UGC its rude, its wrong and it misses the point

Despite recent reports that blogging is dead traditional media companies are still rushing to embrace UGC – User Generated Content – and in many ways that’s great. Except User Generated Content is the wrong framing and so risks failing to deliver the benefits it might. I also find it a rather rude term.

Graffiti

Newspapers and media companies are all trying to embrace UGC — they are blogging and letting folk comment on some of their articles — and if Adam Dooley of snoo.ws is right with good reason, he suggests that UGC might be saving the newspapers.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that this [growth in] popularity has come since many papers have embraced both the Internet’s immediacy (real time news is the thing) and its ability to foster debate and discussion with readers. It’s also come since major papers such as the New York Times have taken the locks off their content making most or all of it free online.

But depressingly UGC is also seen by some as no more than a way to get content on the cheap from a bunch of mindless amateurs, geeks and attention seekers. This view and indeed the very term itself helps to create a dichotomy between professional journalists and the like on one side and everybody else on the other. As Scott Karp points out:

There is a revolution in media because people who create blogs and MySpace pages ARE publishers, and more importantly, they are now on equal footing with the “big,” “traditional” publishers. There has been a leveling of the playing field that renders largely meaningless the distinction between “users” and “publishers” — we’re all publishers now, and we’re all competing for the finite pie of attention. The problem is that the discourse on trends in online media still clings to the language of “us” and “them,” when it is all about the breakdown of that distinction.

Sure most bloggers don’t have the audience of the online newspapers and media companies and there are plenty of people who, as the New Scientist article points out, are simply attention seekers. But that still doesn’t make them ‘users’ and nor does it mean that they’re ‘generating content’ anymore than any other publisher – indeed one might argue that they are less ‘content generators’ than professional journalists. As I sit here writing this post am I a user? If I am I have no idea what I’m using other than WordPress, and if I am then so must journalists be users of their CMS. I know one thing for sure, I don’t think of myself as a user of someone’s site and I don’t create content for them. I suspect most people are the same.

Bloggers, those that contribute to Wikipedia, or otherwise publish content on the Web are amateur publishers — in the same way that amateur sportsmen and women are amateur athletes, whatever their ability — until they give up their day job. But that doesn’t necessarily make them any less knowledgeable about the subject they are writing about. Indeed an ‘amateur publisher’ might well know much more about the subject they are writing about than a professional journalist because they have direct person experience of their subject matter. Whether that be a technical blog by someone who helps make the technology, a news story written on Wikinews or BreakingNewsOn by someone that was there and experienced the events being written about, or even the man that invented the Web. Are any of these people doing UGC? I don’t know what they think – but I know that when I write for this blog, or upload a photo to Flickr – I don’t think I’m generating user content, I’m not doing UGC.

It seems to me that newspapers and media companies need to work to understand how amateur publishers and others can contribute. Not that that is easy — the best bloggers know their subject inside-out, more so than any professional journalist — but equally there is plenty of drivel out there, in both the amateur and professional spheres. For sure there are dreadful blogs, YouTube is full of inane video and fatuous comments but equally partisan news outlets like Fox News, the Daily Mail present biased, misleading and often downright inaccurate reporting. In the week of the US Presidential Elections it is worth considering whether Barack Obama’s use of the Internet — including the role of amateur publishers, UGC if you like — helped dull the effect of such biased news reporting which has historically had a significant role.

The trick then is to find the best content, whoever has written it, and bring it to the fore for people to read and debate. To understand what it is about the Web that makes it an effective communication medium and to harness that in whatever way that that makes sense for each context. Considering the Web in the same patronising fashion as the Culture and Media Secretary Andy Burnham does, that is as “…an excellent source of casual opinion” fails to recognise the value that debate and discussion can bring to a subject.

On writing about Perl on Rails

When I wrote about ‘Perl on Rails’ on the BBC’s Radio Labs blog, naively perhaps, I didn’t expect the storm that resulted. I wrote it because I thought that it was interesting and I hoped that others would find it interesting.

Those that followed the story will be aware that much of the discussion wasn’t about what I wrote per se instead what it implied about the BBC’s infrastructure. This was a shame because ‘Perl on Rails’ is really a very good piece of technology. Its light weight, our teams understand the paradigms and syntax (without retraining) and it performs very well. Anyway you will be able to see for yourselves when we release the source.

But the BBC’s response to all of this has been incredible, and one that I am clearly very thankful for, as discussed by Curtis Poe:

We’ve recently gotten in some new IT management and today when I got into work, I found a scathing email from one of the higher ups. He read the “BBC Fails at the Internet” post and rather than blow a gasket that internal details had been made public, he forwarded it to the responsible parties, said he agreed, and made it very clear that the problem will be fixed immediately or else he will personally (do something which should obviously be kept secret). Whether or not this presages a significant change remains to be seen, but it was far and away one of the most enlightened responses I’ve seen from management to a situation like this. Rather than try to fix the blame, he is trying to fix the problem. What a novel idea!

And despite various things the BBC has done wrong, this is what the BBC does right. Blogs are for communicating, not for press releases. They’re not official discussions, but they can say a lot more about a company than an official communication which is carefully vetted by lawyers. And while the BBC has plenty of blogs, you don’t even have to blog there about your job if you don’t want to… I finally get to work for a company which “gets” blogs.

Quite right.

Facebook: new social network site; same old walled garden

Last year the buzz was around MySpace now its Facebook and before that Friends Reunited and Linkedin. I have to confess that I’ve never really grokked these services – I’ve played around with them a bit – but generally never really got that much out of them. Preferring to stick with email, IM, Flickr, del.icio.us and my blog.

Trends in Facebook, MySpace, Friends Reunited and Linkedin

The problem I’ve always faced with community sites, such as LinkedIn or Facebook, is that I’m never sure I want to maintain yet another online presence. I know that they provide tools to help bootstrap the site with data about your group of friends (importing contacts from your email account etc.) but there’s more to it than that. And in the back of my mind I know that all too soon there will be a new site out there doing more or less the same thing but with a twist that grabs everyone’s attention. And the reason this is a problem is, as Steve Rubel points outs, because they are walled gardens.

Despite the age of openness we live in, Facebook is becoming the world’s largest, and perhaps most successful, walled garden that exists today…

The problem, however, lies in this fact – Facebook gives nothing back to the broader web. A lot of stuff goes in, but nothing comes out. What happens in Facebook, stays in Facebook. As Robert Scoble noted, it’s almost completely invisible to Google. You can share only a limited amount of data on your public page – as he has here. That’s fine for many users, but not all.”

Walled gardens create barriers to getting information in and out of their system. This means that I know that I will need to go to extra effort to seed the site with information about me and my network; maintain duplicate information between different gardens as well as in the wild; and have difficultly getting data out and into something else. Walled gardens will always eventually die because they require that extra bit of effort, both from their community and, more widely, the developer community. As Jason Kottke notes like AOL before them Facebook’s walled garden approach places additional strain on the development community.

What happens when Flickr and LinkedIn and Google and Microsoft and MySpace and YouTube and MetaFilter and Vimeo and Last.fm launch their platforms that you need to develop apps for in some proprietary language that’s different for each platform? That gets expensive, time-consuming, and irritating. It’s difficult enough to develop for OS X, Windows, and Linux simultaneously… imagine if you had 30 different platforms to develop for.”

[what’s needed is]…Facebook inside-out, so that instead of custom applications running on a platform in a walled garden, applications run on the internet, out in the open, and people can tie their social network into it if they want, with privacy controls, access levels, and alter-egos galore.”

In other words we already have the platform – its the internet, in its raw, wild, untended form. And rather than trying to build walls around bits of it we should keep our content in the open, in applications such as Flickr, WordPress (other blogging software is also available) and email. But tie it all together into communities with technologies such as OpenID the “open, decentralized, free framework for user-centric digital identity” and Friend of a Friend (a project aimed at creating a Web of machine-readable pages describing people, the links between them and the things they create and do).

Indeed this approach is similar to that adopted in Plaxo 3.0 which now runs as a web service removing all reliance on Outlook. Plaxo now provides a synchronization and brokerage service between applications (e.g. Outlook or Apple’s Address Book) and services (AOL, Google) – your data is no longer within a walled garden but you do have access control over who can access your data.

Facebook is an amazing success – but like all walled gardens will eventually either die or be forced to open its garden gate and let the rest of the internet in (for example, let me replace the Facebook’s status application with Twitter, or Photos with Flickr). And in the meantime I’m happy to stick with my existing online presence.