Monday, September 8, 2008

Earning Reputation Points

Earning Reputation Points

Brainify is very new. In order to turn this site into a great student resource, it needs to have a strong collection of great academic websites, and it needs members. So right now the greatest need of this community is to grow its user base and the number of collected websites.

As such, recommending Brainify to a friend and being the first to collect useful websites are the two fastest routes to a high reputation. But remember, your reputation is only increased when your recommended friends contribute to the community, or when other members show that they’ve found the sites you’ve collected to be useful. Read on for details of how your reputation is built.

We try our best to align the reputation calculation to be consistent with growing the best possible site for University and College students. The community needs will change over time, and I expect the reputation emphasis to change along with it. At the time of writing, you earn reputation points roughly as follows:

  • When people you recommend join Brainify, for every 4 points they have, you get one point. It is important that they indicate you as their recommender - you will not start collecting these points until they do.
  • If you were the first to collect a certain website in Brainify, you earn points every time other users demonstrate that it is useful to the community. For example, you earn a point every time someone else adds it to their collection. You also earn points if it is rated highly, or can lose points if it is rated very poorly.
  • If you were the first to categorize a website as belonging to a particular topic, you gain points if the community feels it is an appropriate categorization, and may lose points if the community feels it is a poor or inappropriate categorization.
  • If you make a comment about a site, you earn points every time someone rates the comment highly, or lose points if it is rated very poorly.
  • If you create a group that the community finds to be useful, you can gain a large number of points.
  • If you answer someone’s question, you earn a lot of points if the answer is rated highly. Although you won’t lose points for a poorly rated answer, you won’t gain any either.
  • If you are the first to use a tag to describe some website, and others use the same tag (i.e. they agree that you've made an intelligent choice), you get points for that.
  • If you ask a question, you get points every time it is rated highly.
  • Finally, you get points if you place an image in your profile, and if you indicate your year level and academic category (what degree or diploma you are working on) in your profile.

That's it for now. As I say, this almost certainly will change over time. If we manage to grow this site into something useful with a large community of members, my intention is to form a working group of intelligent and unbiased brainify members and academics to manage the reputation governance. As much as possible, this should be done by the community - not one person.

Take care - Murray

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Quick Start Guide for Brainify

We’ve tried our best to make Brainify very easy to use – even without the need for documentation. However, we don’t always fully succeed at the things we try, so here are some pretty quick tips on what Brainify is about and how to use it. If you want more details, please check out the other Brainify blog postings .

What is Brainify?

(If you already know what Brainify is, skip right down to "The Basics" for how to get started).

Brainify is a site for university and college students. We all know there are a huge number of websites that exist which have information on them that will really help you in the courses you are taking. The problem is finding exactly the right site when you need it. Just as you are unlikely to look for videos using Google (YouTube does a better job because it is tailored specifically to videos), Google is less than perfect when looking for good academic content. Unlike Google, the features of Brainify are tailored specifically to bookmarking and finding academic websites, and to helping students ask questions of, and connect with one another.

To provide you with fast and easy access to exactly the right academic website Brainify uses some pretty common (and some not so common) web 2.0 techniques. Each site that is collected in Brainify is rated, tagged, categorized, described and commented on by other students. You can use those bits of “metadata”, along with Brainify’s search and browse features to find the website that the community says is of high quality and targeted to what you are looking for. You can also create and join groups, and ask questions when you cannot find the answer you need in the websites.

Finally, we intend to make Brainify community members pseudo-owners of Brainify. If Brainify ever changes hands (for example, in the same way that YouTube was sold to Google), then we intend to distribute a portion of the proceeds among the Brainify community members according to their reputation on the site. You reputation is recorded and is affected every time a website you were first to collect is rated, comments you make are rated, questions you answer are rated, users you have brought to the site (recommended) increase their own reputation, people join groups you create, etc.

We want Brainify to become a vibrant academic site where university and college students can find exactly what they are looking for.

The Basics:

Joining Brainify: Brainify is intended for university and college students and their instructors. As such, you need an e-mail address issued to you by a university or college in order to join Brainify.

Bookmark academic websites: Brainify is a place for you to collect (bookmark) web sites that you have found useful in your college or university courses. If you bookmark a website in Brainify, the site is listed in your collection so you can easily return to it, and is also now available to the Brainify community using Brainify’s search and browse features. Any number of people can bookmark the same website in Brainify, but the first one to do so receives special acknowledgement.

Web site metadata: When you bookmark a site, you’ll be asked to tag that site, rate that site, indicate the academic level, create a description for the site, and place the site into the topic hierarchy (see below). These things make it much easier for you and other users to search for the most appropriate sites easily.

Topic hierarchy: Brainify also has the notion of an academic topic (or discipline) hierarchy. This hierarchy is, for the most part, defined by you, the users (often referred to as the community). When you collect a web site, you will be asked to place it into its appropriate location in the hierarchy. Likewise, when you join, you will be asked to indicate what you are studying using that same hierarchy. Finally, when you ask a question, you will be asked to indicate the topic it concerns in order to help others find it. You can browse websites, groups, questions and people (other Brainify users) by academic topic.

Watching things: Brainify has the notion of being able to “watch” things such as collected websites, academic topics, questions, groups and people. If you are watching something, then your events tab will show you anything new that happens to that item so that you are saved from constantly going back and checking items of interest.

Ask questions: If you are stumped, you can ask questions in Brainify. These questions can be answered by other Brainify members. You can browse questions by topic, and events will show you when a new question has been asked in a topic you are watching.

Discuss: Most “things” (collected websites, people, groups, topics, etc) have comment areas associated with them in order to facilitate discussions.

Groups: Any Brainify member can create a group of academic interest. Like individual users, groups can have their own collections of web sites.

Icons: On the top right of most items you will see an icon that lets you watch that item. If the item is a group, the icon let’s you join the group. If the item is a collected website, the icon allows you to add it to your own collection.

Mouse-overs: In many cases, you will find that if you place your mouse over a field on the Brainify site, a little description will appear that tells you a little bit about what that icon or link does.

Reputation: As indicated above, whenever other Brainify members indicate that you have done something meaningful for the community (collected some good website, made a useful comment, answered a question, etc), your reputation number goes up. Your reputation in Brainify is critical because if Brainify ever changes hands, we intend to distribute a portion of the sale proceeds among community members according to their reputation.

Invitations: If you find Brainify useful, please invite other good students to join. The more contributing members Brainify has, the more useful it is. In addition, if they establish a good (high) reputation, your reputation will increase as their inviter.

Brainify blog: It is incredibly important to me that the community of Brainify users has a high level of involvement in terms of the development of Brainify. As such, there is a Brainify blog which describes a lot of the decisions we made and asks for comments to help guide us in future decisions. I invite all of you to join the blog and comment on any topic.

Thanks and best regards - Murray

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How Might You Benefit from PCO?

The philosophy of PCO (Pseudo Community Ownership) and its connection to reputation have been described in previous postings, but I wanted to say a bit more about some of the mechanics of PCO here.

A Quick Overview

We want to do everything we can to get this community up and going and to ensure that the members who contribute get something back if the site is ever sold. To that end, if Brainify is ever sold, we intend to distribute 30% of the proceeds of sale to Brainify community members in proportion to their reputation. See the links above if you want to understand better why we chose to do this or how reputation impacts it.

We Will Make Mistakes – I Am Sure

This initially seemed like a pretty straight-forward idea when it occurred to me, but on further reflection and after consultation with legal experts, this turns out to be somewhat complicated. In addition, we could find no precedent for it. Therefore we had to build the idea from scratch and make a lot of decisions without the benefit of some good history and experience to go on. What this says to me is that we are almost certain to make mistakes in the execution of PCO. When we discover those mistakes, I will endeavor to do what I think is most fair, and will try to rely on legal and ethics experts, where it is appropriate, to help us rectify those mistakes.

How Will We Calculate What You Get?

We intend for the basic calculation to be as follows:

Your Proceeds = Net Proceeds of Sale X 30% X (Your reputation Points / Total Reputation Points of All Members).

Costs of sale

Here are some additional details. First – net proceeds are net of all costs associated with the sale. Sale costs often include things like legal costs, accounting costs, etc. These normally come out of the proceeds due to shareholders, but in this case the community will also have to bear their fair share of those costs. So the 30% that we hope to distribute will be 30% of what all the shareholders would otherwise actually receive – not 30% of the actual sale price. Having said that, these costs of sale are not typically huge in relation to the sale price.

Costs of Distribution

Next, if this happens, there will be a cost associated with actually getting the money to the members. You can imagine what they are, but included are things like establishing contact with each member, collecting the necessary paperwork, doing the accounting, issuing cheques, mailing the cheques, etc. There are companies that do that work and the likely scenario is that we would hire such a company. This would give us the advantage of knowing the exact costs associated with distribution. Again – not necessarily huge costs, but they do exist and will have to come out of whatever amount the community members actually receive.

Some amounts May be Too Small

Depending on the distribution of reputation points and the proceeds of sale, there may be a number of community members whose proceeds are very small – perhaps close to, or smaller than the actual cost of getting the proceeds to them. Because of that, we intend to have a cutoff amount. If the calculated proceeds for a particular member are too small to justify sending them to that member, then we won’t send them. This may result in an unspent pool of money which will be donated to a charity. We can determine the mechanism for selecting the charity(s) if and when that happens, but I intend to make the process participatory, open and transparent.

Some People May be Impossible to Pay

It may also be the case that there are members who we feel should be paid, but for whatever reason we cannot pay them. Reason’s might include us being unable to reach them via their registered contact information, or perhaps they are living in a country which makes it impossible or administratively impractical to send them funds. In those cases they, too, are unlikely to be paid and the money that they would otherwise get will be added to the charitable pot mentioned above.

Other Issues

There are also situations which complicate sales such as, for example, the sale not being for cash but instead being for shares in another company. In that case we likely could not make a distribution until the shares are liquid (could be sold). Another example is a sale for cash where not all of the cash comes at the same time, or where a portion of the proceeds are dependant on future performance. Since the number and combination of potential scenarios make it impossible to make firm plans which address every possible outcome, it is impossible to promise anyone exactly what will happen in the event of a sale. But I can assure you that my intentions are clear: to distribute 30% of the cash the shareholders actually receive by way of sale as soon as practical after the sale - and that the company will do everything reasonably within our power to ensure that intention is carried out.

As Open as Possible

To that end, one other thing I intend to do in the event of a sale (assuming the size of the sale warrants it) is to have a trusted body – typically an accounting firm – oversee the process of calculating and distributing the proceeds to the community. The intent here is to make the process as open as possible without compromising the privacy of individuals. A trusted body will be able to make a public declaration that the calculations were done correctly and that the correct amounts were distributed.

Anyhow – all of these intentions are planned and considered as much as we reasonably could at this stage in the company. I know we will make mistakes and will encounter obstacles we had not planned for. But we will do our very best to stay true to the intent of PCO and will be asking the community for advice along the way – which you can contribute now if you have any, by posting a comment below.

Thanks so much and take care - Murray

A Strong Focus on Reputation

You may have noticed that Brainify places a huge emphasis on member reputation. In fact, reputation is so important that we maintain a numerical approximation of each member’s reputation and display it along with their profile.

Why the Emphasis on Reputation?

Reputation is critically important in Brainify. There are a few reasons for this.

Who can You Trust?

First, this is an academic community. Ideally, then, when reading a comment or an answer to a question posted by some member, there is some way to determine whether this person does, or does not, know what they are saying. A lot of the clues are embodied in the comment or answer itself, but it would be nice to be able to “ask” the community about this person. That is one place reputation comes in. If the member’s reputation summary in Brainify is high, this is a good indication that the community at large generally values the contributions of this member and perhaps you can trust what they say a bit more than what is said by members with a lower reputation.

Who Can You Learn From?

Second, Brainify is meant to be a very open site. As such, things like and individual’s group membership and content collections are open for the community to view. Browsing the site for members with high reputations who are pursuing similar academic goals allows us to connect with others we “respect”. It is possible that if they have a high standing in the community, we are more likely to find their collections to be of value to us. As such, the numerical reputation allows us another way of finding people who we can benefit from in our education.

To Estimate Contribution to the Brainify Community

Finally – reputation is critical in Brainify because of our desire to reward people who help build the community. As I have said elsewhere, communities like this are of little value to anyone until there is a critical mass of members and content. But that critical mass is difficult to build because there is little reason to come to the site before it is built. This is still true, to a lesser extent, once the site is up and going – we want to give some incentive to people to keep the needs of the community in mind when they are collecting, commenting, answering, etc. As such, we record a numerical reputation value. Although it will certainly be an imperfect approximation, we will do the best we can to be logical and fair. It is this value that we intend to use, if the site is ever sold, to share the proceeds of sale with those community members who have contributed to the community.

But all this begs the question of how we determine the reputation value for a member.

It Isn’t Us, It’s You!

First of all, let me say that it is our intent from the beginning to, as much as possible, let the community decide what a member’s reputation should be. That makes sense – why would we (Brainify management) decide? You know what is of value to you a whole lot better than we do. Therefore, all of the inputs to determining reputation come from the community members - not us. For example, the rating of a comment or some web site will affect the reputation of the member who made that comment or who first collected that web site. If someone recommends that a friend join Brainify, and that friend ends up establishing a high reputation (due to community input), the recommender will benefit since he or she brought something of value to the community. Likewise if someone starts a group, and that group is very active, that will affect the reputation of the group founder. You get the idea.

OK – As Much as I try, it is not Entirely You

Having said that, we (Brainify) still had to make some decisions about how the reputation will be calculated and what contributes to a member's reputation. Unfortunately, this means that we will have some impact on the reputation itself. This is unfortunate – we honestly want no part in determining reputation. I want to leave it entirely to the community. But there needs to be a framework or algorithm that is applied to take the various inputs from the community (ratings, etc) and coalesce them into a single number. We have taken our best stab at such an algorithm and have implemented it. However, there is no doubt in my mind that we will find this algorithm flawed or inconsistent with community goals in many ways. Recognizing this leads to two results.

The Reputation Algorithm Will Change

First – we reserve the right to (in fact, almost guarantee that we will) change the algorithm from time to time. Our intent is that new implementations will not affect past rating points accumulation (except perhaps in cases of gross error), but will affect the calculation of newly acquired points going forward.

Reputation Governance?

Second, because I want to divest the company of influencing reputation, it is my plan to establish a committee of respected educators, ethics experts and community members to take over the governance of the reputation algorithm. In this way, the committee can take into account the desires of the community and make logical decisions where conflicting goals arise. Also – it will remove the company from any potential or apparent conflict. I plan to do this as soon as the size of the community is sufficient to interest high caliber committee members in joining.

The charter for the committee would include the following goals:

  • Fairness to individual members
  • Consistency with the goal of building the most useful and vibrant community possible
  • Consistency with the goal of appealing to the widest range of students in University and College around the world.

Those are the goals that we have been trying to adhere to and would be a part of any governance charter going forward.

For more information, you may want to check out Brainify's Contributos Participation Policy found on the Brainify site with the Terms of Use and other legal documents.

This is one area where input is especially welcome. Please let me know what you think.

Take care - Murray

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Academic World in One Site

OK – perhaps not the world. Let me explain.

One of the features of Brainify that I am most excited about is the idea of a community generated taxonomy of academic sites. I’d like to explain what it is and how it works.

For those of you unaware of the term “taxonomy” – it simply means a “categorization”. We are all familiar with the biological classification taxonomy (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family …). All of life fits somewhere into this taxonomy.

An Academic Taxonomy

Similarly, all academic topics fit into an academic taxonomy. For example, Kinetics might be a subtopic of Physics, and Physics a subtopic of Science. One of the primary goals of Brainify is to produce a populated taxonomy of all the collected academic web sites. The intent of this is to make subject-based browsing of the academic content collected in Brainify particularly effective. Instead of choosing to create a taxonomy, Brainify could have simply used tagging for categorization (resulting in what some call a “folksnomy”). In fact, Brainify does support tagging because it is an outstanding tool for community classification and effective searching. Tagging, however, is inherently flat and does not support hierarchical browsing. Thus we have chosen to support both tagging and the creation of a community-built taxonomy.

The problem in academic taxonomies is that although they are useful, there is no agreement on a single taxonomy. For example, some universities list Computer Science under Science, some under Math, and some under Applied Science. This makes the derivation of an academic taxonomy difficult. And even if there was a standardized taxonomy available (there are, in fact, several - making none of them standardized), deciding where a particular web site fits into that taxonomy could result in a never ending debate.

How Does Brainify Build the Taxonomy?

First of all – Brainify does not build the taxonomy – the community does. When a member finds a useful academic web site and adds it to their Brainify collection, the collector is asked where he or she believes the web site should sit in the taxonomy. He or she traverses the hierarchy and chooses a location. If the collector does not feel that any of the existing sub-categories are appropriate for the site being collected, he or she is even able to create new sub-categories in the taxonomy. Since it is possible that a web site may be collected in Brainify by any number of different collectors, there may be many different locations in the taxonomy where it is placed *.

It is my hope, however, that as sites are collected and categorized, patterns will emerge in terms of their location in the taxonomy. I suspect we will find that even though one site is placed in, say, 10 different locations, a very high percentage of the collectors have chosen to place it in the same single location, and the remainder have placed it uniformly over the remaining 9 locations.

For other collected sites, we might find that some smaller proportion of collectors (say 50%) have placed it in one location, but that another significant portion (say 40%) have placed it in a second location. This, in fact, may be perfectly reasonable because some sites will be applicable to different disciplines. Having the community define the taxonomical location(s) of the web site ensures, I believe, that the community will find content in the place they would expect to look for it. So although we are not defining a single taxonomy where each site is located in exactly one spot, the community is instead creating a browsable hierarchy where academic items of interest are likely to be found exactly where other community members would think to look for them. This is the beauty, I believe, of a community-generated taxonomy. What it may give up in correctness, it gains in utility.

Practical Implications

Since Brainify is just launching, we have not yet encountered the practical implications of our community generated taxonomy (or “multi-onomy” now). However, we can guess at some.

First – I suspect we will find a long collection tail where there are a significant number of meaningless categorizations. For example, although we hope to avoid this through education, it could be that some people will collect a site as “science/assignments/assignment 1”. This might be meaningful to the collector, but not meaningful at all to the remainder of the community. My suspicion is that those kinds of categorizations will be distinguished by lack of agreement. That is, even though there may be a significant percentage of users who categorize meaninglessly, they will each choose their own different meaningless category. So our expectation is that for each collected web site we will find a small number of categories (1-3 or so) chosen by a large majority of collectors, and some larger number of categories each chosen by a very small number of collectors. The latter group can (and should) safely be ignored. Therefore, when browsing a category, Brainify will deferentially display sites where a significant number of users have agreed that the site belongs in that category.

Another potential issue is that the people building the taxonomy will largely be non-experts in their field. As such, it could be that some of the categorizations might not be considered to be the best choices according to discipline experts. I am not overly concerned about this prospect (though that may change with experience). Even though the collectors are non-experts, they are students studying the field and therefore do have a basic, and increasing, knowledge. In addition, the effective place for a site in the hierarchy requires some level of consensus and is not adversely affected by a few inappropriate categorizations. I am a big believer in the power of community and the likelihood that all will come out well in the end – as long as there are enough eyes on it. We are seeing that now in other sites – such as Wikipedia. Although it is not without its problems, the site has turned into an amazing resource – and was built through a community effort.

I am sure there will be other unexpected issues that we have to deal with, as well as other unexpected benefits of this community generated multi-onomy. But if Brainify ever develops the size and kind of community I wish for it, it is possible that one day we will see Brainify provide a categorization of nearly every academic web site that exists. As new ones are created, the community will almost instantly collect them and place them in the taxonomy. What a wonderful resource this could be for students. I have my fingers crossed.

Take care - Murray


* Note that, for this reason, I don’t really consider Brainify’s taxonomy to be a strict taxonomy. Perhaps, therefore, we should call it something other than a taxonomy – like a “Multi-onomy”

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why do I Think Brainify is Important?

This is really the conjunction of two questions: why do I think Brainify can help in education, and why do I think education is important?

How Do I think Brainify Can Help?

The web now is an amazing educational resource. Universities, companies, professors, students and other individuals publish everything from short presentations of academic topics all the way up to complete and open courses and degree programs. There is no shortage of great sites that can be of help in pretty much any course a student could be taking.

Sometimes, though, there is difficulty in finding the appropriate sites. Google can help tremendously here. But the searches and metadata are not specific to academia and therefore attributes like relevance, domain, academic level and correctness cannot be accommodated in the searches. Likewise, there is no good mechanism that supports the formation of global academic student communities and allows their members to connect, ask questions and learn from one another. One of my goals when I started WebCT was to help in the formation of course-based communities – but we now have an opportunity to remove the course border.

Easy Access to Academic Web Sites

The core of Brainify is the ability for students to build their own collections of academic websites. A by product of adding a site to their collection is that it makes that site searchable within Brainify – allowing others to easily find it and possibly add it to their collection.

When a site is collected, the student is asked to say a few things about the site – to rate it, to tag it, to indicate what academic level it is aimed at, to comment on it, to describe it, etc. These bits of metadata, taken together with those of others who have collected that site, allow Brainify users to perform powerful, focused searches for what is arguably the best available academic content.

In addition, when an item is collected, the student is asked to place that item into an academic discipline hierarchy (or ontology). I will describe the formation and details of this community-based ontology elsewhere, but what this means for the student is (hopefully, eventually) a complete, browsable ontology of all publicly accessible web based academic content. What an amazing resource that would be for students – or for any kind of learner for that matter. I cannot tell you how much the prospect of this excites me.

A Community of Learners

I recall that when I use to travel around the world speaking about WebCT, the idea that students would help each other by way of the bulletin board was met with skepticism. Many other professors felt that students were in it for themselves and one way to help improve their prospects was to avoid improving the prospects of others. Perhaps some students feel this way, but the vast majority do not – and are keen to help and get help.

As such, Brainify is meant to provide a place where a broad student community can form. All the usual things are there – profiles, friends and groups of special academic interest. In addition, there is the ability to “watch” what other users are doing. If there is a respected student in a particular academic discipline, others can watch him or her and see when he or she finds a new bit of content or makes a new comment about some item or topic. In addition, students can ask questions tied to particular academic disciplines. It is hoped that other students will answer and everyone will benefit from the result. We can all learn from one another – all we need is a forum in which to do so.

What Does This Mean for Students?

It means, if Brainify succeeds, that students will have a place that will help them in their studies. If they need a question answered, they are likely to find a resource that will answer it here. If not, they can ask it. No one person or even company could possibly build the kind of collection that I am hoping Brainify becomes. But the global community of students, working together, can.

Why Should We Care About Education?

I hesitate to say much about this here because if you are here you probably already care. But let me give you my reasons for being in this field and caring so much.

I feel that education is at the root of – or at least influences - most of the positive accomplishments we make as a society. Not all, but most. And not only accomplishments – but also attitudes we hold such as tolerance and charity. So anything we can do to make education more effective or more accessible will result in more and better accomplishments and a more community oriented society. If we help one generation of students learn better, learn more, or have better access to learning, then they will become better doctors, scientists, architects, artists and so on. Possibly most importantly, some of them will become better teachers. Those better teachers will, in turn, better educate the next generation of students who will also become better doctors, scientists and so on – including another generation of better teachers. With each successive generation every small incremental improvement we make to education now will be passed along and amplified – improving nearly every aspect of the world. We all have our own reasons to be excited about improving education, but those are mine.

It is my sincere hope that Brainify can do its own small part in helping improve educational experiences and outcomes for students.

Take care - Murray

The Philosophy of Pseudo Community-Ownership (PCO)

One of the many things that excites me about Brainify is the idea of community ownership. Now technically the community does not own part of Brainify. While that was my first idea, discussions with lawyers showed that to be a logistical and legal near-impossibility. So we intend to do the next best thing – and I want to discuss that here. Because I have not seen it done before (which does not mean it has not been done – only that I’ve not seen it done), I had to make up a name for this thing which is kind of, but really not ownership. So lets call it Pseudo Community Ownership (or PCO for short).

The most concise definition I can give for PCO is this: “In the event of a sale, the intent of PCO is to share sale proceeds with the community members in proportion to the contribution made by each member to that community”. There is a lot more to it – but more on that later.

This posting talks about the philosophy of PCO that brought me to experiment with it. A better definition of PCO and how we are implementing it are described in another post.

What About the Contributors?

Sites like Brainify have different kinds of users. The vast majority of users come to such sites to search, browse, and otherwise find what they are looking for. They probably join, build a bit of a profile, and make a comment or two as well. But other than that – they are not major contributors to building the site.

A small percentage of users of such sites are responsible for making the vast majority of the contributions to the site. According to Ochoa and Duval [1], depending on the site, the top 10% of users make something between 40 and 90% of the contributions. I suspect each such person has a different reason for making their contributions, but the fact is that the vast majority of the users of the site would have nothing to come to if it were not for these uber-contributors.

It has always bothered me that when a community site is sold, as they often are, the uber contributors – those whose contributions were instrumental in the success of the site and the community, received no benefit. Perhaps this is not tragic – there was no expectation of compensation going in – and for many the mere act of contributing is compensation in itself. However, everyone else does benefit. The 90%+ of users benefit from the wonderful free resource. The business owners benefit from the sale. But the large contributors are kind of left out.

What really got me thinking about this was the sale of YouTube. YouTube is a great success. There is a huge community of users who benefit in one way or another from the availability of videos. Also - at the time of the sale, the founders did very well by all accounts. But what about the people who put the videos up there? Well – they did benefit by the availability of a free and convenient forum that enabled their “voice” to be heard, but that was it. It seemed, to me, that the benefit was not in proportion to the contribution they made to the community.

What About Building the Community?

We all know that community based sites need to actually have a community before they can thrive. One of the basic requirements of building a community is that you have to have a reason for people to join. Sometimes that reason is the site itself. But more often, the reason is the other users and what they bring to the site. In this latter case, it is difficult to build a community until you already have a community. So where do you begin?

One way is to try and create an early incentive for people to join. Something that will start to build the community before the draw of the community itself takes over.

PCO Might Help Answer Those Questions

At first, when I thought about the idea of PCO, it struck me as a little crass and overtly commercial. I even felt a bit embarrassed telling people about the idea. As a former faculty member, I am very cautious about commercial influences on education. Perhaps the idea of PCO was so commercial that it would damage the “purity” (or at least the perceived purity) of a site that is meant to be all about academia. There has always been an uncomfortable relationship between commercialism and academia, and having been a faculty member for 10 years and the founder of WebCT, I have had a front row seat to a wide variety of opinions on the matter. But the simple fact is that many of the wonderful things we have that impact our daily educational activities would not exist were it not for companies developing ideas and taking risks to see those ideas realized.

The more I thought about PCO, the more I realized that it fit with my idea of what is “right” in terms of the potential to compensate community contributors. It filled in that last gap – now there is potential for all parties to benefit. It also has the potential to help bootstrap the community; there may be people out there who will view PCO as an added incentive to spend a bit of time and contribute things to the community in the early stages of its development.

I am still nervous about the idea. For me, Brainify is about education – what we get out of university and college. I do not want the idea of PCO to overshadow this focus. And since we have no precedent for PCO I worry about the mistakes we will make along the way defining it and implementing it – and how those mistakes could hurt Brainify. But at the same time, I am a fanatical believer in the potential for a site like this to be of huge benefit to students in their educational experience. As such, I want to do everything I can to see the site support a vibrant educational community and to see all members benefit. From that perspective – perhaps PCO makes sense.

Take care - Murray

[1] Quantitative Analysis of User-Generated Content on the Web, Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Understanding Web Evolution, April 22, 2008