Last week, we reported on Encyclopaedia Britannica's pending changes to Britannica.com that would enable users to contribute content to the Britannica's online entries.
The move was clearly designed to take a page out of the book of the user-generated online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which has come to dominate the online market.
But that's not the end of the story. Wikipedia is taking a page out of Britannica's book and is gearing up to introduce a moderation system that would tighten the reins on what has been largely a laissez-faire system.
A new Flagged Revisions system would prevent new and anonymous Wikipedia users from having their edits to Wikipedia entries made public in real time. Instead, The New York Times' Bits blog reports that "only registered, reliable users would have the right to have their material immediately appear to the general public visiting Wikipedia." Other users would have to wait for these "registered, reliable users" to sign off on their edits.
The system is designed to prevent the type of abuse that has plagued Wikipedia over the years. The latest high-profile case: Wikipedia 'vandals' edited the entries for United States Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd to falsely proclaim their deaths.
The Flagged Revisions system is reportedly to be started as a trial and applied only to a subset of all Wikipedia entries, namely those most vulnerable to abuse.
According to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, 60% of the Wikipedia community supports the trial.
I think the timing of the Britannica.com and Wikipedia announcements highlights very well the emergence of a new online content production model: the hybrid content model.
The past several years have seen a lot of euphoria around user-generated content. But increasingly we're recognizing that user-generated content alone is not perfect. Editorial controls still have value and in many cases, they're required to maintain a decent level of integrity.
Under a hybrid content model, online publishers provide their communities with the ability to contribute and produce content but also apply a layer of editorial control to ensure that the content is up-to-snuff.
Editorial oversight can be provided by paid staff (as in the case of Britannica) or by community members who have earned the privilege (as in the case of Wikipedia).
The structure and rigor of editorial controls is entirely up to the publisher and standards should be tailored based on the reasonable needs of the publisher and its community.
Obviously, a major challenge in such a content model is the elimination of 'instant gratification'. If users do not immediately see their contributions, it may be more difficult to attract and retain them. As such, I think the success of services employing such a model will be dependent upon publishers striking a balance. It will be interesting to see how well Wikipedia does this. Obviously, with such a large community, it's likely that edits flagged for review will be dealt with quickly on Wikipedia. Publishers with smaller communities and fewer resources will likely not have this advantage.
In my opinion, the hybrid content model may be of particular use to publishers who are feeling the ill-effects of the economic downturn and of the decline of revenues in their industry (e.g. newspapers) as it potentially enables publishers to cut some content production costs while still maintaining a good level of control over the quality of the content that is produced.
Expect to see more services make some use of this model as Britannica and Wikipedia are. It may even become a noticeable trend in 2009.