Thoughts on Meta Content

Over the next few posts, I want to tackle some of the issues from my PhD research around “meta-content” (comments, reviews etc.). Here’s an introduction to meta-content, my research, and why I think it’s interesting.

Web 2.0 is characterised, in part, by a massive increase in user-generated content. YouTube, Flickr, Blogger, Tumblr et al let anyone publish just about anything: Videos, photos, essays, news reports. But, in addition to this new “primary” content comes a wave of user-generated opinion in the form of comments, reviews, trackbacks, discussions, video responses, flaming, trolling and rick-rolling. We now have billions of dollars worth of everybody’s two cents.

Content Meta-content
Wikipedia Article Article Talk Page
YouTube Video Viewer comments
Blog Post Reader comments
Online news article Reader comments
Website Comments on delicious / StumbleUpon
* Discussion on reddit
Content Meta-content

It’s this “other stuff” that I’m most interested in, and is the direction in which my PhD is heading. It’s this other stuff that I call “meta content” – Content that is about other content. The table shows a type of online content on the left and a corresponding type of meta-content on the right.

Often, when looking for information, the content itself is what seems most useful, or most interesting; but frequently the meta content surrounding it provides a resource in itself.

It’s not hard to think of a situation where the meta-content might be more useful than the content itself. Take the Wikipedia example: The article might provide a fairly neutral account of a topic, a subset of the “facts” that everyone can agree on, but the talk page can provide a much better understanding of the discourse around an issue, of the opposing points of view or which aspects of an issue are contentious.

Similarly, the comments on a news article can provide a better idea of the debate surrounding events than the story itself. In many cases comments provide balance to biased reporting or correct inaccuracies.

Of course, meta-content is not all balanced intellectual discussion. The most obvious issue is comment spam, although there are technological solutions that do a reasonable job of stemming that. The spam problem aside, some types of meta-content have a reputation for being particularly unhelpful or unpleasant – The comments on YouTube videos are a good example – and far from contributing helpful information, much meta-content contributes nothing but anecdote and rumour.

In many ways, the problems posed by meta-content are no different to those posed by web content in general. The move away from a publishing model where publishers and peers act as “gatekeepers” to a model where anyone can publish anything brought with it new problems with inaccurate or deliberately misleading information. As the barriers to publishing are lowered, it is almost inevitable that more bad content will follow. We still don’t really have a solution to the problem of bad content on the web, (although Hypothes.is is trying) save for educating people to be a bit more critical about the information that they find.

The problem of useless or malicious meta-content might not be insurmountable, though. Meta-content is the result of social engagement with content and is, therefore, mediated in part by the social norms within the community that produces it. Online communities have their own cultures and norms and these undoubtedly arise as a result of both the people within those communities (and the cultures that they bring with them) and the online environment (design, usability, affordances) itself.

There’s some interesting research that showed how the design of a website effected the thoughtfulness of user contributions, and my own research is trying to use psychological “nudges” to alter the composition of user-provided reviews in a social bookmarking context. The basic premise is that if we can find ways to shape the cultures and norms of an online community, or to promote certain types of thinking, then we potentially have the ability to start steering meta-content in the direction that we want.

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