Newsweek tries to take down UGC and embarresses itself

Any time you come across an article that favorably quotes Andrew Keen, start running … fast … naked, if necessary, down the street.

Keen has made name for himself as an expert on amateur content and its danger to society. The funny thing is, Keen is himself nothing but an amateur who happened to get a book published.

Newsweek (hat tip, Lost Remote), has built an entire article around the many faulty premises of Keen’s work. It is written by Tony Dokoupil.

By any name, the current incarnation of the Internet is known for giving power to the people. Sites like YouTube and Wikipedia collect the creations of unpaid amateurs while kicking pros to the curb—or at least deflating their stature to that of the ordinary Netizen. But now some of the same entrepreneurs that funded the user-generated revolution are paying professionals to edit and produce online content.

Here’s a problem, Wikipedia and YouTube are hugely popular, and continue to get more popular by the month.

And here’s the other unexamined aspect of the Newsweek premise: The reason so-called expert-vetted sites are getting funded is because they’re differentiated from existing sites. No smart VC is going to fund a copycat business plan.

In short, the expert is back. The revival comes amid mounting demand for a more reliable, bankable Web. “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 is a perfect example of sound-bite journalism. The quotes sound great. The problem is, the assertions are based on poetry, not facts. Where are the stats? I mean, on the web, just about everything is measurable, and there are an endless stream of firms that can provide research on audience behavior. Where are the facts to support the assertions?

MySpace and Facebook have started to level off, but they remain hugely popular. That hardly equates to “choice faigue” or a “demand for expert information.”

In December, Google began testing Knol, a Wikipedia-like Web site produced by “authoritative” sources that share ad revenue. The sample page contains an insomnia entry written by Rachel Manber, director of Stanford’s Insomnia and Behavioral Sleep Medicine center. In January, BigThink.com, a self-styled “YouTube for ideas” backed by former Harvard president Larry Summers and others, debuted its cache of polished video interviews with public intellectuals. “We think there’s demand for a nook of cyberspace where depth of knowledge and expertise reign,” says cofounder Victoria Brown.

The faulty comparison here is to assume that none of the experts who contribute to Wikipedia are any less qualified than Rachel Manber, or that only credentialed experts can contribute to Knol. Both are bad assumptions. As for BigThink — sounds like a great idea. Niche sites work very well on the web, but traffic-wise, it isn’t exactly causing Jimmy Wales any lost sleep. I mean, seriously, the site did 60,000 visitors one month, 16,000 the next, and we’re supposed to view it as a harbinger of the next big thing?

Meanwhile, Mahalo just launched the final test version of its people-powered search engine, which replaces Google’s popularity-based page rankings with results that the start-up says are based on quality and vetted by real people.

Mahalo is an interesting idea, and is gaining traction. There is most certainly a market for vetted search and expert advice, but it’s a long way from being anything more than an interesting niche vertical search engine. Even Maholo does not support the faulty premise of the article.

Old standbys are also vying to fact-check the world before it reaches your fingertips. The decade-old reference site About.com says its traffic has jumped more than 80 percent since 2005, thanks to a growing network of 670 freelance subject experts called Guides. They include Aaron Gold, an automotive journalist whose picture and bio accompany his chirpy self-introduction: “Hi, I’m Aaron Gold, your Guide to cars!”

What qualifies Aaron Gold as an auto expert? He was an intern at a British auto magazine a few years ago. Now, I have no doubt that since joining About.com, Aaron has become quite knowledgeable about cars, but like most About guides, he has no more expertise in his field than the best bloggers are the most dedicated Wikipedia contributors. The fact of the matter is, About is not a shining example of the rise of the expert. About made its name by getting cheap labor from amateurs looking for a steady free-lance gig.

Fueling all this podium worship is the potential for premium audiences—and advertising revenue. “The more trusted an environment, the more you can charge for it,” says Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis …

Really, and the proof is? Outside of About, none of the sites mentioned in the article have any significant revenue, and About only does well because of great SEO and a huge volume of page views, not because it is a go-to destination for expert advice.

User-generated sites like Wikipedia, for all the stuff they get right, still find themselves in frequent dust-ups over inaccuracies, while community-posting boards like Craigslist have never been able to keep out scammers and frauds.

And so-called expert publications such as the New York Times never have dust ups over inaccurcies? And while I’m a frequent critic of Craigslist, many of the sites that fly under that banner are significantly popular. Overall traffic continues to grow.

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. Perhaps more notoriously, four years ago a computer glitch revealed that Amazon.com’s customer-written book reviews are often written by the book’s author or a shill for the publisher.

Apparently, Newsweek has never heard of the 1 percent rule, so to them, this is news. As for the Amazon.com assertion — where’s the link to back it up. I can recall only one such instance from many years ago. It’s a completely unverified assertion.

And people wonder why I think journalism needs to be reinvented. When unexamined blather like this Newsweek piece can see the light of day, there is something seriously wrong with journalism. And there should be no surprise that its ilk is losing ground to blogs, UGC sites and social networks. This piece is just laughably bad.

Also read Terry Heaton‘s takedown of the piece.