LitMatch: Research Literary Agents and Track Submissions

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Preview #5 - Meeting the Challenges of Open Listings

In last week's preview, I wrote about a major change in the way LitMatch's successor will handle updates to its listings. The new website will open those listings so that nearly anyone will have an opportunity to add or update information. While this approach offers a great deal in terms of interactivity and efficiency, it brought with it some significant challenges that we had to address in the course of developing the site.

Specifically, those challenges were:

  1. How to prevent accidental deletion of information.
  2. How to prevent malicious users from intentionally deleting critical information or planting false information.
  3. How to allow listee companies and individuals to protect their own listings, and maintain their own content.
  4. How to protect our users from scams, and malicious companies and individuals.
All serious considerations, and ones for which we've developed some pretty serious solutions. Let's look at them one at a time.

Maintaining Data Integrity
The first is really about protecting data from those "oops" moments, like the times when you accidentally remove an entire paragraph of text and only realize it the instant after you click "save". Or worse, thinking you've hit the "save" button when you really just hit "delete".

To address this, we've taken some cues from wiki sites such as Wikipedia (or, if you're a Star Wars fan like me, Wookiepedia) and put in place a complete revision management system. This system allows you to view any revision that has been made to a given listing since the time it was created. In this way, no change to a listing is ever lost. Users will be able to view this history and compare versions in order to see which specific details changed from one to the next. If necessary, older versions can be made current, bypassing all subsequent changes, but still leaving those changes in the edit history in case they need to be referred to or restored later.

All this relates to our second challenge: limiting the impact of malicious users. Anytime you have a website that allows users to post content, you're guaranteed that, eventually, someone will try to post spam. It's an unfortunate reality of life on the web, but one that we've taken steps to limit as much as possible.

First, we're allowing only registered users to make changes to the listings. It's a simple step that allows users and administrators to see exactly who's making changes to which listings. If a user spams the site, he can be removed quickly and his revisions just as quickly reversed. We've also beefed up our registration process in order to weed out robots and auto-posters (though registration is still free, just as it always has been!)

Identifying inappropriate content is simple, too. If you see something that looks questionable, you'll be able to click a button that flags the listing for review. You can also remove questionable content directly by reverting the listing to an earlier revision, or by removing the content entirely in a new revision. However, for safety reasons, users will not have the ability to delete a listing completely; that's a task we've reserved only for site administrators.

Allowing Data Ownership
That takes care of a good deal of data integrity issues, but what about listees who want to own their own information? If a literary agent wants control over what appears on his page, or a professional editor wants to make sure competitors don't come in and remove crucial information, what then? That's where Official Listings come into play.

Official Listings are listings that can only be edited by one person. In the case of a literary agent listing, the agent himself might control the content. In the case of a market listing, the content may be maintained by an editor or a publisher. Once a listing becomes official, the listing becomes locked to everyone except that listing's owner, preventing changes from anyone except for that official poster.

The process for creating an official listing is simple, but for the sake or safety and accuracy, not automated. Users who wish to take over a listing will need to contact the site's administrators in order to make the listing official, and that will only happen after we've verified the user's identity and his affiliation with the listing in question. Like registration on the site, creating an official listing will be completely free, and listees will not be charged for the ability to maintain their own information.

Enabling Data Commentary
That leaves us with one final task: protecting users from scams and predators. LitMatch, in its current form, weeds out agencies that have been identified through other sources as charging up-front fees, as well as those that are fronts for self-publishing companies, and not really agencies at all. With the open nature of the new site, we can't effectively keep such companies from becoming part of our database. So, how will we protect writers from those who might seek to take advantage of them?

We've provided not just one answer, but several, by giving users options for interacting with and commenting on a listing without necessarily changing the content of that listing. The first of those options is the comment system. This system is already in place on the current site, and allows users to post their personal experiences related to a listing, as well as information they might have come across that may not fit into the listing's structure. Unlike the current site, comments will appear immediately, without the need to go through an administrative filter (though they can still be moderated after they are posted).

The second, and more powerful option to protect against scams is a built-in warning system. Using this system, users will be able to flag a listing in order to warn others about any questionable practices by the listee. If a listing receives enough warnings, it will be marked accordingly, alerting users to proceed with caution. In addition, users will be able to rate any listing on a scale of 1 to 5, giving an indication of the overall quality of the services that the listee provides.

The final option is perhaps the most exciting one, and deserving of an entire preview all by itself. But here's a hint: any user will be able to connect nearly any piece of content they create on the site to any listing, providing additional context to the listing and the information it contains. Watch for more information on that set of features in the coming weeks.

With all of these options, the information they create connects to the listing, but is not part of the listing itself. This means that reviews, comments, warnings, and related content cannot be changed or removed by anyone except the user who created them. In the case of Official Listings, listing owners will not be able to change the information that relates to their listings, only the listings themselves. In this way, we've done our best to create a kind of church-and-state separation between listing content and listing context.

That's a lot of information to digest, so I'll leave it there for now. Watch your inbox for our monthly newsletter, in which I'll provide a project status update and drop some more hints about new functionality. And watch this space next week for more previews!

Christopher Hawkins

1 comment:

evanjamesroskos said...

looking forward to the update. sounds like you've thought through some crucial issues. and the wiki-foundation is perfect for this kind of data. hopefully things go smooth with the usability testing!