Local ain’t easy

Brad Feld invested in Judy’s Book, yet another effort to get people to submit reviews of local merchants and such. Fred Wilson concedes that the same issues folks like me raised with Riffs hold for Judy’s Book. Judy’s Book tries to encourage people to submit reviews by having them earn coffee cards and iPods — paying them, in other words. Paying for contributions is great. But it just indicates that it is otherwise difficult or impossible to get people to contribute content. And I’m not sure this will scale any better than previous efforts have.

I go to the North Jersey page and the questions I see are about earning those spiffs, not about good Mexican restaurants. And even if I did find those reviews, I don’t know who these people are; I don’t know whether to trust their taste. So such efforts have two problems: Getting enough contributions — which is a lot of contributions, since you’ll want to cover most vendors in most areas — and then worrying about the quality (aka trust) of those contributions.

Feld says part of the reason he invested in Judy’s Book is because it comes from Andy Sack, who created the very similar Abuzz, which was a success … well, at least it was for Sack and his investors (including Feld). But Abuzz was bought by the New York Times Company and proceeded to be a bust. There were efforts to get us involved when I was working at Advance and I resisted them all for the same reasons then as I do now:

1. It’s hard to scale local.

2. It’s hard to convince people to contribute content to me when they can now control content on their own.

If, instead, you can find ways to harness (aggregate, link to, make searchable, whatever) the content that people create under their own control and connected with their own identities (aka trust), then I think that will be superior.

There are models for local that may work, just not in a neat, centralized way. Baristanet is one. NashvilleIsTalking is another. Both leave control and content and trust and identity at the edges.

If you can figure out a way to enable that — with search, functionality, ratings of the raters, and revenue — then I think you’ll have a winner. Until then, I will wish luck to Judy’s Book and Riffs and other such services. But I think you’ll be just a centralized waystation on the path to a distributed future. Think edgey.

  • Hmm – what if companies like Judy’s Book helped enable a distributed future? Consider that foreshadowing. Remember – it’s beta (smile).

  • Brad: Then bravo if they do. Can’t wait to see the open microformat API!!

  • “If, instead, you can find ways to harness (aggregate, link to, make searchable, whatever) the content that people create under their own control and connected with their own identities (aka trust), then I think that will be superior.”

    Agreed. We feature original content on site, posted by anyone with an account, but like Slashdot, an editor volunteer team decides what makes it to the home page – but we also have our aggregator – which you can sample by doing topic seaches:



    Or Phillies

    I’m choosing sports since content is guarenteed to be there

    How about cheesesteak (not bad – could be better)

    Mayor Street

    Septa (our public transportation system)

    Or you can sample by reading the headlines we have from many flowing across our site in various channels and on the home page.

    It could be far better if we had resources and time to dedicate to it. Being a grassroots effort – done part time – I hope it shows promise. I wish I had the time to implement tagging and encourage microformats across our aggregated blogs so that we could be even more distributed.

    It definately is hard to scale local. Writing about local subject matter is more precarious than about subject matter that is of interest, no matter where. Community helps. I can learn more about Philly visiting Phillyblogs.com (a message board that is misnamed), than almost anyplace else.

    I like what I see at Judy’s Book – it shows promise. However it runs headstrong into Yahoo’s local efforts (http://local.yahoo.com/) which grow better all the time. I’m thinking about using their APIs to integrate its content into Philly Future.

  • Hey, love the story. I am a Baristanet junkie and usually my tales of woe in “Me First” Montclair, NJ make their way onto the screen. Glad you are checking in!

  • What I like most about their site is that they scoop the local weekly and even the Star Ledger’s local beat reporter on a daily basis. It’s like having an up-to-the-minute community watch.

  • Hi Jeff: Thanks for the mention, and the healthy skepticism (there’s nothing more satisfying than proving your critics wrong — the savvier the critic, the greater the pleasure).

    We strongly agree with your core assertions: that local is hard, and that authors want control over their content and their identities. We also share your concern for the “trustworthiness” of online content and authors. (Take a look at our new TrustScore(TM) feature — a specific effort we’ve undertaken to assign a value to author credibility based on author behavior and community feedback over time).

    The one point of criticism that continues to puzzle us is the idea that authors shouldn’t be able to participate in the economic value they create through their efforts. We’ve been suprised at the number of critics who point to our incentives as “proof” that our business won’t work. Our (mostly private) reaction is that any business that hopes to extract value from user-generated content without sharing that value with the authors is headed for a brick wall.

    As any participant in the online authorship business can attest, people write for a complex bundle of reasons, but the core impulse behind the behavior is a fundamental human need for validation. This can come in many forms — page views, RSS subscriber counts, reader comments, etc. — but (especially in our consumer society) the most powerful metric for self-validation is economic: i.e., how much is my content worth?

    Our recent promotions are admittedly crude proxies for a content-valuation system that assigns rewards based on quality and value creation over time (consider again our TrustScore mechanism). But it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a local word-of-mouth referrals system that marries community policing of content quality and trustworthiness with an advertsiser-funded incentive system that rewards those same virtues.

    If we had misgivings about our idea when we started the company, those have been steadily eroded by the feedback we’re getting from our consumer and merchant customers. The fact that every major media company, a growing band of startups, and even left-field entrants like Intuit are now training their guns on the same concept also suggests that we aren’t completely crazy.

    As always, ideas are easy, execution is hard, and skepticism — yours and others’ — just adds fuel to the fire. We’re glad to be on your radar, and look forward to your feedback as we iterate over the coming months.

    Best regards,
    Chris DeVore
    Judy’s Book COO & Co-Founder

  • I like the basic TrustScore concept you’ve described here Chris (where is a link to more about it). Like you said – execution is hard. I don’t have the resources – but you *do* have the resources to go distributed with such a concept – and it would be huge.

    Wish I could pay folks to write :) I don’t think that is any kind of negative thing against you whatsoever. I’d pay. I’d gladdly pay.

  • Thanks for the feedback, Karl – we’ll be making an “official” announcement about TrustScore on Monday, and will have more info available on our site when we make the release. (If you’re already a Judy’s Book member, you can see the feature in action rignt now behind the member login).

  • Chris: Absolutely, authors should get a share of the value they create! Preaching to the choir there. I just think that will happen most effectively in the long run in a distributed manner. THat, too, is hard, but I I think that carries less risk and marketing expense for the likes of you… if it can be made to work.

  • Jeff, why does it has to be one or the other? Why not have both centralized and de-centralized content? Judy’s Book doesn’t have to make a decision (and nor will that decision matter much).

    The only way it can be bad is if they restrict the user. There will always be guys like you who want to post on the edge. There will always be a lot more who couldn’t give a shit where they post, simply that their opinion helps others they know and don’t know. Just let the user post wherever is most convenient.

    If the core problems are: “even if I did find those reviews, I don’t know who these people are; I don’t know whether to trust their taste.”

    Aren’t they better addressed in a centralized manner, where a greater quality of meta-data can be gleaned?

    In the end, where the review is posted is a moot point. Solving the trust/credibility issue through technology is where the interesting challenges lie ahead. They have a better chance if they have a partially-centralized data set to do that with.

    But that said, I would have to strongly disagree with Chris on the coffee cards. They no doubt have given Judy’s Book a shot in the arm in terms of the volume of reviews, but it has driven the quality level down to somewhat dubious (“This guy is great. That’s all.”) levels in a lot of cases.

    For the majority of users, helping out their friends is a much higher motivator. But when you have Insider Pages and Yelp and whomever else chasing the same opportunity, I see why the coffee cards exist, but also why they aren’t that great of a solution.

  • It’s not hard to figure it out. Here’s a list from around the world of folks who have figured it out.

    My thoughts here.

  • I think Greensboro is amazing Billy. I’d love to chat more with Roch sometime and with you. We have notes to compare and ideas to share.

  • Karl,
    Indeed, get in touch and I can get you in touch with Roch.

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