Content Sheep & User Grass

There is probably an entire introductory economics textbook to be written using negative examples from the higher ed web world (the sunk cost fallacy in relation to content management systems comes immediately to mind). The one that is most evident to me as I fight through my first redesign at the university level, though, is the distributed authorship model and the concept of the tragedy of the commons. I’ve written before about the problems with distributed authorship when it comes to the quality of content produced, but in this case the issue is really sheer quantity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tragedy of the commons, it’s the idea that, given a shared resource, rational actors are incentivized to consume as much of that resource as possible, before the other actors can do so. This leads to the eventual, often permanent, depletion of the resource. So for example, farmers grazing their sheep on public land have every incentive to have their sheep consume as much grass as possible, despite the fact that this may ruin the land and eventually make it unsuitable for any grazing at all.

At first glance, the problems with the distributed authorship model may seem like exactly the opposite problem: in the distributed authorship model, our content creators are incentivized to overproduce, rather than overconsume. Our tendency on the web has long been, “when it doubt, put it up.” After all, webspace is nearly infinite, and the (perceived) cost is basically zero. As a result, we rarely think to ourselves, “Why am I putting this online? Does it serve an actual purpose for actual users?” So when faced with the question of whether or not to put something on their website, each content creator, in charge of a small territory of, say, a dozen or two pages, may rationally think, “I’m not positive that anyone actually wants, needs, or is looking for this information. But someone might need it someday, so why not?” Now multiply that decision across dozens or even hundreds of content creators — none of whom is aware of what the others are doing — contributing to an institutional web presence, and we wind up with hundreds, even thousands of pages of content that no one (including their creators) really cares about. This useless content chokes search results pages, leads users down rabbit holes of irrelevant or outdated content, and drains staff efficiency by forcing them to both maintain more and more web content *and* to deal with phone calls from confused and frustrated users who can’t complete the tasks they’ve come to the website to do.

How is this like the tragedy of the commons? If we think about it, in the distributed authorship model, content is not the finite resource — our users’ attention span is. Our users’ attention is the grass, and our content is the flock of hungry sheep. That content devours our users’ attention to the point where they throw up their hands in frustration and simply pick up the phone, or worse, give up entirely and move on. If we want to sustain this finite resource, some measure of governance must be put in place. Requiring our editors to work with a centralized strategist in the creation of any new content, rather than giving them free reign to create pages as they see fit, would be an excellent start.

(originally posted on my blog)