October 26th, 2007

The User-Generated Content Myth


A whole mythology is emerging around the idea of “users” — consumers, fans, regular average folk — creating content that media companies and brands can leverage. It’s a compelling idea — but it’s a myth.

The reality is that “average people” don’t create a lot of content — at least not the commercially viable kind. Most people are too busy. Those that do “create content” — and who do it well — are those who are predisposed to being content creators. The have some relevant skills, training, raw talent, motivation, something.

“User-generated content” sites like YouTube are much less a platform for armies of average people to create mountains of content and much more a platform for real talent to be discovered.

The latest story in the UGC mythology is a “fan” of the Apple iTouch — a college student in England — who created a commercial for the iTouch, posted in on YouTube, got discovered by Apple marketing execs, and got shipped off to Apple’s ad agency to collaborate on a “professional” version of the ad.

Here’s the original version by Nick Haley, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Leeds, England.

Pretty slick, huh? Is it just me, or does something about this smack of LonelyGirl15 — just a bit too “authentic” to be believable? Nick got “discovered” by Apple execs after the video had only be viewed a couple thousand time — hardly a viral hit by YouTube standards.

Even if it is legitimate, Nick is clearly a talented guy. This is not the work of your average fan — and I have a hard time believing that Nick created the commercial and posted it to YouTube out of pure “passion” for Apple products. Might it not have cross his mind that he could get discovered?

New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott happily plays along with Apple and their ad agency in establishing the new user-generated content mythology:

Consumers creating commercials “is part of this brave new world we live in,” said Lee Clow, chairman and chief creative officer at TBWA Worldwide, based in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Playa del Rey.

“It’s an exciting new format for brands to communicate with their audiences,” Mr. Clow said. “People’s relationship with a brand is becoming a dialog, not a monolog.”

To be clear, I love the idea of YouTube and other user-generated content sites as platforms for talent to be discovered — especially talent that might never have been discovered before the web made it possible for anyone to publish their work.

I can also understand why media companies and advertisers want to propagate the myth of average user generating all this cool content.

But I think describing the phenomenon in honest terms is just as compelling — if not more so — than the myth.

  • Very on point. Users don't always need an incentive to create content. Brands get talked about a lot. I think users do need a motivation to create quality and engaging content.

    I understand that Steve Outing's company had the problem of creating a steady stream of quality UGC to drive ad revenue models.

  • I think a lot of people are missing the point in UGC. Scott is right; most UGC is crap, anyway. The point is that it's okay for it to be crap. People don't expect to watch Michel Gondry or Steven Spielberg on Youtube all the time. People are okay with amateur stuff because anyone can do it. It's about empowerment and acceptance. As long as people are still be moved by those sort of feelings, UGC will be cool. It will never take over 'professional' media. It's just a fun and engaging outlet. That is all.

  • Jon

    Interesting post - I really like and welcome UGC. Nick's ad is a very good, and genuine example - I met him completely by accident at the Leopard launch - have a look here >>> http://theappleofmyi.com/blog/...

  • Dev Doll

    Hey REX,
    What do I call these people?
    Suckers- who give away their talent.
    As many a person has said: "If YOU do really good work- of any kind- then post it for the world to use- without proper compensation- someday all this-
    will be MINE. Haha!

    Having sense to become a CPA- but giving their photos/art away? Too bad they didnt have *enough* sense. Friggin non artists - like REX - just dont get it.

    Rex wrote:
    ..There are some incredibly talented photographers who post their work on Flickr. They’ve never been paid for their work, but the stuff they shoot is breath-taking. There’s no way their photography is “authentic” in the way you imply “user-generated” content should be. So what do you call these people? They’re not pros. They’re not consumers. They are hobbiests who have an amazing talent and are very creative, but who had the sense to major in accounting and become a CPA.

  • Al

    UGC is real...but it ain't no big deal like it's made out to be here.

    The term 'user' stems from the computer industry, either hardware or software. Anyone who operates a computer is a user. Hence, anyone who expresses an idea or shares information by uploading or posting to a site is what y'all refer to as 'generating content.' I agree with the earlier post that the implied meaning is content created by users who are not employees or contractors of the site, but you never know.

    "User Generated Content" is a term and concept intentionally fabricated by lazy, but smart & entrepreneurial, web programming geeks who decided that they are not going to waste their valuable time doing stupid grunt stuff like producing content for free. They're not going to ho' themselves by selling out their valuable knowledge for a couple of bangs on their links.

    Rather, they create systems that let others do the hard work for them...while they cash in on their labor. Sure, they'll pay you token chump change for your work if you land some clicks. But we all know who's really making the money.

    UGC is essentially just another way of saying let's make money off someone else's dime (or in this case, time and ideas.)

    It's another "Revenge of the Nerds" movement where geeks fight back by exploiting all the unsuspecting "popular kids" of their knowledge, time, and social

    Yes...darkly hidden behind this fascade of "pro-people, democratized internet, technical innovation, community and collaboration", etc...is just a front for geeks to make more money for themselves...by fostering internet addictions based on the basic human needs of communication and belonging.

    Content serve as eyeball flytraps in which sites can 'adhere' advertisements (adhere as in "Your Ad Here"). Don't make a difference who makes it...so long as someone consumes it. Intellectual content is consumed by intellectual people. Stupid content is consumed by stupid people. Content laissez-faire.

    Hey, if you don't know the value of your time, there are plenty of web 2.0 sites that do.

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