I'm afraid that amid all of h2g2c2 talk, I've been fairly useless, because I don't really have much to contribute in the task of making sure h2g2 survives. However, my experience in h2g2 in almost every facet of the community (quick resume: I am the fourth most prolific solo writer on h2g2, I am its duly elected Vice President, I have been an Editor, miner, polisher for the UnderGuide, a regular in both PR and the AWW, a scout, an ACE, a sub-editor, a guru, a University field researcher twice over, a Post contributor, and an eight-year member of the community) makes me better equipped to answer a different question than the question of its survival. My question is, if h2g2 is to survive, what can we do to make it thrive?
I am basing this argument on the assumption that a) h2g2 will survive and b) that the community will, in the new incarnation of h2g2, have a role in determining the new direction of the site. My argument is that h2g2 will best thrive as an ongoing celebration of writing1, nurtured by a supportive, friendly community. I will divide my argument into two parts - Why I believe this, and How I believe this can be accomplished.
h2g2 has proven itself on the internet in one distinct way. It is, as far as I know, the only community-based website that produces a unconventional, creative non-fiction writing. The difference between wiki and h2g2 has been well established, and I need not get into it here. There is simply no analogue to h2g2 in existence (that I'm aware of). No competition.
However, h2g2 has also proven itself in two other ways that are not unique. First, it has a vibrant, friendly community. While h2g2 seems to be an oasis to many of us, there are in fact plenty of other friendly internet communities. Second, it has proven capable of producing excellent creative writing and communication, as we can see from the example of The Post, the UnderGuide, AViators, etc. This is not unique across the web, either.
These three attributes are our strengths. What do they all have in common? They are all based on interesting writing, or communication. Though I would not mark some of the more asinine ask h2g2 conversation to be great art, some of the conversations on h2g2 rival our entries in the virtues of expression and creativity.
Some people seem to think that because the site's Edited Guide is really the only unique part of h2g2, that we need to emphasize this above all else in order to justify our existence. I think that this conclusion is incorrect. The combination of creative writing, broad creative non-fiction and a vibrant community already is unique on the web. All of the three parts of the site nurture one another in various ways. Most hootoo denizens find themselves enjoying more than one aspect of the site, be it as volunteers, readers, writers or community members. This makes for a dynamic user experience that is not to be found anywhere else on the web. No other site offers the combination of what h2g2 offers.
I conclude, then, that h2g2 has three great strengths as a website, and that these are unified in the idea of great writing and communication. At this point, it does not matter what our original purpose was (which was, I suppose, the cultivation of the Edited Guide). What matters is that we have proven ourselves adept at much more than just writing for the EG. We must play to our strengths.
If h2g2 is to become a celebration of writing, it must free itself of certain ideas. Among them:
The idea that the community, edited guide and creative guide are separate things, or that the edited guide's existence supports and accommodates the existence of the superfluous community/creative portions of the site. Of the three areas I've identified, none of them should be considered superior, and they should not be considered distinct and unconnected.
The idea that challenging ourselves to produce quality content is somehow elitist or will scare off new members. Somehow we seem to have got the idea that someone who is experiencing h2g2 for the first time will only jump in if it looks easy, or if the site appeals to the lowest common denominator. I don't believe it is elitist to suggest that maintaining a high standard of content (again, this idea of content is to be considered holistically - in the forms of conversation, entries, etc) will attract the sort of people who will enjoy h2g2 the most.
The idea that it is impossible to objectively distinguish between good, average and bad content. I'll use my own work here as an example, to avoid causing offense to anyone. Take a look at this entry. Then take a look at this entry. It's not hard to tell what point I'm trying to make here. It is not an exact science, but it is possible to tell when someone puts effort and creativity into a piece of writing, and it is possible to tell when someone does not put forth any discernible effort or creativity. Incidentally, guess which of those entries was more fun and rewarding to write? The UnderGuide was successful in establishing a quality filter, but the Edited Guide never really attempted this. Why? I think it's because of the different guidelines of the two. The Edited Guide's writing guidelines are long and exclusive. The UnderGuidelines are: 1) entries must abide by house rules, 2) no plagiarism and 3) entries should be unsuitable in some way for the edited guide. That's it - three very simple guidelines. This has worked for the UnderGuide because we chose to judge an entry on its merits as a piece of writing, rather than against a set of fairly arbitrary criteria. The UnderGuidelines page offers a set of positive suggestions, rather than negative restrictions. The EG and UG way of doing things were completely different, but I believe that the UG way was superior and more conducive to the establishment of a culture that celebrates writing.
The idea that if we attempt to improve our output, this will leave no place for new writers or new community members. I believe that there should be a place on h2g2 for all forms of writing, from the absolutely sublime to the average. I often use myself as an example here. When I first came here, I wrote a lot of stuff that would be flattered to be called average. Since then, I've written a handful of things that I'm actually proud of. Part of the aim of a celebration of writing is to develop and encourage writers who want to be encouraged. Not every entry on h2g2 can be inspired and brilliant, and honestly, that might even get old after a while. Comparing the best to the average shows us when something is truly special.
The idea that recognizing and rewarding the best content is in some way discouraging to everyone else. I have a somewhat optimistic view of humanity in this regard, perhaps, but I believe that challenging people will bring out the best in them. The Stretcher was a good semi-recent example of this. It had one winner and a handful of "losers", but I believe that most of the "losers" will tell you that they were enriched by the process. Looking at what the Stretcher produced in terms of content, I definitely believe that h2g2 can only be the beneficiary of challenging its members.
If h2g2 is to become a celebration of writing, it will have to adopt some new ways of doing things. I have some ideas, but am obviously open to changing my mind. Some of these ideas may prove unrealistic in terms of coding and technology, but are largely inspired by existing features in h2g2 and other websites, so it must be possible. Among my ideas2:
Maintain a system of "approved" or "published" entries. One simple reason for this is that entries need to be under site control when and if they are featured by h2g2, so that an approved author can't change his or her entry at the last minute to a Nazi manifesto or something abhorrent like that. However, I don't think that this "approved" group of entries should be as restricted as our current system has it. Finished entries meeting a reasonable standard of quality and a small number of guidelines should be accepted for publication. I also don't think that there should be a set number of entries per day. Publish them as they become available.
A single, unified peer review system. The name "Peer Review" has some serious connotations, so it would be good to change it, but I'm not sure what to. I'm willing to debate the way that this happens, but I think it makes sense to invest the three major functions of guide volunteers into one entity - the Curators. Curators, as I imagine it, could be scouts, sub-eds, and curators all in one. They would be the people who maintain and nurture the content of h2g2. If two (three?) Curators select an entry from the new Peer Review, then it automatically moves into some sort of editing purgatory, where all Curators have access to editing it (editing should be confined to bringing out the message of the writer, so fixing obvious errors). Once two or three Curators have read through it and declared it ready for publication, it moves to the front page. At this point, Curators can still change or add to entries in response to comments, corrections or events, as is their current role. The Curator role is at all stages collaborative. A given Curator may focus on only one role, or may do all three if he or she wishes, on an "as-and-when" basis. Curators should be responsible, established members of the community, sensitive to the intent of an author, and responsible to the community. I think that in remodeling the volunteer schemes in this way, we could become more efficient and quick (dare I say it, we could take advantage of some of the benefits of wikipedia in terms of editing, without selling out the personality of our entries).
A tag system to identify content. Conversations and entries should be able to be tagged, like blog posts are. That will improve their search-ability, and will make it possible to identify to the reader what "genre" a piece of writing is - fiction, personal narrative, non-fiction, etc3.
A voting system on content. Without this, none of the other aspects I've put forward make sense. Once an entry is published, there are buttons to vote on an entry. Whether the buttons are like facebook's "Like this", or imdb's stars, or Rotten Tomatoes' tomatometer or digg.com's system, or something else entirely I'm not exactly sure. But I have a few specifications. It should be anonymous. It also needs to be able to recognize several things. First, votes should be able to create a list showing which recent entries have received the best ratings (which should be published on the Front Page). Second, votes should be able to tell which entries of all time have received the best ratings (which should be published somewhere). Third, and this is probably the trickiest, it should be able to tell what entries within a set of tags has the best ratings. So, if I look up the tag "Fiction", I should find a list of the best Fiction entries on h2g2. If I look up "Ohio" I should find the most interesting and stimulating entries on Ohio on h2g2 (if there are any). This fits with h2g2's role as a site for browsing and reading for pleasure, rather than for information. Though, of course, a search utility should be maintained to look for information also. This system should also not be negative. I don't want to see a list of the worst entries on h2g2, for instance. It may be better to not give the actual data out on the page (such as 4.7 stars/5, or "41 people like this/19 people dislike this" or whatever), but rather use the data of voting to create qualitative categories for entries, starting with "Published entry", then "Community-approved entry" and "Star Quality Entry". Something like that. Conversations could also be ranked in this way, and published according to tabs and timelines.