New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for CBS News’s Sunday Morning, delivered the conference’s keynote speech, “A Professional Reviewer Reviews the Users.” Pogue began by explaining that the biggest advantage of the Web over traditional media is not the expanded user feedback, but rather that users themselves are beginning to be the source of content. He cited a number of popular social networking and user-generated information Web sites, many of which had sold shortly after their creation for extravagant sums. These included giants like Facebook, YouTube, Prosper, Kiva, GoLoco, E-Petitions, and Who is Sick? It’s almost illogical, Pogue said, when referring to Wikipedia, that a user-edited encyclopedia should be so accurate: “It just doesn’t seem like it should work, does it?” he mused. But, of course, it does, he asserted. Pogue said that, according to Technorati, seventy-five blogs are created every minute. Although most of them are probably never used after their creation, he said, “This is the new status quo; it is expected you will have a voice on the Web.”

There has been institutional resistance among traditional media outlets toward using the full potential of the Web, Pogue said. His early efforts at Web reporting for The New York Times were an example of that resistance.
Editors were reluctant to invest in videos, graphics and blogs; there was poor interactivity and Pogue received very little feedback on his work. The paper’s mentality was that such efforts did not sell ads and generate
revenue, but Pogue argued that they would “improve the brand.” Then the Times “opened it up … and everything changed.” The Times added a comments section under blog posts, for example, and Pogue received 1,335 comments over the first weekend.

Citing the value of “instant feedback,” Pogue then returned to his main point about user-generated reviews, showing a slide of stampeding buffalo that drew laughs from the crowd. He then listed a number of Web sites that
review everything from consumer electronics, to doctors, to cars, to boyfriends. One of the best, he said, is the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), which includes user reviews of movies. This is where the illogical becomes logical. Even if there are a few “jerks” and bad reviews, they will be marginalized by the thousands of reviewers chiming in. “The cumulative wisdom will steer you in the right direction,” Pogue said. Yet there are still poorly managed comment and review sites, he added, citing YouTube as one example. But the advantages of social media are clear. Even in the case of fake reviews and businesses trying to “game the system” for their own benefit, Pogue said, “the real stuff greatly overwhelms the bogus stuff.” And innovations that address these problems keep coming, Pogue explained. TripAdvisor, for example, is a Web site where “you can search and
sort not just for how good a hotel is, but for how good it is for your kind of person.” Pogue also cited Shopping.com, where consumers are not only able to search for the cheapest products, but for the cheapest products from reliable vendors. “There are technological solutions to a lot of this stuff,” he said.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.