Povo Lets Residents Say What’s Best and Worst About Boston, Block by Block
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some significant fraction of users also contribute, by uploading their literal street smarts about Boston and the attractions and services that make the city worth living in.
And in that respect, Wikipedia isn’t a great model: while it’s used by millions of people every day, its content is generated and maintained by only a few thousand active contributors—people who have decided to brave not only the withering scrutiny of other Wikipedia editors but also the site’s somewhat quirky user interface and formatting conventions. Metral says Povo is doing everything it can to make that experience of contributing to a public wiki less scary.
“The biggest hurdle to people contributing to Povo is fear,” he says. “On Wikipedia there are people who know way more than me about almost every subject. But on Povo that’s not necessarily true. When it comes to the Appleton Cafe, for instance, no one knows more about that place than me, as far as I’m concerned. And with Wikipedia, I’d be afraid of breaking it. But with Povo you can’t break it. You just type into a box. In the worst case, somebody else will come along later and put your content into the form it needs to be in.” To make contributing even easier, Povo includes a feature called “Graffiti”—a box where users can, quite literally, type in something like the hours of a business and submit it for others to see with a single click.
To keep growing, Metral says Povo needs to convert at least 50 out of every 10,000 visitors into “graffiti artists” and eventually full contributors. To illustrate how the company hopes people will use the site, Povo has recruited Jed Hoyer, assistant general manager for the Red Sox, as its first “neighborhood ambassador” (also known as a “mini-mayor”). Hoyer, naturally, knows quite a lot about the neighborhood around Fenway Park, and he’s uploaded reviews of local eateries Temptations Cafe, Parish Cafe, Brasserie Joe, and Audobon Circle—not to mention the Sausage Guy, whose Lansdowne Street cart can be smelt “a mile away,” in Hoyer’s words. Povo is also currently exhorting users to upload information about “green” institutions in Boston, from places to buy locally grown food to the locations of Zipcar garages and dry cleaners that use nonpolluting solvents.
But as much as Povo is about Boston, it isn’t really about Boston; it’s a test platform for a bigger idea about how to organize user-generated local content. The site is “a collaborative platform for associating things with places and searching them,” Metral says. It will expand to other cities—probably starting with New York—and over time, Metral says, “it will fill up with whatever users feel should go there,” from properties for sale to classified ads to reviews of business, restaurants, and recreational opportunities. Or perhaps even poetry and photo albums and walking tours—every Povo user gets their own unlimited set of pages to use as they please.
But Metral says the creators of Povo will still be there to monitor and guide the site’s growth (and, of course, to monetize that growth: eventually the site will include paid advertisements). He doesn’t expect that people will take advantage of the platform’s openness to publish material that’s outright offensive or illegal; but if they do, automatic monitoring tools allow their actions to be quickly undone by other users. And if the history of Wikipedia is any guide, there will still be plenty of room left for disagreement, controversy, and plain old inaccuracies. “We have a role in making sure that the tenor of the community evolves in a certain way,” Metral says. “In a way that’s our big job now—to make sure that the snowball that we think a wiki is doesn’t have too much dirt in it.”
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