A colleague of mine and I were recently marvelling about the speed and frequency of online travel giant Trip Advisor's site redesigns. Like clockwork, just yesterday I received yet another announcement that the website had a new look, and this time the changes aren't simply cosmetic.
Trip Advisor has always been a community site, successfully leveraging the voice of everyday travelers, but its earlier incarnations sought a careful balance with 'expert' opinions from, for example, the New York Times travel pages, Fodor's, and other big travel brands. Trip Advisor's new design is not so cautious, and it's inching ever-closer to abandoning the voice of established 'experts' once and for all—or maybe it's just more accurate to say that the site continues to place greater trust in the hands of its users.
The trend is not new, of course, but it's no longer a simple fad. Publishers who are still wedded to the idea that social media—the voice of the masses—is an indiscriminate and largely useless cacophony of uninformed opinions are missing the bigger picture. Social media is getting better, and the information the digital phenomenon produces is more useful by the day.
There are three inter-related trends coalescing right now that should make all old-brand publishers think hard about how they want to position themselves for the future...
First, critical mass has been reached; the number of people willing to share their stories boggles the mind, and it continues to grow at an astronomical pace. Second, social media publishers are finding super-smart ways to reward valuable members, and to give special prominence to really good user-generated content. It's no longer enough to be a prolific contributor to a website. Unless other readers like you, and express their sympathy by voting for you, well, your voice is just never heard. Only the strongest survive. Finally, publishers are mining huge databases of behavioral information to connect you to people who are more and more like you—it's not just that you're getting opinions that many readers say are useful, you're getting opinions that are useful and are also attuned to your tastes.
The 'similarity' math that many sites are now using is taking us into some new, periodically comical territory, and it's hard to know just how far it can be pushed. I checked my Netflix 'friends' page a few days back, and saw that I had some new 'recommended' buddies—folks I did not know in the proper sense, but who were between 56 to 78 percent similar to me. When I took a quick look at these proto-buddies, well, they were an awful lot like me. When someone gets to 99 percent, I'm thinking I may dig a hole somewhere and disappear...I don't want to know me.
The social media 'revolution' has always had the ring of exaggeration, but give the emerging model some thought and it seems far more plausible. Web sites with a travel angle—from Yahoo! Travel, to Trip Advisor, to Yelp—are becoming huge publishing empires built on the foundation of user generated content. The social media systems are only getting stronger—and they will continue to find new ways to identify the best user-generated content, and to match it to your interests.
A serious question looms, and while I'm a bit tired as I write this, I don't think it's overstated: In the future, will the experts be you, or us? What is the future place of the editor?
I tend to place my bets in the middle—and so I think that the publishing model of the future will probably succeed best where it manages to find new and compelling ways to let experts—folks who have dedicated a good part of their lives to learning a field—share their opinions with ordinary folks with informed passions. There's still a great deal of value left in the idea of craft and expertise. But surely the era of the unchallenged 'expert' opinion is behind us, and only the nostalgic are looking back.