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14:27

What is User Generated Content?

The following is a brief section from a book I’m writing 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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