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This is user-generated content: Icanhascheezburger.com. It’s made up of cute animal photos with captions that read like adult-formulated baby talk crossed with yesteryear’s computer-generated translations (a bunch of kittens tearing around a cage with the caption “chezbargr riot finallee contained,” for example). It’s not that it’s not a little bit funny, but it’s not terrifically funny, and it gets a half-million page views a day.
This type of content begets even more waste of time. Friends send the Icanhascheezburger.com link to each other, then head to, say, Twitter.com, where they might post something like: “I’m eating a vending machine Pop Tart and drinking a Diet Coke. Just checked out Icanhascheezburger.” (Twitter calls itself a “service,” a site that lets you keep up with friends and co-workers by answering the question: “What are you doing?”)
Gen Y members were told as kids they were special—that everyone is special—and the user-generated content trend feeds into that sentiment, which is blessedly false. We may all be different from one another, but we are not all special and we do not need to be heard from, unedited, at all times. As Andrew Keen, author of the Cult of the Amateur, said in an interview with BusinessWeek’s Diane Brady, UGC is “creating an increasingly inane and trivialized culture.” The swamp of content we’ve been slogging through obscures anything of value on the Internet, degrades language, and swells too many egos.
One hundred million videos are watched on YouTube (GOOG) every day. Wikipedia has 9.25 million articles in 253 languages. Flickr (YHOO) is the repository for more than 2 billion images. This isn’t evidence of a user-generated content revolution. It’s a flirtation with excess, an affair that makes us all feel special. It may seem to have seeped into everything we read, watch, and hear, but fortunately, trained and sometimes even talented professionals keep plugging away at quality content, and they will be there for us, rock-steady, when the noise clears.
There is a vast green-wing conspiracy to bash user-generated content. The green (as in cash) wing, of course, consists of those heavily invested in professionally created and distributed content on network TV and cable networks. But anyone who makes the mistake of relegating UGC to the dustbin by classifying it as just a bunch of “cats throwing up on a grandmother” are whistling through a graveyard.
It is wrong to analyze UGC qualitatively. Is The Sopranos more valuable than a three-minute video on YouTube.com entitled “Smosh Cat Soup,” created by two teenagers with their Handycam? From a qualitative and financial standpoint, I’d have to say yes. But consider that the makers of Smosh, who spent no real money to create the cat video, got 730,000 views in four days. That’s roughly twice the daily audience of MSNBC’s radio show Morning Joe.
UGC merits quantitative analysis. The time people spend creating and viewing UGC is time they are not spending digesting traditional ad-supported media. Google says 9 billion videos were viewed on YouTube in just one month in 2007. Only a small percentage consisted of advertiser-generated videos. Many are clips from TV shows that are getting in under the radar. Whether posting such items is illegal or not, I would argue that when one person decides to self-edit a clip from The Daily Show, you are talking about user-generated media because some amateur at home is playing producer, editor, and distributor. Most, though, range from Smosh’s plush cat stories to my 6-year-old son’s “icicle” school play.
Search YouTube.com for people or brands, and the numbers tell the story. There were 4.3 million people who went out of their way to watch an amateur Hillary Clinton ad. There are 1 million-plus views of an amateur Hillary-bashing video that lasts more than 10 minutes. That is a level of engagement—by a critical mass of people—that surpasses the impact of a 30-second ad that costs, say, $20,000 to run and may or may not be seen by its intended audience.
More people are going to go to YouTube and other video-sharing sites to look for information about products, brands, and candidates, just the way they use Google’s search engine. As that trend continues, UGC has just as much chance to land on the first search page as professional content. The playing field has been evened.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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