// what do you think?


Should user-generated content be considered a valid, legitimate source?

Are user generated content sites sources of valid information?

With the increasing popularity in sites containing user-generated content (UGC), questions of validity arise. UGC includes any site where the site’s users and visitors can write and publish content, whether it is video content, blog posts, advice websites, and the like. But as sites filled with user generated content flourish in the sprawling, entangling contents of the web, questions of validity arise.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on two types of sites that solely rely on UGC: editable-Encyclopedia sites (such as: Wikipedia), and question and answer (Q&A) sites, my experience coming from running my site, FunAdvice. Are these sites valid, reliable sources of information?

“The NO side”

Many college professors and lecturers are saying “no”.  Plenty of students are habitually finding their college professors and lecturers not accepting sites with user generated content as reference material in papers and essays. According to this view, since the floor is open to anyone with an Internet connection, articles and answers can be chopped and changed by just about anyone- sometimes making a seemingly legitimate article or answer full of inconsistencies and misinformation.

I have previously identified two “negatives” to UGC sites, both of them related to validity:

  • Credibility: Who are these people generating this content, and what makes them experts? How much wrong, dangerous, and purely unintelligent information are they disseminating to the world through their encyclopedia edits and social Q&A answers? This is where the professor-syndrome comes in. Who knows where people are getting this information?
  • Bias: Neither types of website (encyclopedia or social Q&A) are specifically-stated political party sites. Besides a few minor sections, such as certain pages on Encyclopedia sites—or categories on Q&A sites— bias isn’t explicitly stated throughout the entire website. It’s up to the reader to gauge which information doesn’t hold bias. And many people aren’t capable of this determination.


However, the other side of the argument is that user generated content can be considered valid sources of information. Where is the argument here?

  • Moderation: Naturally, encyclopedia websites try to prevent users abusing the power to modify articles by keeping a (seemingly) close eye on modifications to articles, and locking pages if they are modified in a way that makes the content false or abusive. Social Q&A sites often use a similar system- volunteers ‘ who can monitor threads for false information or abusive behavior, temporary delete such content and alert the administrators, who are able to disable or delete accounts of repeat offenders, and permanently remove the incorrect or harmful content posted.
  • Sources: Throughout every Wikipedia article, you’ll see tiny blue numbers, leading to a source at the bottom of the page (think: footnotes in a term paper or dissertation). If a page lacks sources, readers are alerted at the very top of the page that it needs “cleaning up” or “additional sources”.  Most social Q&A sites allow external links, so users can link to outside sites to back up the answers they give.

How do I determine if information is valid on a UGC site?

Author Mohammad Ali Abbasi of Arizona State University’s “Data Mining and Machine Learning Lab” (2009), created a slideshow titled “Learning to Recognize Reliable Users and Content in Social Media with Coupled Mutual Reinforcement”. His thesis is that by recognizing valid sources (covered in the bullet point above) and valuable users on UGC sites will lead you to the most reliable information.

Here is his model for finding valuable users on social Q&A sites and how the sites usually work.

User Generated Content Social Q&A

Answers that aren’t chosen as best answer are not locked on every Q&A site, so view that ending as a variable, (my site leaves questions open, which enables new (and possibly helpful) answers to be added later). However, in addition to users having the ability to vote on a best answer, there are also points on most social Q&A sites, FA, Yahoo Answers! and the like –therefore, users with the most points for having highest voted answers, according to Abbasi’s theory, would be considered “most valuable users”. For example, User A with 500+ points for highly-voted answers would be considered a “valuable user”, compared to User B, who has 39 points. If both users answered the same question, the assumption is that User A would be considered a “valuable user”, and therefore provide more legitimate, valid content, using Abbasi’s theory.

Final thoughts

Stated simply, use your brain when discerning whether sites like Wikipedia and social Q&A sites are valid and accurate sources of information. Consider both sides: the “no” side, which states that users writing on these sites have no credibility and possible bias.  Then consider the “yes” side, which says that moderation and the use of sources can make these sites surprisingly accurate and credible. If you decide to use a site with UGC, remember how to discern whether the information is of high value or not: on Wikipedia, check out the sources list at the bottom of the page. On social Q&A sites, look for supporting sources / photos / videos in answers, and look at users’ points and high-rated answers, applying Abbasi’s theory.  Above all else, keep your wits about you—and remember: don’t believe everything you read.

Today’s post was submitted by Dara Solomon, Community Manager at FunAdvice.com

Image Source: Abbasi, Mohammad Ali: “Learning to Recognize Reliable Users and Content in Social Media with Coupled Mutual Reinforcement”. 2009

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • http://topsy.com/www.newcommbiz.com/should-user-generated-content-be-considered-a-valid-legitimate-source/?utm_source=pingback&utm_campaign=L2 Tweets that mention Should user-generated content be considered a valid, legitimate source? — Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tac Anderson, Craig M. Jamieson, mo' stash, AllThingsM, Brian Gilbert and others. Brian Gilbert said: Just commented - UCG is viable for most-not all- RT @tacanderson: Should U-G content be considered a legitimate source? http://bit.ly/9PAgsj [...]

  • http://twitter.com/brianggilbert Brian Gilbert

    In the right context, and with the right “grain of salt”, I believe yes.

    Information that is being generated from the user space based on opinion, experiences, and anecdotal evidence is certainly valid in most cases. The communities at Toolbox.com provide a community experience for business professionals to share and gain peer knowledge, exchange best practices, and discuss issues relevant to “doing their jobs” better.

    On the other hand, if I were preparing a thesis, or a presentation based solely on this type of data, I would question the defensibility of said data if that was the ONLY source. I know in school a lot of teachers/professors shun Wikipedia as a source, as well as other questionably non-verified sites.

    If a heart surgeon wanted to perform a medical procedure on my daughter strictly on the say so of someone else on a medical discussion board (like Sermo), I'd have an issue for obvious reasons. But if that physician found the procedure on a discussion group, and then took it further to train and perfect it, I'd be more comfortable with that.

    In the right context

  • http://www.facebook.com/SFQua06 Fisher Qua

    What about user-generated data (say about physical activity or nutrition) in clinical settings? I know it's a little different than the context discussed above, but shouldn't doctor's take that information seriously when identifying preventive measures? I think there is significant validity to all sorts of user-generated or crowd-sourced content.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    I think if you can show that it is statistically relevant then you should absolutely treat is a data point, just not the only data point.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Just to play devil's advocate: how is the Dr. supposed to perfect it if he doesn't try it (assuming it's already passed the clinical stage)?

    But to address your comment I would even go on to say that:
    (Professional Data) x (User Data) = w00t!

  • http://www.funadvice.com Dara

    Interesting comment. So to sum it up, you say “yes, they're valid” but it's contextual.

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