User-Generated Content Is Junk

The UGC media revolution is a myth when it comes to YouTube and other Web 2.0 sites. Most valuable content is professionally made. Pro or con?

Pro: New Media Detritus

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.

Con: Demeaned Unfairly

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.

Reader Comments

Jeff

Wow, is this article from the 1970s or something? Let's write an article like it's 2008, thanks.

random

"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."

So if I were to take the con article, edit it, and post it around blogs, it would be the same thing as my authoring it? The user is playing editor and distributor, true. But the content is not user generated. It's studio generated and user submitted. The term--user submitted -- has been forgotten for a swankier, although often inaccurate buzzword.

The much vaunted YouTube examples of Mr. Kiley's essay is a user submitted video site with some user generated content, and if he looks at what gets the most views there, it's clips of professional content uploaded by a fan who wants to share it with the world. An edit here or there doesn't change the clip into the user's property or qualify as a creation of an amateur.

There's also the question of how views are measured. If a video has 730,000 views, it means that it was loaded that many times. This number fails to account how much time it was up, how many people watched it multiple times, and how many people actually liked it. Number of hits doesn't necessarily speak of quality or popularity. It could've gotten that many views over several years, with loyal fans and their friends and family watching it six to ten times in that time period, and half of its viewers thought it was junk.

But this doesn't mean that the pro argument is completely right either. Wikipedia is no Twitter. Although it's not the most reliable and dependable encyclopedia to put it mildly, it can provide curious and valuable links to excellent sources of information one might overlook during research. Twitter, on the other hand, is an excuse to be one's own paparazzo on the Web and is an excess of overzealous bloggers.

Robin Jacob Abraham

I don't get your point, frankly. Agreed that Youtube has a lot of brands advertising and competing for reviews, but the control lies entirely in the hand of the end user. The end user decides whether the video deserves the patronage or not, and that is where he plays the editor.

Brent Allsop

Long lists of thousands of individual testimonials or comments on controversial issues is the biggest problem. Who wants to read them all, let alone tally them all up into camps, to get anything out of it all? And who wants to submit the one thousand and first comments nobody will ever get to?

Sherwin Shao

User-generated content, without ratings, is junk. User generated content, with ratings, is gold. While we can't trust the quality of individuals, we can always trust the intentions of the masses.

David J

We have the writers' strike going on right now, with no new content coming anytime soon. There are art, journalism, film, and acting schools and university majors in the various media fields for a good reason.

Could you imagine watching America's Funniest Home Videos all the time? I can barely get through five minutes of the show. User-generated content gets old real fast.

Jeffrey

"We can always trust the intentions of the masses."

Like in 1940s Germany. The masses sure knew what they were doing there.

Mike

Cat soup? That video was total crap.

Khengsiong

If you think user-generated content is junk, surely essays written by elementary students are junk also.

slip

User-generated material draws attention to the user. Superior material draws attention to the idea itself.

mattydread

I just can't stand the advertisements.

Konrad

Sherwin Shao said "User generated content, with ratings, is gold" above.

I totally agree. I recently found the site www.helium.com, where anybody can write their own articles. Articles are then ranked by other writers in what is said to be a game-proof system, and only the best articles rise to the top.

It certainly works for me.

zontar

This "debate" is nothing more than evidence of how threatened you elitist East Coast media snobs feel when you see the erosion of your monopoly on information control. Without loser-generated content, how would I know what Chet in Beloit had for lunch at Taco Bell on Monday?

IB

"Most valuable content is professionally made."

Valuable to the producer or valuable to the consumer?

It seems clear from the comments above that the consumer often finds little distinction in real value between the two.

Perry Yu

Certainly not all UGC is junk. Look at the comments in this Debate Room here. BusinessWeek 2.0 solicits its readers, or "users," to give instant "letters to the editor," responses that would not have been possible with the traditional mode of news or information distribution and feedback. UGC is all about more efficient and timely communication and sharing, and more choices. The consumer of UGC media can subjectively decide on the quality and value of the content according to his or her own interests and needs.

DK

I believe any person reading and writing comments here, positive or negative, values UGC. What's the point otherwise?

Brittanygen

I will choose youtube over TV any day. Personally for me, TV is just a new image of retelling the same storylines. Predictable and no sense of reality. At least with youtube, I relate to the people making them.
brittanygen

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