new information.
When I shared this plan with my friend Daniel, he was less than enthusiastic. He asked me why I didn’t just research Apple Pay on my own and then post what I had learned. Why did I want to crowd-source the article?
This got me thinking. I wasn’t motivated by a desire to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article. I enjoy reading those articles, but not enough to research and write them on my own. I also wasn’t motivated by a desire to organize and harness a community effort to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article. I like the idea of sharing resources to build something together that would be difficult for any one person to build alone, but that level of sharing and community-building isn’t enough for me. No, I was motivated by a desire to transform individuals through the process of organizing and harnessing a community effort to write a comprehensive and meticulously-researched article.
Tech sites compete to improve along a specific trajectory. Their goal is to attract and retain eyeballs so that they can sell those eyeballs to advertisers. Some sites compete by writing well-researched articles. They attract and retain eyeballs by being authoritative and highly credible. Other sites compete by trying to be your one stop shop for all your tech news or the site with a community of like-minded readers. But either way, they measure success with the same metrics: How many readers do you have? How engaged/loyal are they?
Many tech sites would like to improve the quality of their comments and forums, but they can’t afford to do it unless it also attracts and retains eyeballs. Unfortunately, circular and never-ending arguments are a great way to fire people up and get them coming back for more. This is why many sites end up adopting clickbait headlines and goosing their readers to argue back and forth. It’s reached the point where many readers and tech-site editors just assume that any attempt to clean up comments and forums is a hopeless battle.
Why do people post comments on articles and in forums on tech sites? I think most people do it to connect with other people and win points for being clever. Being clever can mean being informative, but it can also mean the perfect put-down. Forums are fairly well-designed for these jobs, but some people would love to hire forums for other jobs: learning things, having thoughtful discussions, or pontificating. Since most tech-site forums aren’t well-designed for those jobs, those people end up as nonconsumers.
As a crowd-sourcing site, Wikipedia competes on a different set of metrics. It looks at the number of people who use it as a source of information and the number of active editors and contributors. I’ve read that Wikipedia has been struggling to attract and retain contributors. There have been complaints that a small group of longtime editors have been driving new contributors away. Unfortunately, that same small group of editors is the backbone of the site, so Wikipedia faces a serious dilemma. Do they try to make editing more inclusive and bring in fresh blood (but risk killing the site by losing their most active editors) or do they stay on course and hope that small tweaks will turn things around (but risk killing the site as the pool of contributors continues to slowly shrink over time)?
If I ever created a site to crowd-source articles, I would compete on an entirely different set of metrics: I’d measure the growth of my readers.
On a recent Apple Pay article, two readers were arguing back and forth. They exchanged over two dozen comments in an hour. A few other people tried to jump in, but they weren’t able to help. The first reader was wrong; he was basing his entire argument on a single misconception. Since you linked your credit card to Apple Pay inside of an Apple app, he assumed that Apple generated the token that is stored on your smartphone. What he didn’t realize is that Apple’s app establishes a direct connection to your specific bank, and the bank that issued your credit card generates the token, not Apple. It was an honest, and perfectly reasonable, mistake. The second reader was correct, but he never identified why the first reader was mistaken. Instead, he kept repeating his argument over and over again. He actually did explain that Apple did not generate the token, but there was so much cruft around that statement that the first reader couldn’t hear it. If the two of them could have identified the source of the token as the source of their disagreement, then they could have either resolved their disagreement then and there or at least parted company agreeing to research that one specific issue further. Instead, both of them parted company pissed off and convinced that they were right and the other was wrong.
Now, imagine if someone had jumped in and helped the two men identify the source of their disagreement. With a little research, they would have found a credible source explaining that the bank, and not Apple, issues the token. With consensus achieved, an editor would then add that information to the article so that other readers would not have to debate the same point. If this happens enough times, the first reader will learn not to be so sure of himself when he doesn’t actually know something, and that he can learn more by asking questions instead of arguing. In fact, if he asks enough questions, soon he’ll be the one helping the new guy out. Meanwhile, the second reader will learn that he can contribute more if he listens to people who are mistaken and can identify the source of their confusion. Instead of endless arguments, the forum provides an opportunity for growth.
My crowd-sourcing site is fundamentally different than Wikipedia because we compete on different metrics. At Wikipedia, people contribute to articles. When there is a disagreement, an editor comes in and makes a final decision. There is no attempt by the editor to help the contributors resolve their own conflicts. At my site, an editor is a mediator. They model how to resolve conflicts so that contributors can resolve more of their own conflicts, and many of those contributors will eventually begin mediating for others and become editors themselves. The debate has value; it’s not just a necessary step on the path to a well-sourced article.
Is there a business model for the kind of site I’m describing? I have no idea. I do know that there are nonconsumers who would love to hire the kind of website forum I’m describing. It’s also potentially disruptive because it changes the metric for performance. I also know that it is possible. I can envision it, even if I don’t know how large the market is. Imagine a site where people learned to resolve their differences, and then applied what they learned to other sites, to their face-to-face relationships, and then in the public arena. Instead of discussions about Apple Pay, we could grow to discuss global warming, universal healthcare, immigration, and sensible tax policy. Just imagine it. That’s the world in which I’d want to live.