Is the web doomed to become a cesspool of mediocre content? I often wonder.
As a some time travel writer, editor and marketing consultant, I find myself in the weird no man’s land between content creators, publishers and travel brands, from where I glean insights from all sides and do my best to empathise with each perspective.
It seems to me that one of our biggest collective challenges is the signal-to-noise problem; that the sheer volume of digital travel content has overwhelmed our ability to filter through the deluge and find the great travel journalism that certainly exists out there.
There are many contributing factors to the ‘churn it out’ school of digital content creation, but the net effect is very damaging. It distorts the economic model (and livelihoods) of creating “quality content,” it provides an incentive for cheap, thin and superficial space filler and click bait, and it erodes audience faith, loyalty and interaction. It is often, as has been pointed out here before, just a bit crap.
Our collective response to the deluge has been to surrender many of the old ways of organising, quantifying and valuing all this content. We can’t keep up so we have abdicated responsibility to the algorithms of search engines and social media.
But the idea that an algorithm is an adequate substitute for human editing and publishing is nonsense, despite all the protestations made by Google on its never ending quest for “quality” search results.
Search and social media algorithms are gamed or at least manipulated (I know because I do it for a living). They tend to reflect and reinforce their users’ existing interests and familiar sources of information rather than expose them to new or challenging perspectives. They frequently resemble popularity contests that serve the established publishers and bloggers best - with very little room for smaller and lesser-known entities to break in.
Surely there must be a better solution to the signal-to-noise problem?
I believe there is, and I think that by combining the most useful aspects of mass community participation with a robust algorithm and – crucially – muscular and proactive human editorial oversight, it is possible to cut through the deluge and begin to curate a stream of demonstrably great quality travel content.
This is the ambitious challenge that we have set ourselves with the OutBounding.org project, currently in public beta at http://beta.outbounding.org. We have partnered with the team behind the hugely successful Inbound.org (comprising Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz and Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot, among many other talented individuals) to create a platform that does exactly this.
At first glance the concept seems similar to some other well-known sites. Users submit and upvote content that they consider reliable, high value and inspirational. The more submissions or upvotes a piece of content gets, the further it rises through a leaderboard, which can then be filtered into categories and locations. An algorithm factors in things like weighting against repeated self-submissions and time decay to produce a continually evolving list of the most influential travel content on the web, as selected by the vast community of content creators, publishers and our audiences.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘So far, so Digg’.
The critical difference is that sitting on top of this mass, open participation is a team of around 20 dedicated editor-moderators, all professional travel journalists or bloggers, whose job it is to monitor the stream with a stringent set of editorial criteria.
We filter out the bad stuff (spam, weak content from popular publishers, etc) and we promote the great content that deserves extra attention, typically from lesser-known authors and publishers.
We believe that this filtering process can produce what countless travel brands, publishers, editors and consumers all want and need: the definitive source of the best travel content on the web.
But our ambitions don’t stop there. We want to then distribute this great content as widely as possible.
Our platform produces feeds and embeddable widgets that can be integrated with third party websites, publishers and platforms - pretty much anyone who has a need for well-curated travel content. Eventually our feeds and widgets will feature on sites and platforms across the web, including in our own digital magazines and publications, and through regular emails to our subscribers.
In each case our feeds link exclusively to the source site, sending new audiences directly to the original publication.
We believe that our solution provides a substantive improvement on all the existing methods of content curation and discovery. It allows the community to self-curate the very best of our own output while re-establishing the value of human editorial oversight in a transparent and open way.
Furthermore we think that by connecting the curation process with a new distribution mechanism we can contribute something of great value to the community of travel content creators, publishers and our audiences. A mutual asset that rewards and promotes reliable, useful and inspirational travel journalism over the dross that has been promoted under the reign of search and social media algorithms.
We are busy finalising a number of features before launching our public site in a few weeks. In the meantime we’re inviting anyone with an interest in what we’re doing to pay us a visit, start to share & participate, and help bang the drum.
And if you have any thoughts or comments I’d be happy to answer in the comments here.