Encouraging online content production

Keith Schacht| January 20th, 2012
Post to Twitter

Pinterest is the best new social application I’ve seen in awhile. Exploring it has rekindled a lot of thinking about what it takes to get users to create online content. This is not an analysis of Pinterest in particular, but the mental framework I use to think about this design problem.

1) The creative container

The naive view of encouraging content production is to create really flexible creative controls so that your tool has a wide range of uses. The reality is that a more constrained container encourages production. Think about a coloring book versus a blank sheet of paper. Not only is the freedom of a blank piece of paper paralyzing, but the pre-drawn outline makes your final creative output better.

Let me elaborate on those two separate principles, first on the constraints. Think GeoCities vs Blogger. GeoCities was an easy way to create websites. You clicked to insert a page and had a WYSIWYG editor that let your imagination run wild. Then blogging came along. What was so great about blogging was that you were given a template; this wasn’t for creating just any website, it assumed your site was a series of posts, each with a title and body, ordered by date down the page. This spurred an explosion of content creation because a post template is helpful creative suggestion, yet it’s still incredibly versatile in it’s uses. Then in 2007 Twitter came along. For many people, it’s even easier to fill 140 characters than it is to write a complete post. Constraints breed creativity.

The second principle of the container is that it serves as imagination scaffolding. The constraints of your container, if done well, make the final creation more awesome than if the person created it from scratch. Blogging software assumes all the sites will be a list of posts so they can design beautiful themes for you to choose from. Paste ten random 140 sentences into an email and your friends will think your drunk, but call them Tweets and put them on your Twitter profile page with a customized background and the pretty icons and they become pearls of wisdom. Character creators in video games are another great example of this.┬áBy allowing you to customize the hair, eyes, skin, and clothes of this character there are millions of unique combinations but everyone’s character ends up looking really professional. Give them scaffolding to help creations turn out better.

It’s important to think a lot about the creative container you’re offering to users. A friend who is an avid Twitter user once remarked, “That would make a great Tweet!” when someone said something funny. Twitter power users filtering the world for Tweetable moments. Your users are going to be spending a lot of time thinking about what they can fill your containers with.

2) Community feedback and validation

When presented with a new creative container there is a learning curve in figuring out how to produce great content within it. It’s important that you’ve architected a good feedback loop so people can hear the opinions of others to improve, and to celebrate the great creations when one is crafted.

Blogging is an easy example to see with it’s comment thread beneath each post. Within video games where you have created a custom character, the feedback comes from your interactions with other players. When chatting with other people in the game or virtual world someone’s avatar is a conversation starter.

Wikipedia is a particularly interesting example. Their creative container is “an encyclopedia article” which turns out to be a great container for summarizing your knowledge on a subject you’re an expert of. But what you may not realize is that the feedback loop is a critical part of encouraging Wikipedia editors to continue creating great content. On every article is a “Talk” tab at the top where you can see the editors getting feedback about what they’ve written.

But it’s not enough to simply allow feedback, it’s also important to reduce friction in the feedback process and think about the constraints you’re setting up within the feedback mechanism. Facebook’s “Like” button let’s you endorse someone’s post with a single click and Amazon reviews can be marked as helpful. Following someone on Twitter makes it clear you’re interested in what this person has to say. All of these are easy and constrained. Even comments, which are relatively unconstrained: don’t allow titles of the comment, usually have a max length to keep them short, links are often prohibited to keep the discussion focused on the original post. And most of the time comments are not multi-threaded–you aren’t supposed to reply to another commentor, you’re there to give feedback to the original creator.

Your feedback process will drive the quality of your creations and the longevity of your creators. Figure out how to encourage it but to simultaneously keep it enjoyable and constructive.

I should write a full analysis of Pinterest, but they’ve done an amazing job with their creative containers and with their feedback loop.

4 Responses to “Encouraging online content production”

  1. Anand Says:
    January 20th, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    (Link for Pinterest needs to be fixed… its currently going to pinetrist.)

    We found the same things in our brainstorms, by the way. Dividing the generative space into small but constrained sections made it much more productive. Its more difficult to come up with 10 random new food products as opposed to 10 new food products that you can keep in your fridge between the milk and the eggs.

  2. Keith Schacht Says:
    January 20th, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    (Fixed the link, thanks. That name is too easy to misspell)

    That’s a good connection, thanks for sharing. I wouldn’t have thought “producing content” would be that similar to pure brainstorming, but it makes sense that it is. Fundamentally they are both creative activities.

  3. Doug Says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Very interesting and thoughtful identifications here, thank you. I don’t how relevant or useful this is, but for whatever it’s worth: After reading this I realized that Facebook and Twitter are the reason why I largely gave up blogging: not only are my friends more incentivized to be reading my content on a social network than on a blog (since it’s a central hub), it is also far less work involved for me to share, and finally, it feels so much less formal to share a line or link on FB or Twitter than to do so on a blog. There’s an expectation for polishedness I feel on a blog that isn’t there for FB. Given all this, there is no doubt I produce far, far more content (in the form of thoughts, ideas, tips, etc.) than I would have on a blog alone.

  4. Keith Schacht Says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    It’s true, although Facebook and Twitter haven’t quite killed RSS readers they’ve definitely marginalized them. Not only is production easier but on the consumption side average users never wanted to think about RSS, “friending” and “following” is so much simpler.

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