What is User Generated Content?

The following is a brief section from a book I’m writing I’ve written on online journalism. I’m publishing it here to invite your thoughts on anything you think I might be missing…

There is a long history of audience involvement in news production, from letters to the editor and readers’ photos, to radio and television phone-ins, and texts from viewers being shown at the bottom of the screen.

For many producers and editors, user generated content is seen – and often treated – as a continuation of this tradition. However, there are two key features of user generated content online that make it a qualitatively different proposition.

Firstly, unlike print and broadcast, on the web users do not need to send something to the mainstream media for it to be distributed to an audience: a member of the public can upload a video to YouTube with the potential to reach millions. They can share photos with people all over the world. They can provide unedited commentary on any topic they choose, and publish it, regularly, on a forum or blog.

Quite often they are simply sharing with an online community of other people with similar interests. But sometimes they will find themselves with larger audiences than a traditional publisher because of the high quality of the material, its expertise, or its impact.

Indeed, one of the challenges for media organisations is to find a way to tap into blog platforms, forums, and video and photo sharing websites, rather than trying to persuade people to send material to their news websites as well. For some this has meant setting up groups on the likes of Flickr, LinkedIn and Facebook to communicate with users on their own territory.

The second key difference with user generated content online is that there are no limitations on the space that it can occupy. Indeed, whole sites can be given over to your audience and, indeed, are. The Telegraph, Sun and Express all host social networks where readers can publish photos and blog posts, and talk on forums. The Guardian’s CommentIsFree website provides a platform where dozens of non-journalist experts blog about the issues of the day. And an increasing number of regional newspapers provide similar spaces for people to blog their analysis of local issues under their news brand, while numerous specialist magazines host forums with hundreds of members exchanging opinions and experiences every day. On the multimedia side, Sky and the BBC provide online galleries where users can upload hundreds of photos and videos.

The term User Generated Content itself is perhaps too general a term to be particularly useful to journalists. It can refer to anything from a comment posted by a one-time anonymous website visitor, to a 37-minute documentary that one of your readers spent ten years researching. The most accurate definition might simply be that user generated content is “material your organisation has not commissioned and paid for”. In which case, most of the time when we’re talking about UGC,we need to talk in more specific terms.

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38 thoughts on “What is User Generated Content?

  1. Daniel Bennett

    Paul, here’s a thought for you:

    One of the things I’ve been thinking and writing about is the fact that in the specific circumstance of reporting crisis situations, UGC published online inevitably breaks the news.

    This is a fundamental change from the role of the “historical UGC” contributions that you allude to and has significant implications for journalists as it threatens one of the pillars of their economic and cultural capital.

    Journalists find themselves playing catch up in the breaking news game and incorporating these contributions into their own coverage becomes a vital part of the news process. It enables traditional media organisations to retain the illusion of breaking news by re-publishing the UGC effectively as their own (even if they do highlight the origin of the source, link, etc). It also forces journalists into new roles as curators of UGC on the grounds that the content being delivered is often the best or only news content available, particularly in the early stages of any crisis until they can get reporters on the ground.

    Furthermore, journalists can add value to UGC through its organisation, presentation, contextualisation and distribution by mobilising resources and expertise on a scale that most UGC contributors do not have.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      A really good point – thanks; will try to add it in (and add your name to the list of acknowledgements). In the chapter I pick out two main strands in UGC – content curation, as you point out, and community management.

      Reply
  2. JC Dill

    You wrote: Firstly, unlike print and broadcast, on the web users do not need to send something to the mainstream media for it to be distributed to an audience:

    True. Then you continue: a member of the public can upload a video to YouTube with the potential to reach millions.

    Posting to one’s own blog is not “mainstream media”. Posting to a major forum such as Yelp, YouTube, Flickr, etc. IS a new form of mainstream media.

    10 years ago, one bought a newspaper or turned to your local or cable news program for media-filtered news. Today people go to Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter for unfiltered crowdsourced news. Both types of venues are “mainstream” sources for media/news.

    I think you need to draw a better distinction between how a user can post to their own forum (website, blog) where the audience one can reach is determined by their own reputation and marketing, and posting to a “mainstream” forum like YouTube, Flickr, Twitter where the forum has its own audience (separate from the user’s individual followers).

    In the old media world we had newsletters (published media with limited distribution and reach) and newspapers (published media with much larger distribution and reach). Online we have the same types of forums – personal blogs and websites where the content comes from 1 user or just a handful of users, versus popular sites full of user generated content from millions of users.

    Sorry for the rambling comment. I hope it makes some sense to you!

    Reply
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  4. Tom Calver

    Just to pick up from Daniel’s point about users breaking news before traditional media:

    There’s a risk that us media types, with an internet enabled PC on the office desk, assume that everyone has a near-constant news feed from some online source or another.

    Yet many people are still finding out things first from radio and TV. If you have a job where constant online access isn’t available (off the top of my head that would include- drivers/ factory workers/ care staff/ air traffic controllers/ retail staff/ postmen/ builders/ school staff…), your news may come first via a local newspaper flysheet on the way home, the radio in the car, or the TV you flick on when you get in.

    And even though I get the vast majority of my news online, hardly ever reading a physical paper and barely watching TV news now, my first news update of the day is on radio when my alarm goes off.

    So while UGC will often break the story in absolute terms of being first, millions of people will still have it broken to them by traditional media.

    Daniel’s point about providing context and organisation is a very good one. To me, though, that’s not a new skill for journalists- that’s what good journalism has always been: taking information from a range of sources, assessing it, deciding what the key points are and presenting that information in a way people can understand.

    The sources may have changed and multiplied, but the need for journalistic nous in handling various information feeds and presenting a reasonably balanced digest that reflects events hasn’t.

    So I’m hopeful that what UGC may do is force journalists to get back to better ways.

    Putting up a breaking news strap and saying something- anything- even though you’re saying nothing of worth or use, just to be first and seem fresh (the congenital defect of 24 hour news) won’t cut it. Anyone who’s going to be around to see you ‘break’ the story will already have it and won’t be impressed.

    Instead, the value will be in applying long-standing journalistic judgement and skill to how you report that story to those arriving to it later, and how you add value for those who already know the news, but don’t necessarily understand it.

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      I suspect a split between those who churn as much content as possible, as quickly as possible; and those which provide the deeper, longer, verified angles later. In short, replicating the existing ad model split between low cost per reader + mass volume vs high cost per reader + lower volume.

      Reply
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  6. ivan b dylko

    Interesting post. Couple of suggestions: (1) News orgs. can leverage UGC even if it is given for free to them by the readers. Indeed, that’s what “engaging the audience” has come to represent – letting them meaningfully contribute and aid in the new org’s mission by contributing content. (2) Another difference from the past is that today online UGC (a) comes in significantly more diverse forms than in the past, (b) is much more popular and is garnering much larger audiences than anything like that in the past.

    You might be interested in reading a paper me and a professor at the Ohio State University done on the very topic of what online news UGC actually is; here a title: “Explicating Political User-Generated Content and Theorizing About Its Effects on Democracy Using Mix-of-Attributes Approach”.

    Good luck with the book!

    Reply
  7. Michael Smethurst

    Hi Paul, great post.

    Firstly to say I mostly agree with Tom Scott’s post – UGC it’s rude, it’s wrong and it misses the point. If this were an ideal world I’d agree with all of it. But for now I think UGC is a useful label to apply to a very specific sub-set of online publishing. When we talk about UGC we tend to talk about 4 things: the content creator’s motivation; the relationship between the content creator and the publisher; the relationship between the content and the content creator once published; and the intellectual property in the content. So here’s my shot:

    === The content creator’s motivation ===

    In traditional media the content creator’s motivation has been largely financial. Writers / journalists / photographers have been paid (either through salaries or by commission) to create content for publishers (via books, newspapers, television, radio etc). This just follows the general trend toward specialism / professionalism in the wider world.

    By making publishing available to anyone with a cheap PC and an internet connection the web began a trend away from professional content creation toward amateur content creation. In a culture of specialism / professionalism this trend is often misunderstood. Professional (paid for) content is often seen as superior to amateur content. And the same specialist / professional culture lends a derogatory tone to any use of the word “amateur”. “If this person’s content were ‘good enough’ someone would be paying them for it.” So where does that leave something like Radiohead’s In Rainbows where the amount you paid for download was your choice? Are Radiohead amateurs? Is In Rainbows UGC?

    Like traditional media, amateur publishing is often judged by its worst examples. And there is a lot of rubbish out there. But there’s also a lot of high quality writing, photography, podcasting etc. And lots of rubbish in newspapers, on TV and on radio too.

    The other main difference with web publishing is the sheer volume. Again the ease of publishing to the web means lots of people can do it and many people do. Even if a lot of nonsense gets published there’s still nuggets of gold out there. And unlike traditional publishing (outside academia) the web brings its own reputation management system in the form of links. If enough people like something they’ll link to it and if there’s lots of links there’s more PageRank, it ranks higher in Google and becomes more findable. In this way the good stuff rises to the top.

    Anyway I think / hope the differentiation between professional content and amateur content will disappear over time. The web is about mass amateurism – people making content for the love of it not for financial gain. Going off the dictionary definition it’s just a drift back from amateur as “inexperienced or unskilled” to amateur as “for pleasure”. I guess the point is the amount you’re paid for your content is not proportional to the quality of that content. So I don’t think the UGC / non-UGC demarcation line lies on the professional / amateur divide.

    === The relationship between the content creator and the publisher ===

    In the early days of the web people (individuals and organisations) mainly published content to their own web space. With the rise of web services people started to use 3rd party sites to publish instead / in addition. Again the key is low friction – it’s far easier to publish a presentation to SlideShare or a video to YouTube than it is to maintain your own web server, your own code installs etc.

    Now even major media organisations use YouTube and iTunes etc as a promotional space for their content. And many employ people specifically to engage with social media websites. These people are working in a professional capacity but they’re being paid by the content creators not the publishers. Which is very different from traditional media practices.

    Again the distinction isn’t between amateur and professional. As Tom points out people uploading a video to YouTube (whether as an amateur or because they’re being paid to) don’t think they’re making UGC and don’t think they’re generating content to feed the YouTube monster; they just see YouTube as a productivity tool much like the CMS they use at work.

    === The relationship between the content and the content creator once published ===

    But there is a trade-off between ease of publishing to 3rd party websites and the amount of control you retain over your content. On this blog you have more control than me. If you change your mind about a post you can amend / revoke / delete to your heart’s content. But once I’ve pressed submit on the comment form I hand over control to you. From that point I have no control over whether the content is published or not. If I come back later and spot a spelling mistake I can’t amend. If I decide my comment is rubbish I can’t amend / delete. And the same is true if I choose to publish content via the website of my local newspaper or favourite broadcaster. It’s the same as sending a letter to a newspaper; once they receive it editorial control passes to them.

    3rd party publishers give the user varied levels of control once the content is published. Some sites let you amend and some let you delete but often once you’ve pressed submit your control disappears. What happens if you decide to close your account and leave the service? On Flickr you’re given the option to get all your content packaged up for download / portability elsewhere. But on lots of sites this facility doesn’t exist.

    The problem is obvious from the standard terms of service that most websites apply to user submitted content. I’m not sure what the terms of service on Flickr used to be but now they link straight to the standard Yahoo! terms which states (in section 8c):

    “With respect to all other Content you elect to post to other publicly accessible areas of the Services, you grant Yahoo! the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensable right and licence to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed.”

    Most major publishers have very similar terms. Twitter terms of service has:

    “By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”

    The BBC’s terms of service include:

    “You are granting the BBC a licence, or permission, to use your work, but you still own the work. [..] The terms also include the ability for the BBC to be able to sub-license UGC to trusted third parties such as other international broadcasters in the case of News UGC, and/or trusted third parties such as local councils or other public bodies if requested and for appropriate purposes.”

    It’s the same story with YouTube (section 10), The Guardian (sections 6 and 7) and even WordPress (section 2).

    Basically if you choose to publish content via a 3rd party (even if that 3rd party software is installed and running on your server) you’ll likely cede some control to them. So if my street gets flooded and I publish a photograph of the flood on my website (using no 3rd party publishing tools) I retain control and can licence how I see fit. If I send the same photo to my local newspaper / broadcaster’s website the chances are they’ll claim a licence for reuse and most probably permission to sub-licence to 4th parties.

    So it becomes the usual trade-off between ease of use and control. But not a trade-off that’s immediately apparent. There’s an interesting article from the Australian government about the pitfalls of relying on YouTube and getting the convenience / control balance right.

    For me this ceding of control (and not the amateur / professional dividing line) is where the definition of UGC is found. If I can amend my content, remove my content and control how my content is further distributed (including the choice to give up control via a Creative Commons style liberal licence) I’m just publishing. If not it’s UGC.

    === The intellectual property in the content ==

    No 3rd party publisher that I’ve come across claims copyright over the content you publish through them. But all demand full licence rights and many demand the ability to sub-licence. What value does your copyright hold if the publisher has the right to sub-licence to any other publisher as they see fit?

    The reason most traditional media organisations do this is pretty obvious. If they take out a perpetual, royalty-free licence over user content there’s no limitation on its reuse. So a newspaper can use a user’s photograph on the website, in the newspaper, in the weekend free sheet they also publish, in the end of year review etc. And a broadcaster can use a user’s photograph in a first broadcast, multiple repeats, a DVD, a DVD box set and onwards.

    Which is all to say if you see the words User Generated Content or social media you can almost always read it as content acquisition on the cheap. It’s ironic that as media organisations get more and more protective of their intellectual property online (erecting paywalls around news sites and enforcing DRM for audio/video) the same considerations are rarely extended to their users.

    Reply
  8. Andre van Loon

    I like the initial point that audience involvement in news production, such as letters to the editor and radio phone-ins, is in a sense a precursor of today’s participatory culture.

    But today’s culture is of course very different. Bradshaw notes that there are no barriers to entry to most Internet users. If you send a letter to a newspaper it, more likely than not, will not see the light of day. But anyone can read what you wish to put on the Internet.

    What this makes clear(er) is that there is a heavy process of selection and oversight going on in newspapers’ letter pages, which you can then extend to think about paper as a whole. The whole thing, well duh, is an edited version of a mass of content that will never see daylight.

    In the newspapers which I continue to buy and read, I consider such editing a good thing, as I enjoy, learn from and engage eagerly with most of what I read on a daily basis.

    User-generated content, on the other hand, tends to be unedited. A single person can hold forth at length and on whatever subject s/he chooses. Is this a good thing? It is in the blogs I read. As with newspapers, I follow certain bloggers because I have come to appreciate what they write.

    So do I like editing, or not?

    It is not really about someone looking at content before I get to it. What matters, to me, is a more or less clearly identifiable line. A sensibility on show. It is a certain sharpening of words, a certain conceptualisation of the world, a judgement, a critical view, a line.

    Newspapers can be good at this. But so can many others.

    Reply
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  10. Will Tanner

    Paul,

    You deal with the appropriation of UGC by traditional news outlets and publishers very deftly, but I feel you may perhaps be missing a key point; namely, the growing importance of citizen journalism platforms that stand alone from established journalistic organisations. Such sites have, as yet failed to make a big impact here in the UK, but in the US, such platforms as NowPublic.com, Allvoices.com and GroundReport.com have all made quite an impression, harnessing thousands of amateur reporters and achieving remarkable traffic rates through UGC. In many ways, such sites are driving the News 2.0 experience, diverting interest away from professional organisations and outlets towards a more participatory, user-generated/moderated/collaborated style of journalism that promises much in the not-so-distant future. Moreover, such sites are increasingly used as goldmines for journalistic research, allowing conventional reporters to pick up a story as it is breaking and to unearth witnesses and information far more swiftly. For instance, CNN has set up the video-reporting site iReport which now feeds CNN News a significant proportion of stories, while The Examiner recently acquired NowPublic for $25 million in order to bring UGC into its reporting repertoire.
    If you want to talk about the influence of UGC in online journalism, you might want to think about how user-generated content is not only complimenting established professional journalism, but is in many ways replacing it.

    Will

    Reply
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  14. User Generated Text

    UGC is becoming so popular because people want to interact, participate, and voice their ideas, thoughts, and opinions. Users will resort to personal attacks, trolling, flaming, but it’s the same community which will usually ignore or criticize responses like that because they know UGC works best when users submit relevant and intelligent content.

    Reply
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  17. Erik Bauernfeind

    User generated content is going to continually increase from this point forward, and as a result I think it is imperative to be able to moderate and control the content that is placed on a third party site. To allow intolerable content onto the site can bring down usage by people who have something to offer. Clean speak by inversoft has a full line of solutions to make online UGC safe, secure, and enjoyable. Check us out at inversoft.com

    Reply
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  19. iGuide

    I’ve been thinking about “user-generated content” and have decided that the phrase doesn’t make much sense in the way I envision how media is changing today.

    “Social media” or “social content” are better phrases than “user-generated content” as the word “user” might imply that creators of social content are somehow inferior to other producers. This comes from an implication that these are just “users” of content, when in fact they are actually content creators.

    Reply
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  22. Tony

    In response to iGuide’s comment I feel the term ‘user generated content’ is relevant. The reason for this is I would say for example the author of this blog entry is the ‘content creator’ which he has published to his audience. I am now using this site to learn more about PR and marketing in general so I would say by writing this comment I am submitting ‘user-generated content’. I’m not the creator of this thread and don’t feel inferior by this being classed as user-generated. If I want to be a creator then I’ll just start my own blog. Anyway, that’s my thoughts.

    Reply
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  27. rbrill

    I would partly agree with JC Dill in that you need to separate the importance of UGC posted on personal websites to that posted on ‘mainstream’ online sites, but I also think you need to distinguish the type of content that is being posted (whether personal type comments and professional short write-ups or commentaries). I would think that most content posted on personal websites; blogs, facebook etc… is going to have a different meaning and type of quality compared to that which is posted on mainstream websites overall.

    Reply
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  29. casey

    On balance, do you think UGC enriches journalistic production or cheapens it? this is a particular focus in my university course and any thoughts you had would be helpful. I don’t think ‘cheapens’ just refers to a monetary value either.

    Reply
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