Thursday, 27 July 2006

User Generated Content

Well, today I am feeling no better than I have been. The weather has turned hot and muggy again. Worse yet, I still feel like my life has become a Queensryche album. Either that or I have become Thomas Veil from the TV show Nowhere Man. Or maybe Pip from Great Expectations. At any rate, I am not happy. But enough about me. On with the show.

Among the buzzwords one hears these days about the World Wide Web is the term "user generated content." The term essentially refers to any content that is produced by users of websites rather than the mass media (television networks, movie studios, magazines, et. al.). The term is rather all encompassing, as it can be used of virtually any content generated by web users, everything from blogs to online auction sites. Regardless, user generated content became big news in 2005. Newsweek, The New York Times, the BBC, and several other media outlets have done stories on the phenomenon. Of course, like so many things on the Web that the media are just now discovering, user generated content is nothing new.

Indeed, it has been many, many years that most ISPs have offered their customers free web space for their own web site. I have had my own web site since 1998! Even if one's ISP didn't offer free web space, one could set up his or her own web site on GeoCities (which has been around since 1995), Tripod (which has been around in some form or another since 1992), or one of the other free webhosting services. eBay was founded in 1995, introducing the concept of the online auction, in which users could place items up for bid on the eBay website. Of course, the ultimate example of user generated content may well be blogging. Blogs have been around since 1994, although their popularity was greatly enhanced in 1999 with the creation of Blogger, Diaryland, and other blogging services.

That having been said, it does seem as if websites dedicated to user generated content have taken greatly increased in the past three years. Perhaps the most popular of these new user generated content sites is MySpace. MySpace is technically a social networking website, not exactly what comes to mind when I think of "user generated content." But then MySpace is not quite like any social networking websites that came before it. MySpace offers the user profiles that one would expect of a social networking website, but it also offers blogs, photo sharing, groups (sort of clubs for MySpace users), and even its own internal email system. Essentially, MySpace is a combination of blogging services like LiveJournal, photo hosts like Flickr, and social networking websites like Friendster. It also allows the user to customise his or her MySpace profile in ways that one never could his or her LiveJournal. That might explain its popularity. Founded in 2003, it has become the fourth most popular website in English. Of course, MySpace has seen a good deal of controversy in its short lifespan. There was a case in which a student set up a MySpace account claiming to be the principal of his school. And there have been the widely publicised cases of sexual predators using MySpace to find young victims. As a result MySpace has beefed up its security of late, particularly with regards to those under 18.

Another up and coming website that depends upon user generated content is Flickr, founded in 2002. While there were photo sharing websites prior to Flickr, there had been none that allowed users to so easily organise their photos. The degree of organisation found in Flickr is also reflected in the ability of users to apply tags (a keyword or term which helps identify an item). The user's ability to organise his or her photos is greatly aided by Organizr, a web application which greatly eases the user's abilities to organise photos into sets (groups of pictures that fall under the same heading), modify descriptions, modify tags and so on. The end result of all this is that Flickr permits users to find photos related to any given subject much easier than they ever could before. Besides making organising photos easier, Flickr also allows its users to control the access to their photos. Photos can be private (that is, they are only viewable by one's friends and relatives) or they can be public (accessible by anyone). One of the social networking aspects of Flickr is that users can joing groups dedicated to specific sorts of photos (say, photos from sci-fi conventions, for example). Quite simply, users can add their photos to the group's pool of pictures and even limit access to those photos to members of that group alone. In many respects, Flickr is as much an online community as it is a photo sharing website.

Given that photo sharing websites have long been a part of the web, it was probably only a matter of time before a video sharing website would arise. YouTube was founded in 2005. YouTube allows users to upload, view, and share videos. YouTube uses Adobe Flash for the format of its videos. This allows for content on YouTube to be easily embedded on blogs and other websites through a video feed. Like many of the newer user generated content website, YouTube has some aspects of social networking websites. Each user has his or her own profile though which other users can communicate with him or her through an internal email system. As might be expected, the profiles also include a list of videos the user has uploaded to YouTube. Another social networking aspect of YouTube is that users can leave comments on any given video. Like MySpace, YouTube has seen its share of controversy. While QuickTime has long been a favoured format for video on the web, QuickTime videos do not adapt well to YouTube, ending up with poor synchronisation. I might also add that, in my humble opinion, when compared to such technologies as Quicktime and RealAudio, Adobe Flash loads much, much too slow. A much greater source of controversy as been the uploading of copyrighted material to YouTube. While YouTube has restricted this from the beginning, users have done so anyway. This has resulted in companies from Turner Media to Sunrise (the anime company responsible for such classics as Cowboy Bebop and Witch Hunter Robin) having to ask that certain copyright protected material be removed from YouTube.

The current trend towards user generated content has even resulted in a website that allows users to post their own content for cellphones (ringtones, wallpaper, and music). myNuMo is brand new, just having come out of beta. Its format is similar to that of Flickr and YouTube. Each user has his or her own profile (although they are much simpler than those on Flickr and YouTube) showing what ringtones, wallpaper, and music they have created. myNuMo differs from both Flickr and YouTube in that users cannot comment on ringtones or wallpapers, although they can rate them from 1 to 10. Being relatively new, it is difficult to tell how popular myNuMo will become, but if the success of Flickr and YouTube is any indication, it might prove very popular.

Even the traditional media have embrassed user generated content to some degree. The magazine Entertainment Weekly allows users to comment on the movie and television reviews on their sites; essentially they can review the reviews. Channel 4 in England has a service called 4Docs, through which users can upload their homegrown documentaries. Of course, Yahoo snatched up Flickr and added it to its myriad services.

Of course the ultimate queston is precisely how signifcant user generated content really is. Often times the idea of user generated content brings to mind Sturgeon's Law (the adage coined by sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon): "Ninety percent of everything is crud." I have yet to find a blog on MySpace worth reading. And the only video on YouTube I have watched (even though took forever to load...) has been the promotional film that introduced Batgirl from the Sixties Batman TV show to ABC executives. While I have found very little worthwhile material on the new generation of user generated websites, however, I must say that I am over all in favour of user generated content. True, ninety percent of it may be crud, but then there will always be that ten percent that is actually interesting. Indeed, since I have started using Blogger there have been those blogs I keep finding myself returning to.

While I am in favour of user generated content, I must also say that it must be closely supervised. MySpace and YouTube have both learned this the hard way. In the past the service has been plagued by students setting up false teacher/faculty profiles, sexual predators surfing the website for victims, and even plans for a Columbine style attack posted to the website by a few Kansas teenagers. It seriously makes me wonder if MySpace should not raise the minimum age for usage of the site to 18. While YouTube's problems don't seem to me to have be nearly as severe, they have had a problem with copyright protected material being uploaded to the website. Moreso than any other part of the web, it seems to me that user generated content requires greater security and more supervision of what is being posted to websites.

If I sound at times overly critical of some user generated websites, I must point out that I have used them in the past. Like any long time web user I have used Geocities and eBay. Of the recent user generated websites I have used Flickr to share photos with my friends and family (all of my pictures are marked as private). I do have a MySpace profile, but I use it to primarily promote both my writing and my blog (being fairly private, I am not interested in social networking...). I do then have some experience in creating my own user generated content.

At any rate, if the current boom in user generated content is not a fad, it looks as if it could be more common in times to come than it has been in the past. In fact, the time may come when MySpace outdistances both Yahoo and Google. Whether this is ultimatlely a good or bad thing I think only time will tell.

1 comment:

myNuMo said...

Thank you for the comment on MyNuMo.

One thing you didn't mention, users are making money selling their creations on MyNuMo. We also enable them to do that right from their MySpace or Blog page.

Thank you,

William Volk