Jakob Nielsen

Will Web2.0 online communities survive spam?

Articolo apparso nel novembre 2006 sul blog di BAIA

Every time a new tool appears on the Internet, a group of early adopters jump into it and, with great enthusiasm, explore all the possible uses. They leverage the new tool to achieve new positive results, such as increasing the engagement, sharing different types of content, building online communities, and so on. If the experiment succeeds, a wave of spammers arrives and starts to exploit the new tool with the only purpose of making money or pushing some agenda and in the process they destroy most of the new tool original and potential value.

We have seen it happen countless times. First time I noticed it happening in the early 90’ with the diffusion of the web. In the beginning, all websites were offering small and large pieces of content, with the only expectation of being helpful to their visitors. The approach was a little bit naive, resulting mostly in long lists of links and boring personal home pages. At that time, very few people were trying to make money out of the web. Despite all the limitations, browsing the Internet, even with a slow dial-up connection, was a thrilling experience. Not only it was something new, every page was offering some bit information for free. The quality was not always superb, but the intentions were always honest. Infact, we were able to find useful content almost everywhere we looked. Sadly, it didn’t last very long. As the big money and the spammers come to the web, everything quickly changed, and it changed forever. Since then, the Internet includes all sorts of websites, and there is little space left for naivety and truly free content. Finding exciting content and avoiding garbage now requires some non-trivial skills. Despite the help of search engines, searching the web is almost an art. According to Mauro Lupi, it will soon become a new profession, presumably a well paid one. This is what Jakob Nielsen calls information pollution, or in case of spam attention theft.

Older than the web, the e-mail survived a bit longer as an effective and reliable way to exchange information. Over the years, we learn to accept spam and viruses as an integral part of this tool. Now we know that to take advantage of the e-mail power, we have to invest time and resources in separating the spam from legitimate e-mail.

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
The Long Tail:
Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More

The Web2.0 online communities are now becoming the new spam frontier. In the hands of early adopters, those social media tools grew as an extremely powerful way to share information and to have valuable resources emerging from the clutter of the web. Recently we learned that the clutter is here to stay; it’s now called the long tail. See Chris Anderson’s post Is the long tail full of crap?
Web communities are an integral part of the long tail model, as described by Chris Anderson. But there is a problem with this: as the number of users joining those communities and leaning on their recommendations reaches a critical threshold, spammers see new opportunities for easy money. They begin looking for every possible weak point to enter the communities in order to promote their business. The web systems around which the web communities prosper are designed to facilitate the exchange of opinions and the communication among members; they are not designed to block sneaky tentative to exploit the community for spam purposes. Making the rules stricter is an easy solution that however doesn’t guarantee the success against the spammers while can alienate the most valuable members, ready to jump on the next Internet wave.

One additional problem affecting Web2.0 communities is their popularity. I don’t want to sound snobbish, but it’s a real problem. Take for example del.icio.us, the powerful bookmarking system that was acquired about one year ago by Yahoo! If you visit the most popular bookmarks’ page, or you search the bookmarks database by tags, you can still be able to find links to some very interesting and otherwise invisible content. I bet that, as del.icio.us will become more popular, the top 20 list will look more and more similar to the top 10 list on YouTube: “full of crap”, as Chris Anderson would say.

This is what is happening now to digg, a powerful system to discover valuable content on the web based on the recommendation of a very active community. I started to hear some of the most valuable contributors and users of digg, such as Rob Hof, Jeff Nolan, and Niall Kennedy, complaining about the popularization and spamization of digg. According to them, it’s a matter of time: the front page of digg will look just like any other collection of questionable jokes, funny videos, and sly spam.

Looking back, we can see how the web and e-mail survived the spamming and popularization phases. Their evolution didn’t come for free for users like you and me. In the last few years, in order to keep my PC up and running, I paid more to Symantec for anti-spam and anti-virus than to Microsoft for the OS. Will the new Web2.0 communities be able to survive the attack of the spammers? In order to keep enjoying being a member of a web community, are we going to be forced to add another layer of anti-something to our PCs, RSS readers, and web aggregators? What do you think?

Franco Folini

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