Earlier this month, a curious new content site launched, called Helium. It's a site where users write advice articles and how-tos. The basic concept is simple: Users write what they know and can rate the utility of other articles. It's like About.com, but without editorial oversight. And there are some interesting twists.
When you write an article, it's not posted immediately. Other users have to rate it as useful. But how can they do that if it's not posted? Well, after you write your first article, you are given the opportunity to rate two other articles side-by-side. You select the one that you think is more useful. This is how new articles get approved, and how all articles in a category are ranked. Writers can rate articles only in these little content bake-offs, and only in categories where they've already authored articles.
The ranking system should ensure that the best articles in each category bubble to the top, and there's much to be said for the way Helium works. It randomly picks article for comparison, and it hides author IDs, so it's hard to game it. Also, the site encourages users to write because it withholds their ability to rate others until they have written something themselves; this gives users a keen appreciation for the work of writing, so hopefully they'll rate articles more carefully.
Writers also get paid for their work--they'll get a portion of advertising revenue earned on their articles. How exactly the revenue share will work has not been revealed, but the site will let writers know which categories are in higher demand from advertisers (and thus, will pay better).
The careful social engineering on this new site has yet to generate consistently good content. There simply may not yet be enough people rating articles. Many poorly-written and unsubstantiated articles are ranked near the top of many categories. Some of it is just plain weird, like this advice on getting good grades: "Pray every day. You don't have to be religious to do this." Eh? And what's worse, when you see truly bad (or good) content, you can't mark it as such nor comment on it. You can flag stories that you think are inappropriate or plagiarized, though.
Wlsewhere on the Web we see indications that this model can succeed, given enough time. , for example, is full of good user-generated advice [see recent blog post]. It's also a more focused site (it's for small businesses), and it has clear templates that make it easier for writers to effectively express their knowledge.
Despite the weak content it contains at the moment, Helium has potential. I predict, however, that the act of paying people for content will actually work against Helium. Wikipedia pays nothing--it doesn't even give writers persistent bylines--yet it has an awesome collection of content. Altruism is a great filter. All over the Web, people contribute content to their own sites and to other sites because they feel they have something to say--not because they think they'll make a buck. People who want to be paid for their work deserve easy access to markets for it, but mixing content from those that want to earn money with content from those who simply want to share their advice does not sound, to me, like a recipe for a happy community.