User-Contributed Knowledge at Helium

It’s billed as a “user-created reference resource” but I think that the range of articles available makes that too narrow a description. And while the content generated is described as “articles,” a lot of them seem to be too short for a thorough overview of a topic. But I like Helium anyway, at least as a beginning point.

Helium ( ) is a user-generated collection of articles (in some cases very short articles) covering a variety of topics from arts to travel. Articles are arranged in a searchable subject index, and are daisy-chained together through recommended and related articles.

The front page starts you out with topics related to news (“Why did the Dow collapse?”) and posts article teasers that direct you to a variety of other articles covering everything from health to car buying. I looked at an article on tax breaks for buying hybrid cars, which seemed to be comparing getting a tax break on a car to going on welfare. There were two more articles listed with this one that didn’t go much further with the discussion. I was looking for a state-by-state breakdown on incentives for buying a hybrid, thoughts on which hybrid to get, pointers to information on pending legislation — in other words I was hoping for way too much.

Other articles were better. You can browse articles by category or search by keywords. After wandering around a bit I ended up at a few articles on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk — both overview and user experience with. Those were interesting. I did a keyword search for weeds (it’s almost spring!) and came up with several sets of articles. Unfortunately one of the most interesting ones was the hardest to read — it hadn’t been formatted with lines between paragraphs. Perhaps contributors should have some kind of template or style guide? (Perhaps they do and they don’t use it.) Members of the site are able to rank articles by usefulness — I found that the article for a topic was not always my favorite, but generally at least the top three articles in any field of ten were useful.

Of course with user-contributed content Helium is looking for people to provide articles to the site (users can earn both fame and cash, though I suspect writing for Helium is not going to give you enough money to retire to Maui.) Users are encouraged to write to already-existing subject headings within categories, which explains why there are so many articles grouped under topics and why some of them are only marginally relevant (Helium says, “pick the title closest to your idea.”)

Most articles I looked at were not very deep, and one thing I’d like to see is link lists for all articles — where to go for more information. But if you’re looking for a topic overview, one that will perhaps educate you enough to give you more questions to ask a deeper source, this is a good place to start.

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