Saturday, September 30, 2006

Profscan

So my first real stab at starting a user-content driven service came back in 1999, when I had just started university (Computer Science at Concordia here in Montreal).

I hated it.

I hated a lot of the teachers, many of whom I felt were sub-par at best. Some were too old and didn't seem to care. Others were too young and inexperienced. Others just had what seemed like purely malicious teaching practices. I remember one prof used to write his notes on the chalkboard with his right and while he erased what he had just written with the left. If you, the student, failed to take notes in real time (at the speed he was writing) -- you missed it. He refused to go back or make any course material available before or after class.

The idea, then, was to create a website whereby students could rate their teachers, leaving comments on strengths and weaknesses. With strong enough student participation we felt we could get over the obvious opprotunity for bias. We had to pre-filter the comments and ratings to make sure students weren't abusing the system, so the site required moderators.

Profscan (http://ctr.concordia.ca/archives/is290499/art12.html) ran for a couple of years at Concordia before we had to shut it down due to a lack of time. We tried expanding it to McGill and at one point pitched it to the Canadian Federation of Students, the body that oversees all (I believe) university student unions. Our hope was that with their support we could take the service nationwide. It never panned out.

As far as we were aware, profscan was the first of its kind but certainly not the last. http://www.coursereviews.com/ seems to be the big gun right now, though what happened to www.teacherreviews.com, I'm not sure.

Amalgamations of user-created product (or people, or places) reviews has matured and taken root on the net. epinions.com comes to mind, but perhaps even more valuable is the rise (in number and in quality) of reviews on amazon -- direct on the vendors' site, rather then through an intermediary.

I haven't done an exhaustive search, but I wonder how many elements of our daily life could be improved with a 'rateyour*.*' site. Wondering what the quality of life at a potential employer is really like? check out what past and current employees have said. New school for your kids? See what past parents have said about the teachers, lunch service and school bullies. Rating restaurants and books is easy. I like to see services in this vein applied to areas that can have a greater impact on the quality of our lives and where it is sometimes hard to get the 'inside scoop'.

myspace and facebook have effectively taken this to the micro level with the online popularity contest that is the social networking site. By creative a myspace page you are effectively inviting people to rate you -- of course, few people would leave a negative myspace comment up, given that the person 'being rated' is also the moderator of the site. Myspace without moderators? For many people the page would likely be blank, or filled with extremes that lacked value. With enough traffic and participation, though, the extremes would trend to 0 while the 'truth' would (hopefully) emerge from the chaos. I wonder what Bill Gate's page would look like on my hypothetical 'notmyspace.com'?

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