Consider it user-gen 2.1.
It's easy to see Helium, whose Marketplace product comes out of within the next week or two, as a website organizing the loose and large gaggle of freelance writers out there. It's attempting to do that, and that in and of itself is interesting. Even more curious though is how it points a way toward organizing user-gen and/or citizen journalism, separating wheat from chaff, providing some hierarchy of value to the booming, buzzing confusion out there.
Think about the main argument against user-gen out there: Sure, there's a tiny amount of great stuff among so much junk, and how can you find the good stuff? Helium's answer to that is to throw a set of 2.0 tools against the problem. User rankings, star ratings, a meritocracy that rewards the best stuff with money and recognition. It's a set of tools -- but more importantly, a way of thinking -- that should have a lot of resonance with those news sites trying to figure out how to engage and to apply quality-centric standards to non-staff written content. (More on applications for news sites below).
Mark Ranalli started Helium in fall of 2006. Check out the site, and you can see its basic intent, that organziation of freelancers. Ranalli 's argument is clear: why should freelance be bought and sold the same way it has for a couple of hundred years when web tools can make the selling -- for freelance writers -- and the buying -- for editors of all stripes -- easier.
To that end, Helium offers what seems to me to be a straightforward approach, adapting web tools pioneered by sites as disparate as eBay. Amazon and NewsTrust, Fabrice Florin's fledgling news-rating and rater-ranking site:
---Freelancers sign up and then can "publish" their articles on Helium
---The Helium community then rates the pieces. Ranalli says he has put into action a set of anti-gaming-the-system processes to prevent ratings click fraud and friendly logrolling.
---Articles are categorized by topic (this week, for instance, "What impact will Ralph Nader's Candidacy Have on the Presidential Race," and "Is the New Contraceptive Pill That Stops Menstruation Healthy for Women". Each topic had about two dozen pieces written by freelancers, and by my quick read, is, politely, all over the board. I can see more value in the feature (travel, pets+) topics than in political ones, in which the level of content is subpar. But as Ranalli suggests, the system may improve the content over time.
---Would-be buyers then can buy any of those articles, and of course will gravitate to the top-ranked ones. In additon to the ranking of individual articles, the writers themselves are rated (1-5 stars), on a tough curve. Ranalli says only 4.5% of the 100,000 writers (who have added 625,000 articles to the site) have earned a single star, with two dozen attaining 5 stars.
---A new Marketplace allows buyers (who would be editors of newsletters, magazines, websites, etc.) to let it be known that they're seeking an article on particular topic, say "The importance of self-image in the business world" or "Best vacation destinations for a nature-filled getaway" Publishers set a fee (currently there's a range of $16 to $100). Then Helium writers submit pieces, the publisher selects its fave and the piece is bought. Helium takes a 20% fee of the total paid by the publisher as its cut. Helium provides a standard freelance contract, further smoothing the buy/sell transaction.
So far writers' incomes are small: "A handful have made thousands of dollars, hundreds are making hundreds and and tens of thousands less than a hundred," says Ranalli.
There's a community section of course, and overall the functionality looks well-thought-out and works well.
So for any of us who have ever bought or sold freelance pieces, we can see the potential value here. It's kind of like Mochila's web-enabled syndication system. It's well-thought-out, taking what people do in the terrestrial world and using web tools to simplify and expedite it.