User Generated Content – Accurate, Not Insult

    January 2, 2007

One of the most repeated terms added to the new web 2.0 glossary describing current trends in web design is “user generated content.”

It even has it’s own Wikipedia page that proclaims it came into mainstream use sometime during 2005 in both web publishing and new media production circles. More recently major bloggers and indie publishers have started raising strong arguments against use of the term and how they believe it is used to downgrade or view as inferior the contributions of small time publishers on the Internet landscape.

The term itself is a neologism and doesn’t have an extremely specific definition, which is why it’s often referred to as a buzzword in the web publishing world. I think it correctly portrays a strong idea and is a positive ideology behind the changing world of new media. Currently those set against the use of this term believe that it is an indirect comment on the inferiority of small time publishers in comparison to larger traditional media companies. They believe they should share the same terminology and be called small time publishers or independent publishers. One particularly quote illustrating the perceived negativity comes Rishad Tobaccowala (CEO of Denuo) who says “User Generated Content: Since when did I become a heroin addict?.”

The bloggers raising up arms against the use of this term are overlooking the number 1 reason that the “user” terminology is still in effect and in my opinion shouldn’t be replaced with publisher as of yet. I’m under the impression that the general use of term “user” in phrases like “user generated content” is dependent upon a combination of monetization and author motivation.

Publishers make money from writing or creating content, while users typically do not. So when they mean user generated content, what they really mean is content the website owner didn’t pay for directly or where the author isn’t making any direct money for creating it. So a user generated content site is one where most of the content is produced for free or with low monetization (like profit sharing.), with the main motivation for the content itself is to enhance (or gain attention) in the site/community the author activity USES. Hence the word user. From the website’s user perspective.

1. They use a resource (a cool website like forum, blog or video sharing site)

2. They like it enough to want to contribute to it

3. They create content with the primary motivation to improve or gain attention from the resource they actively consume.

This is different from a publisher’s website where the authors or contributors were paid for their writing / articles/ videos or other content and are directly profiting from it (profit sharing doesn’t count.) They may or may not actively contribute to the website community, but are motivated at least in part by monetization or like a job. Say a professional writer on a news site.

1. They apply for a writing job and compete with professional experience / credentials, industry exp. etc

2. They get hired and take assignments from an editor / manager / producer / creative group / (whatever)

3. They publish their content and receive a paycheck

Look at the steps above, the first is typical of “user generated content” and the other typical of a larger news “publisher site.” Notice, if a user site gets big enough to pay or solicit professional writers it crosses over into more a publisher model. The word “user” itself is very important, because a user is someone who gets value from the website, so contributes to it mainly for attention or personal gratification from adding to a particular resource they personally consume while a publisher is paying directly for it’s contributions, heck the writer may or may not even read the publication they write / work for before getting “hired.” or they may consume or read other sites or publication more often before taking a job with the competition. It’s a different mind set based on monetization and motivation.

Ok that was a bit of ramble, but does this make sense to you? Two more examples:

1. If I setup a user forum on my website and let people post whatever they want in there, I believe user generated content is correct term. People that get value out of the resource I setup will contribute without being paid anything for the purpose of enhancing the site they use.

2. If I started an SEO news site and paid people per contribution, and attracted professional writers (freelancers and industry pros.) I would be a publisher.

The lines are blurry and the term itself is a neologism, but generally I believe that to be the difference in how it’s used commonly and definitely do not see it as an insult or derogatory term. I like user generated content sites and what they represent. Many companies spend a lot of time, money, energy in producing an infrastructure for the users of the resource to create the content they want (say Youtube, Wikipedia, or Digg.) This model gives all the little guys a voice and connects people like never before. Call yourself whatever you want, author, publisher or blogger. You can have dual titles, but while you’re consuming a resource and contributing to it you’re producing user generated content. It’s an easy to understand term and one that works so well.


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About the Author

Solomon Rothman is the CIO for Social Media Systems; an online marketing company that helps its client succeed by providing web development bundled with search marketing. He authors numerous blogs including 3net Search Engine Marketing Blog and loves the ongoing challenges of the online marketing world. Besides technology, Solomon’s other passions including filmmaking & screenwriting.