To me, the internet is the best invention since someone slapped a piece of cheese on a slice of bread, stood too close to the fire and subsequently discovered grilled cheese sandwiches. But the World Wide Web has the potential to get MUCH better when the average internet user actively participates in adding content to the web and validating what’s already there. Now I’m not talking about revising your My Space profile or updating the viagra offers on your website but instead taking part in some of the voluntary online projects or web services that are trying to “evolve the web” and make sense of what’s already out there. You only need donate a couple of hours a week which in itself would make all the difference. Here’s a snapshot of what you can get started with :
1. Install the Stumbleupon toolbar and improve search engine results – I wrote about this in a piece for Google Tutor. Stumbleupon users now have the ability to have their search engine results rated, filtered and commented on by other Stumbleupon users. By switching on the relevant SU toolbar option, your search results in Google and Yahoo will now have SU rankings next to them. Non-SU users will not see this information so this is as good a reason as any to install the SU toolbar.
By having your search engine results filtered and rated, you’re immediately being directed to the quality content and the crud goes to the bottom. So instead of an anonymous Googlebot deciding what you should be looking at, let real living people with real interests help you to decide. User input may just be the next stage of search engine evolution and by ranking websites through Stumbleupon, you are helping to improve the search engine results for others – and they are doing the same for you. Nice eh?
2. Project Gutenberg – I am a voluntary proofreader for Project Gutenberg and I got started on it after reading Fahrenheit 451. It scares me that one day people perhaps won’t remember luminaries such as Shakespeare or Steinbeck. So I went to the Project Gutenberg site and signed up. PG basically scans all the public domain / copyright expired books and then turns them into text files / HTML files with the help of an army of part-time voluntary proofreaders. If you want to read one of the finished books, you can download it for free. The theory behind PG is that if there is at least one copy of every book ever written being stored on the PG server then that book and the author that wrote it will never be forgotten. Rest in peace Mr Shakespeare.
3. Librivox – I consider Librivox to be the audio equivalent of Project Gutenberg. They take all the public domain / copyright expired books but instead of scanning them into text, they read them as audio books instead. Then you just download the MP3 files if you want to listen. I took part in making the audio book of War and Peace which was a mammoth undertaking (never let anyone convince you that recording an audio book is easy). But the satisfaction at the end was well worth it. Just sign up, download Audacity, get a headset with a microphone and you’re good to go. The quality varies depending on which reader you listen to. Just don’t burp during a reading of Sense and Sensibility OK?
4. Wikipedia – I have never personally seen a voluntary online project cause so many sharply divided opinions as Wikipedia. You either love it or you hate it. There’s no middle ground in this never-ending argument. The supporters say it allows everyone to contribute their knowledge for the benefit of others. Its detractors say it is highly inaccurate and schools have even banned their students from using it. Where do you stand? I personally love the site and if you have any specialist knowledge, why not make an account and start writing / editing? Just be prepared to have your facts challenged by others. But isn’t having a debate half the fun?
5. Digg & Del.icio.us – I hesitated for quite some time before finally adding Digg to this list but in the end, I figured they warranted a mention. I debated because I am not sure how Digg really contributes to the overall improvement of the internet. However saying that, Digg does give users the chance to vote sites and stories up and down, along with commenting on them (even though some of the comments can be no better than immature bickering). So that definately counts as user generated web content. Del.icio.us counts in the end because it is rapidly becoming a search engine in its own right and instead of a bot deciding the entries, human users are deciding instead. I often find better results on Del.icio.us than I do on other search engines.
Do you know of any more examples of user-generated content on the web?