In praise of “User Generated Content”

Jonathan Sanderson over at The Daily Grind recently wrote about the phrase “User Generated Content” and how irksome he finds it. Let me start with my own linguistic unpacking for the sake of completeness.

User = person who uses the service (as this phrase arose from the Internet, let’s say “website” for completeness), as opposed to the person who provides the service

Generated = made. Doesn’t say how it’s made, why it’s made, or how long it took.

Content = stuff. I can’t go around saying “content (by which I mean film, music, text, poetry, sculptures whittled out of matches, mashups,….)”. So I say “content” because “stuff” sounds unprofessional and I’m trying to impress people.

“User Generated Content” = stuff made and contributed by people who use your website

I don’t see anything perjorative, diminutive or otherwise negative about the phrase. If the phrase “community crafted brilliance” or “things wot participants done” enters common parlance instead (and as you’ll have probably guessed, I’m rooting for “TWPD”), I’ll have no problem adopting them. But till then, I don’t see the problem. This may seem laborious, but the original post did say that “every single word is wrong”[his italics] in the phrase “User Generated Content” to which I say, “don’t be silly”.

Ok, so there are problems. We are through the looking glass on web 2.0, people (never thought I’d get to say that). There are websites, let’s call them Facebook, that are all UGC. Calling someone a contributor as opposed to a user in this case is a moot point. What, as opposed to all the Facebook users that don’t generate content?Β  Except those “content providers” aren’t managing the sophisticated servers, databases and frontend which enable them to “use” Facebook. I’ll grudgingly admit that “user” is meaningless, with two caveats: firstly, I don’t think it follows that “user” implies passivitity, and I don’t agree that “contributor” or “participant” is any less ambiguous or meaningless. I contributed a comment to a YouTube video yesterday. UGC is dead, long live UGC!

The problem is not with the semantics, it’s with the process. It’s with who’s making stuff, who’s consuming stuff, and, as the writer highlights, who’s paying who for the stuff that’s being created and consumed. Sometimes that’s not a problem at all! Sometimes it is, but not for the content creator. The permutations are fascinating, but driven by the process and not the language. You can call them prosumers, contributors, or three-toed frogs but the language is evolving to describe what’s happening, not driving the process. So why not focus on the process instead of the (from my perspective, value-neutral if slightly outdated) terminology?

17 thoughts on “In praise of “User Generated Content”

  1. But I think Jonathan is spot on about the unequal power relationship implied by ‘user’. And giving Facebook as an example proves the point, for me.
    Our relationship to Facebook is very unequal – they change our privacy settings without even asking, they sell our info to marketers, etc. They don’t treat us as equal partners at all. Whereas the participants in Sci Cast, or in I’m a Scientist are at the heart of what we’re doing.

    I think the language we use *is* important. There’s plenty of experimental evidence that it has a subtle effect on the way you think about what you’re doing. So we should use language that reminds us of what’s important.

    And finally, what’s wrong with ‘stuff’? I think it’s a great, honest, understandable word. Impressing a hypothetical lexically-snobby stranger seems a weak reason for sneering at stuff, to me.

    • Yep, “stuff” is good. “Content” is just as vague but implies more than it delivers!

      What about the context in which the service provider is creating tools for people to “use”? No-one would claim that the skill of the blacksmith is diminished because they’re a “user” of hammers. I don’t think my research is “done” by MatLab, Processing or Apple because I am a user of their tools. I think “user” has wildly-variable interpretations, and the idea that it is inherently passive or disempowering is just not right. At least, those are not the associations I necessarily make – others clearly do πŸ™‚

      Facebook don’t treat us as equal partners because we don’t pay them for anything! We are an audience (and data source) to be sold to advertisers and marketers, and feature improvements which enhance user (oops) experience are to attract a bigger audience that they can sell for more money. There is a more salient lesson in economics to be drawn than in language. Facebook could call us Their Little Princesses and the organisation would still base its business model on selling “our” data and allowing shills to huck shit to us.

      • “Facebook don’t treat us as equal partners because we don’t pay them for anything!”

        But but but but but! Martin, I think that’s the most depressing thing I’ve read all day. Can we only be treated as equal partners if we are paying people for something? Say it’s not so!

        Yes, I take your point that Facebook could change their terminology, without changing their attitude. And of course words alone are not enough. People lie with words all the time (‘Please continue to hold, your call is important to us…’) But I think Jonathan is right that the words people use can be revealing about their attitudes.

        And yes, you’re right that context is important. I don’t think Jonathan was arguing for the wholesale ejection of the word ‘user’ from the English language, just objecting to its use (and the things it implies) IN a specific context.

      • Ok, I’m taking an extreme position here – but without money, Facebook ceases to exist. It suckles from the teets of commerce, and should that milk dry or sour… they’re screwed. So the people giving them life are greater or equal partners; indirectly, us, but more directly, advertisers and marketers. If their subscriptions remained healthy but advertising dried up… adios (or paywall, basically adios).

        Of course, FB is complex because they NEED the audience, and they need our engagement. But still. Facebook are not doing it out of the goodness of their own hearts. Leo needs a new pair of shows. Who gives you life? Who actually pays the bills?

      • “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” : Metafilter comment

        Facebook is a great example, in that what they mean by UGC isn’t quite what I mean by UGC. Since people are more familiar with their version, I need a different phrase, or I inherit their baggage.

        (note, incidentally, that I worked in commercial TV for 15 years. I’ve no problem with my projects being a canvas on which advertising is sold. I just want to be clear when that’s the case, and I want to be open with my contributors about how I intend to use their work.)

  2. It reads to me like we agree more than we disagree, Martin, in that we both seem to think the issue is about perception and how we relate to our [users/audiences/contributors]*, and less about the precise terminology we use to describe them.

    My point really is to think about that relationship and to make deliberate choices about it, rather than to stumble into blithe assumptions. The problem with ‘user generated content’ is that I see too many people who make all the assumptions I outlined in my post, and I think their projects are poorer for them. The language is sending the wrong message, and as Sophia says such impressions, subtle as they may be, tend to influence our thinking.

    If you can look beyond the language to the meaning then all’s well. Too many people don’t.

    (* delete as applicable)

    • I certainly see the problem being about perception and action more than language – but I take your point about some “service providers” can use this to mean “the amateur stuff that the proles do”. Let’s not adopt “TASTTPD” as terminology or outlook πŸ™‚

      • Hah! Actually, ‘TASTTyPiDdle’ trips off the tongue, and seems to reflect how some people regard contributed media.

        I’ve realised that my beef about UGC is the same as worries about ‘public understanding of science’ as a phrase. There’s nothing wrong with the concept, it’s the *impression* of the concept that’s broken.

      • Tastypiddle? Now there are *2* things wrong with that acronym…

        Interested in the “public understanding of science” debate, but sense it’s one for another day.

  3. Nice post. ‘User generated content’ is just a convenient description. People know what I mean in a general sense when I use it despite, as you rightly point out, an evolving context. Quelle surprise the original author wrote this from a conference; they tend to be the only people who give a toss about this stuff. To all the users out there it is utterly meaningless, they’re too busy getting on with the doing. Definitions can emerge later as and when we need them. Yawn.

    • Ha! The opposite perspective. I tend to agree, but as Jonathan says, you can often tell someone’s real desire to engage with their “users” by their choice of language. I agree that people are participating, and the language is less likely to put them off – than it is a marker of lazy thinking in the “service providers”. Like the danger of lazy Science Communicators saying “engagement” when they mean “if we don’t say ‘engagement’ we won’t get funding so here is a broadcast project with the word ‘engagement’ in the title”.

      Which I’m sure would NEVER happen. πŸ™‚

  4. Hah! Thanks, Mark, that made me laugh.

    At the risk of horrid self-aggrandisement, I run a big schools’ science film competition, so thinking about building that community and how I interact with my ‘users’ is a really key part of what I do – as it is with Sophia and her work with I’m a Scientist.

    Absolutely, none of this should matter to the users – if they feel welcome and valued and well-treated, they’ve no reason to pay it any attention. But that situation doesn’t arise by accident, and I’ve seen several projects mis-step by not ‘giving a toss about this stuff.’

    So I’m at the conference to talk about this sort of thing with other practitioners from across Europe. Establishing and sharing best practice is a good thing, right?

    • Well, I sort of think “engagement” (as in proper two-way) should occur when it is natural to do so (as in, don’t mention it because you’re ‘supposed to’ and then not do it). E.g. if you want to make a broadcast, and it’s good, make a bloody broadcast! I worry that the good work that you and Sophia do to actually centre projects around tastypiddle means (ironically) that people feel it’s necessary all the time. Two-way exchange is clearly a Good Thing, but not necessarily in the same degree for every project. I’d rather watch a good science doc than take part in a crappy tastypiddle project!

  5. Semantics IS important, but Jonathan Sanderson really hasn’t made a good case for his problem with UGC. All we can conclude is ‘user generated content’ has passive, demeaning connotations for HIM. There’s nothing inherently passive about ‘user’ – quite the opposite – and there’s nothing inherently cynical or exploitative about the division of labour between ‘platform’ and ‘content’. ‘Users’ aren’t always ‘partners’ either – and that’s OK, usually.

    If there’s a problem with UGC, it’s not the words. The reason ‘content’ is better than ‘stuff’ is that it highlights the distinction between the platform and what people use it for. Stuff covers everything including back-end tools. Content is more specific.

    • No, that’s a good point – content versus platform is one good reason not to say “stuff”. And your other points chime pretty closely with my thoughts when writing this post.

      In his defence, though, I think Jonathan makes some good points in his comments here about how people *use* the phrase – often, to cover a multitude of sins.

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