Geoffrey Long
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Death to User-Generated Content?
My friend Derek Powazek is the founder of {fray} amd JPG Magazine as well as the author of several books, including the excellent Design for Community. As a result of this, I tend to respect just about everything that comes out of his mouth. This week, however, I took issue with one of his weblog posts, which he'd titled "Death to User-Generated Content":
Can I make a suggestion? Let's all stop using the phrase "user-generated content." I'm serious. It's a despicable, terrible term. Let's deconstruct it. User: One who uses. Like, you know, a junkie. Generated: Like a generator, engine. Like, you know, a robot. Content: Something that fills a box. Like, you know, packing peanuts. So what's user-generated content? Junkies robotically filling boxes with packing peanuts. Lovely. Calling the beautiful, amazing, brilliant things people create online "user-generated content" is like sliding up to your lady, putting your arm around her and whispering, "Hey baby, let's have intercourse."
When I read this opener, I naturally bristled. Much of C3's research this year has been dedicated to user-generated content, so to hear Derek blow it off so easily made me a little annoyed. However, Derek continues:
Lately the notion that the web is about "user-generated content" has been getting more traction. With the success of MySpace and Flickr, pundits are looking for a trend. And they've found one in this hateful phrase. But "user-generated content" is nothing new online. In fact, it's what the network was designed for. So let's not give in to the buzzphrase du jour. Let's use the real words. Those people posting to Amazon pages? They're writing reviews. Those folks on Flickr? They're making photographs. And if we must have an umbrella term to describe the whole shebang, I have a suggestion. Try this on for size: Authentic Media.
Which, of course, is perfectly correct. However, it's not exactly what we mean when we say 'user-generated content'. To clarify, I shot him the following reponse:
The trouble is, there really is such a thing as user-generated content -- things like people designing furniture for The Sims and clothing in Second Life, which is then circulated online. It's not "authentic media", it's users generating content for a specific system. A user that spends their time replicating IKEA furniture that they'll then upload to the Sims website for other users to download isn't a furniture designer. They're a user generating content for the Sims environment. I think the problem isn't the term, it's the rampant misuse of the term. Anyone who refers to the photos uploaded to Flickr as "user-generated content" isn't looking at Flickr the right way -- Flickr isn't primarily an art environment like a museum or a visual entertainment system, it's primarily a tool, like Blogger or Movable Type. Users aren't generating content for a system, users ARE the content of the system! Or, more specifically, the USE is the content of the system. To say these photographers are 'generating content' for Flickr is like saying that webloggers are content generators for Blogger, which is utter malarkey; you can navigate weblogs through the "recently posted" list as easily as you could surf Flickr, but no one's going to view Blogger as some kind of massive zine. The same should be asserted when dealing with MySpace, Friendster, and so on.
Derek's reponse:
Ask the person (not user) who is designing furniture for The Sims what they think they're doing. The answer is going to be "designing furniture" - not "generating content." ;-)
Which got me thinking. In a seminar tonight most of the C3 grad student researchers spent some time examining fan fiction, and while watching an interview with someone who writes fan fiction I found myself wondering if she thought of herself as a writer or as something else. Derek's right: studio heads at Paramount would view any fan fiction written about Star Trek to be either a copyright violation or 'user-generated content', and I doubt that the fans who create fan fiction think of themselves would bill their creations as such. So should there be another name for someone who generates IKEA furniture for Second Life or writes slash fiction about Kirk and Spock? Are you a furniture designer if you're just rearranging pixels to resemble existing furniture? Are you an author if you never create your own characters or worlds? Or are you just a user generating content?
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