Pelican Santa Barbara ©Gary Hayes 2005Picking up from a thread in my previous post, something that I have been occasionally known to fume about is ‘professional’ attitudes to user generated content. We are moving into a period where there will be more user generated content in the next two years than in all human history and alongside this we have range of attitudes that vary from fear, snobbery or encouragement. Snobbery is a nice word for some of the ‘takes’ I have heard from my fellow producers, broadcasters and gatekeepers over the years.

Why the wall then between on one side, professionals and gifted wanabee amateurs and the other ‘normal people’, whatever they are? I have split the attitudes of the pro/gifted ams into three camps.

The conduits. Not a great term, but blogging in the morning means my vocab has not kicked in properly, but I digress. ‘Conduits’ are the enlightened content gatekeepers, broadcasters who realise to ignore the growing ‘noisy’ majority is to do it at their peril. They create areas for the great user content conversation to grow and flourish.
The scared. Those who would rather bury their heads in the sand, ostrich thinking, and keep doing what we are doing hoping ‘they’ might go away, burn themselves out. They know something is afoot but are not quite sure what to do about it. They know their days are numbered anyway but try to hang on to what they have regardless.
The snobs. These are the worst kind. They simply say that there is a world of difference between what we ‘professionals’ do and what the public do. The public stuff is not fit to grace our TV’s and we don’t want to dirty ourselves by making it look good.

OK there are probably lots more of attitudinal categories but for now lets go with those. Firstly lets decide what user generated content is. The content itself is textual opinion and discussion (comments, diaries etc), photos and audio/video. These are delivered through managed big and small brand portals and via self-publishing, blogs or avBlogs.
Here is a mixed bag that sums up the current media take on the ‘user content revolution’.

In a previous post I mentioned that moving internet user content onto TV is receiving mixed reviews. The article Current TV fast but treacherous points out how ‘appalling’ it can be if done wrong – they perhaps fail to note that the early ventures into this territory may be more about early bird cash-in, rather than really providing a valuable platform for good user work to emerge.

Perhaps the antithesis of the above model is the BBC who (having personally been part of that ‘listening to the British conversation’ machine for over 8 years and involved in many TV/web ‘user portals’) exist on being a ‘trusted’ conduit. The recent article “BBC site braces itself for more open user comments system” points out that users have a real appetite for sharing thoughts if it is well managed, but also that to moderate and make sure the conversation stays on topic and in the moment is not easy

An average 6,000 comments are submitted on a typical day, and up to 20,000 on a busy news day – but only around 10 per cent of those are published.

But it goes on to point out that because only 10 per cent get through users here are perhaps motivated more by vanity than social good? But that is changing and self-moderation by the users themselves is the only way to go. In reference to the old model moving to the new…

“It’s a bad user experience. It’s arbitary, unpredictable and users get frustrated because their comments aren’t being published.”
Mr Mermelstein described the new system as a ‘quiet revolution’ for BBC News Online because of the more relaxed approach to content moderation.
Due to launch on 10 October after nine months in development, the new system is effectively a heavily customised message board system that features different discussion topics each day.
More contentious subjects subjects will be fully moderated but for the first time, comments on selected threads will be posted live on the site. The new system will rely mostly on ‘reactive moderation’, asking readers to report inappropriate content and material that breaches house rules.
Readers recommend
Users will be able to browse comments either by chronological order or by a ‘reader recommend’ rating system.
A typical reader might scan just 15 or 20 comments, so the recommendation system is an efficient way for readers to browse the best content. It also encourages readers to become more involved with discussion threads by flagging useful or interesting contributions.

There are so many conferences around the world looking at this topic now as social networks become such a dominant force that a few of my other category the ‘scared’ are starting to peep out of the sand. A conference “User Content the Real Deal” in a couple of weeks in London sums this up succinctly:

“User generated content” (UGC) poses challenges to both broadcast and publishing media and to consumer brands. This event will look at how large-scale media players and brands – as well as newcomers in the digital sphere – are approaching and working with the growing phenomenon of User Generated Content as a way to engage consumers and build relationships that gel with the C2B power-dynamic ushered in by the digital age. How is the balance of power changing? For a start, much UGC creation, consumption and sharing takes place outside the normal parameters of media control – whether that is the control of creation and distribution which is handed over to consumers by the combination of portable music players, editing and file-sharing software + internet, or the control of what we can see, and what constitutes “entertainment”.

Another take on user content is the realisation that around any popular human activity there will be the ‘low life’. The vultures that swoop around the skies above ad hoc nomadic marketplaces looking to cash-in and prey on the most valuable asset, the large group. This Wired article yesterday about Web 2.0 (seems 1.0 to 2.0 is popular at moment – see previous post) – falls partly into my snobbery classification while also pointing out that the new, user generated participatory web 2.0 is itself falling prey to the same problems as web 1.0, the old corporate driven model.

The cycle is so predictable, it’s almost a natural law: Every new internet movement popular enough to generate buzz also generates a backlash. While there’s no strict agreement on exactly what Web 2.0 is, much of it involves public participation and contributions from the commons. (snip) “A lot of participatory media is mediocre,” blogger and journalist Nicholas Carr told Wired News. (snip) “The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional,” wrote Carr. “We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity.” Speaking to Wired News, Carr lamented the long, slow decline of professionally produced media, like good old-fashioned newspapers.

We can certainly expect attitudes like this, especially from journalists, film and TV crafts people and professional musicians. After all ‘we’ (yes I am one too) have trained all our lives and the world is not fair – a guy who spent a day randomly wandering with his DV cam talking about life in South Central LA is more downloaded that “that film that took me ten years to make”!. This is a natural response but one we will have to get used to. I am not suggesting for one moment that user generated will take over from the polished or that the pro stuff will come back. Both will co-exist. I leave you with a final article which shows the realignment that will take place over the coming years. It is one thing to have democratisation of content distribution (as long as it isn’t stealing some of the pro stuff – won’t go into bit torrent recent court cases!), but it is unlikely to remain a flat landscape. We are already seeing the star bloggers, the best commentators, the best new filmmakers. Each social network has within it an inherent human mechanism to praise and push up the good and to eject the bad – broadcasting has been in this mode for the last 50 years, but that is changing as there are too many voices to be heard now. Back to the Wired article “Bringing order to Blogosphere” which is looking at another variant on my conduit class. There are good blogs, false blogs, very bad blogs and great blogs. Put all the great ones together and voila…

Pajamas Media has signed up 70 bloggers including‘s Glenn Reynolds, CNBC’s Lawrence Kudlow and Pamela from Atlas Shrugs. The site, which will officially launch Nov. 16 (snip) The site aims to be “a whole online news service of bloggers from all over the world,” said Simon. With a list of contributors that reads like a who’s who of the political blogosphere, Pajamas Media thinks its daily blog picks will be of a higher quality than automated services like Memeorandum or keyword aggregators like Technorati.(snip) “It’s not about right or left, it’s a different model,” Simon said. “There will be 70 different people with 70 different views.”

So clumping the good stuff together makes sense, isn’t that how the media has worked since the beginning of well, the media? Newspapers, TV, Radio are just groups of good storytellers and commentators – the real big differences here, which is the main thrust of the post, is that anyone on the planet can join the club, if they are good enough. Finally another great conduit example which I mentioned a few posts ago. MTV realising the need to ‘incubate’ good music, to at least be seen to sponsor ‘amatuer’ activity is good for its image. The link to the press release on Oct 10 “mtvU – Student produced New Music, Original Shows and Features

Driven by overwhelming student demand, “mtvU Uber” is available everywhere, through both non-stop streaming and a unique on-demand capability, enabling viewers to customize their experience. “With today’s announcement, we are handing over an entire channel online to college students and everyone who wants new music,” said Stephen Friedman, GM, mtvU. “mtvU Uber gives them the power to create and program their own channel, and will remain in perpetual beta mode as they experiment and pioneer the digital future.”

About sums this post up. Who is going to create the digital future? Will it be those entrenched and hanging on for life in old business models or the ‘new blood’ given the tools to create. I suspect very heavily the latter. There can be a win-win situation though if the ‘scared and the snobs’ become the ‘conduits’ – if they don’t the term ‘dinosaur’ will indeed reach its natural conclusion.

Posted by Gary Hayes ©2005