On Thursday we introduced a silly new “meme” page called “Dead or Alive?” which listed your authors by their mortal status–alive, dead, unknown or “not a person.” (See the blog post or check out yours.) The feature drew on the birth and death dates of the authors in our Common Knowledge system, a free (Creative Commons) “fielded wiki” for miscellaneous “cataloging” information (think “Wikipedia for book info”). To move an author from the “unknown” column, members had to find their dates and enter them onto into Common Knowledge.
Here’s a chart of Common Knowledge contributions over the last month.* Can you spot the day “Dead or Alive?” went live?
As you can see, birth, death and gender edits (gender is where you mark an author as “not a person”) went through the roof when the feature was announced—from an average of 143 edits per day, to 3731 and 3584, 25 times the average. Other edits went up too—a 30% increase.
A few members joked that it was a plot to encourage contributions to Common Knowledge. It wasn’t that. I just thought it was a funny idea, but I wasn’t unaware that it would have that effect. Indeed, the upshot shows again something of a LibraryThing finding—that regular people will contribute cataloging information if you make it meaningful to them. That is, whatever incentive there is to add author information, the incentive is increased when they’re your authors, and increased again when that information does something for you. Of course, even if incentive is personal, the effect is general; you update the author because you have his or her book, but everyone else shares in the value of that update.
The way this works undercuts a common myth of “Web 2.0″—that there are all these people out there adding “user-generated content” out of altruism or an extreme mismatch between time and exciting things to do. And it cuts against an older myth, that cataloging is so boring you have to pay people to do it.
We’ve seen the same jump every time we introduced a new Common Knowledge category, and again when we made that category “come alive” in some way for members. And although the short-term jump will surely level out, the overall rate of “dead-or-alive” entries certainly not. You get more changes when the changes do something for people.
Now, of course, there’s a whole list of things this doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that LibraryThing members are doing their job well (although I suspect they are). It doesn’t mean the same would apply to much more difficult forms of cataloging, or to forms that generally presuppose professional training (ie., LCSH). And it doesn’t mean that regular people will get to the “rare stuff,” indeed it probably means that average cataloging attention is directly related to popularity of the underlying item.
Even so, pretty cool. Oh, by the way, I’m adding a feature allowing you to compare yourself to other members, which should inflame the other great motive for personal metadata—competition. After all, my library has a higher dead/alive ratio than yours!
UPDATE: Here’s the current chart, without day-norming. Notice how everything went up.
*The numbers are normed against day-related changes. Basically, we smoothed out that many more edits are made on Monday than Saturday.