With the rise of web 2.0 new generations of interfaces were created allowing users not only to access web content but also to write and share their own content on the web.
Thus the user was transformed from a passive observer of the web to an active contributor enjoying the freedom to express feelings and ideas and freely publish them in various forms on the internet.
User generated content was seen as a challenge from the traditional media like printed newspaper pushing them to develop their own websites and to create new business models. And even, digital media, like Encarta, a digital multimedia encyclopedia published by Microsoft Corporation from 1993 to 2009, has been more or less displaced by users, who most of them preferred the open contents of Wikipedia which have been created collaboratively by users all around the world.
An example to illustrate the power of this new form of expression, is that during the Asian tsunami in 2004, people who experienced and survived the disaster, were able to inform people around the world faster and with more details about the happenings than traditional mass media.
Traditional media found themselves losing some of their status and role as guards of published content but that was due to a shift which was then transforming the landscape of world wide web, made by technological advances. From a different perspective, it can be seen as Internet giving back the power to the people. A power which was never lost or gained, better described as a phenomenon which changed the users into creators. This changed was regarded as a new form of freedom.
User generated content as a term is relatively new and currently there is no standardized definition. Studies on social, economic and cultural impact are just at their beginning although the social impacts of user generated contents are very obvious.
The organization for economic co-operation and development defines user generated content (UCG) as fitting the following requirements:
1. a content which is publicly available (internet)
2. boasting a certain level a creativity and
3. content which is created outside of professional practices.
These requirements best define UCG, and in contrary to what we could expect from creating such content, most of UGC outputs are created without the expectation of any kind of profit. The amount of people generating and contributing such content in websites like wikipedia, are transforming these websites into huge databases containing invaluable information for understanding trends, needs and interests of the consumers.
But if profit is not motivating people to generate such contents then what are the incentives driving this motivation? In fact early studies showed that users are generally not motivated by profit but by various other reasons.
1. users enjoy being creative
2. users have the desire to express themselves and share their experiences
3. users want to be part of communities
4. lower costs and increased availability of tools for creating UGC.
These reasons reveal the human side of the internet and it is clear to me that the world wide web is taking a different course, a course which has been shaped actively by humans for humans carrying with it major social impacts. But any social impacts carry with them economical impacts or vise versa and various commercial companies which feared of losing revenues due to the decreased interest in traditional media forms, invested large amounts of money to provide user generated frameworks and tools. These companies mainly rely on generating revenues through advertising and by increasing customer loyalty.
Examples of how large media companies exploited the term user generated content thus expanding their status and creating a more social engaging character is the case of BBC which created a user generated content team in 2005 with 3 staff. After London bombings the team was made permanent and expanded, reflecting the arrival of the ‘citizen journalist’. After the disaster, BBC received over 5,000 photos from viewers.
In 2006 CNN designed the CNN “ireport” project in order to bring user generated news content to CNN. CNN’s rival Fox news channel launched a similar project titled “uReport”. It was a sad realization that when disasters happen news tend to move faster between people and then the idea of citizen journalism emerged which could become a significant part of broadcast news.
User generated content was featured in Time magazine’s 2006 person of the year, in which the person of the year was “you”, meaning all of the people who contribute to user generated media such as YouTube and Wikipedia.
Classification of UGC
It is rather a daunting task to try and classify the different forms of user generated content in order to understand and apply them in our websites, as these involve more and more not only one activity but several together. For example facebook, a platform where people can at the same time chat with other people, share photos and videos or create groups on specific subjects. Nevertheless, Steve Rosenbaum
from AlwayOn a source of information for technology consumers, informs us that UGC is split in 7 groups according to their main use. First, there are the media websites like Youtube or Vimeo, where users can upload and share their own videos and further interact with other members by commenting or rating other videos. Then we have the chat interfaces where users connect with other users like Facebook and LinkedIn and develop contacts or meet new people. Furthermore, there are the websites which have as a primary activity to keep people in contact and share personal information like Flickr. People can also meet with people sharing common and specific interests, through websites like Meetup.
Next come the ecommerce platforms like ebay which harvest the power of UCG and monetize it.
To close this classification, the last 2 forms of UGC use blogs as their main layout. Blog news usually deliver more specific and personal news and blog voices which are usually famous bloggers who provide their views on different sociopolitical and economic trends.
It is much more interesting to make a brief analysis on the amount of users interacting with different UGC platforms. The main trend is generally moving towards social networks and blogs. The most impressive fact is that, 70% of internet users are consumers of UGC and this amount will be steadily growing in the next few years.
A deeper look at the motivations and drivers of UCG.
What actually brought us to this state of user generated contents proliferating in every direction of the world wide web is of central interest in order to have a better understanding of this current state.
According again to OECD the major drivers which enabled this state are social drivers, economical, legal and technological drivers.
By social drivers we mean the digital natives. Digital natives are the people who were born during or after the expansion of digital technology. These people started interacting with digital technology from an early age, and to be more specific the term best describes people who were born during the 60s, when the digital age begun at that time. A digital native has a broader and better understanding of the concepts of technology. As we are also digital natives, technology became almost our second nature and we are often the most exposed category of people using social networks and we are easily following new trends. Digital natives enriched the english vocabulary with words like to “tweet” or to “google”. We made technology an extension of our social lives.
Economical drivers are drivers or better new ideas on how to make profit from social networks and other UGC platforms. Over the past decade we witnessed these economic drivers and many times we took place in large corporate campaigns without realising what was driving those campaigns. Various companies tried to connect emotionally their products with their clients using UGC tools. A famous company launched a campaign few years ago and let the consumers to create their own home-made advertisement and upload their own home-made video on their website or on Youtube thus creating a significant new audience around their product. Many companies followed the same brand marketing campaign to build emotional connections with their clients. The success and the amount of money spent on each campaign can reveal the power of targeting people and expanding to new markets through specific UGC tools.
Legal / institutional drivers and copyright issues.
These drivers play major role in the development and in the right propagation of user generated content. Users must be sure that their creations – from simple blog entries to complicated web design mockups – will remain theirs. It is also rather difficult to set strict property rights to any creation as this would lead to a lower rate of sharing among users.
An intermediate solution which supports UGC and expansion under moderation is the creative commons. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization which believes in the idea of universal access to research, education and culture. But often different legal and social systems which may vary from country to country impose restrictions to this idea. Simple actions like copying, pasting and editing various resources that we perform everyday, without even noticing that in reality all these actions require by the copyright law to have explicit permissions. To achieve that state of universal access someone needs to provide “a free, public, and standarized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the internet and the reality of copyright laws.”
The infrastructure which this organisation provides consists of a list of copyright licenses that create a balance between free content and the traditional “all rights reserved”.
In simple words creative commons offers specific tools which give everyone a simple way to keep their creations theirs, while at the same time allowing certain uses of their creations thus creating contents that can be copied, distributed, built upon and evolved, all within the boundaries of copyright law.
How it works
Every creative commons license helps creators retain copyright while allowing others make some uses of their work-copy or distribute, at least non-commercially.
Also license ensures creators to get the credit for their work they deserve. Every Creative Commons license works around the world and lasts as long as applicable copyright last. These common features serve as the baseline, on top of which licensors can choose to grant additional permissions when deciding how they want their work to be used.
A Creative Commons licensor answers a few simple questions on the path to choosing a license — first, do I want to allow commercial use or not, and then second, do I want to allow derivative works or not? If a licensor decides to allow derivative works, he may also choose to require that anyone who uses the work — they call them licensees — to make that new work available under the same license terms. They call this idea “ShareAlike” and it is one of the mechanisms that (if chosen) helps the digital commons grow over time. ShareAlike is inspired by the GNU General Public License, used by many free and open source software projects.
The risks of UGC.
As new web designers and developers there are a number of legal issues that we have to become familiar with if we are building websites that allow user generated content.
1. Intellectual property infringement or copyright infringement or unathorized or prohibited use of works under copyright restrictions.
2. Defamation which is the communication of a false statement that may hurt an individual business or product giving a negative image.
3. Obscenity and Child Pornography.
It is important to ensure that legal issues don’t stop people from contributing to your websites. Right UGC in place can make your website successful and make it stand out as it will become more personal and drive more users. There are a number of steps that organisations or individuals can take to protect themselves in the case of bad and illegal use of UGC. A good start is to always create an easily understood set of guidelines for the posting of UGC on your website. It is even better to use simple language or even simple visuals in order to make these guidelines better understood.
A widely-used technique is to moderate content before publication. Large organisations usually employ staff for this task. Post-moderation, where content can be referred to a moderator by other readers, can also be effective.
When extensive use of UGC is made, more sophisticated techniques to detect malicious content will be needed. In the case of online communities, it is a good idea to let users to flag inappropriate content and even moderate it.
Perhaps most important, as in all stages of web design, is planning, to have a plan of action in place on what to do in the event that the worst happens, including how monitoring is carried out.
Technological drivers are maybe the most important of the four drivers. Broadband and high speed internet connection has enabled users to upload and download
massive amount of data and users to integrate large videos or pictures to their
websites and make the use of internet much more enjoyable and interactive.
Furthermore the technological advances in the product industries as well as the multiplication of a number of electronic products in a lower price allowing people to share content ever more (digital cameras, smart phones).
Last but not least, the development of interfaces and online applications allowing users to create, post and upload content in a very easy way.
Building User-Generated Content
With the right CMS you can encourage your visitors to actively participate in the growth of your website.
Here are some famous software packages that you can find online to help you build your website:
Forum Building – Two forum software packages that are popular and widely used to encourage user-generated content through forum participation are phpBB a free open source forum management solution and vBulletin (not free).
Comments – There are various comment scripts online that you can use to encourage user participation and feedback like DISQUS. But another way you can achieve this is to add Google Friend Connect to your website, which includes a script for commenting.
Social Bookmarking – Social bookmarking is a method for Internet users to organize, store, manage and search for bookmarks of resources online. Tagging is a significant feature of social bookmarking systems, enabling users to organize their bookmarks in flexible ways and develop shared vocabularies. Pligg is a very good software to use for this purpose.
Blog – Blogging is the newest form of Internet publishing and there are a variety of ways to get new blog content on your website. The best software for adding a blog to any website is WordPress. WP has a multi-user version that is great for allowing multiple users to start and run a blog on a continuous basis.
Wiki – There are a variety of wiki software available for you to use to distribute user-generated content on your website. One of the more popular ones is MediaWiki and It’s free.
Video – kitdigital allows you to run a video sharing site.
Recommendations when launching a UGC website
If you are planning to develop a UGC website you should plan carefully its implementation:
decide on the best approach for taking advantage of UGC and the level of engagement needed,
put in place controls appropriate for your website (for example: users flagging innapropriate content) and create a simple and concise set of guidelines for posting of UGC. Have a plan of what do to in the case that your worst scenario happens and be prepare to act quickly.