So first of all, things aren’t right with the world when your former summer intern is getting quoted in more prominent publications than you are (and no, that’s not a totally shameless “look at me” non-sequitor, it’s more of a partially shameless “look at me” semi-sequitor – and way to go Gilbar!). But, this is just representative of the increasingly mainstream fascination with user-generated content, also called “UGC” by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I ranted about this in a post a few months back which Randy reminded me of when we were chatting today and he lamented that those of us who hate this name (and it’s more than just the two of us) have yet to agree on something better. And then it dawned on me, we don’t need a new name because user-generated content no longer really exists.
Bear with me here. This past weekend, I was hanging out with my dad, who is about as old school media as you can get. On our way to lunch on Saturday, he asked me if I saw continued growth in user-generated content/YouTube. My first reaction was to disambiguate the two; YouTube is far from the end-all, be-all of user-generated content. And in doing so, I had somewhat of an epiphany: the primary meaning of user-generated content has morphed. It is no longer really a description of the means of production (or more accurately, financing), it now symbolizes a certain aesthetic that we have come to associate with what user-generated content used to mean – content created by amateurs and offered free of charge.
The comparison that first springs to mind is what has happened to “Indie Film” in the age of Paris Hilton attending Sundance. When Miramax was acquired by Disney, did its films lose their street cred? And are Warner Independent Pictures or Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics producing and distributing “studio films” by definition? And wtf are we supposed to call movies from the new Weinstein Company!? When you try to categorize films by who paid for them, the original denotation of the independent vs studio distinction, it becomes readily apparent that these terms now mean something completely different – they represent a look, a feel, a sensibility that have come to connote artistic integrity and authentic expression contrasted against unabashed commercialism and pandering to the lowest common cultural denominator as established by some formula churned out by a program on a mid-level studio marketing flunky’s computer.
Similarly, user-generated content is now more of a style than a statement on the professional status of the producers. How else could you explain the example du jour, LonelyGirl15 – a YouTube distributed serial produced by professional filmmakers and starring paid actors that initially passed itself off as a teenage girl’s video blog? Or what about our boy Gilbar’s crew of begrudgingly amateur filmmakers who managed to produce a short of higher quality than some tv shows? (See, that earlier reference was relevant. Did I mention that I was quoted in AdWeek?) How about ZeFrank or the Ask A Ninja guys, who started producing content for fun but can now make a living off of it? When you think about it this way, “The Blair Witch Project” was really the first example of the potential of the user-generated content aesthetic.
Those who work with me know I’m fond of saying there are 3 types of content in the world: PBS (free to consumers); NBC (ad-sponsored); and HBO (consumer paid). There is also a *spectrum* of content producers: from those who do it for the love of the game to those who rely on it to finance the lavish lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed. And finally, there are innumerable styles and techniques in a filmmaker’s bag of tricks designed to evoke specific responses from the audience. While user-generated content began as a reference to a perceived intersection of these three independent axes (namely, free content produced by amateurs with low fidelity DV cameras and choppy editing), that intersection now only represents a subset of what the term has quickly come to encompass in our vernacular. The three axes of business model, professional status, and production value have diverged and the distinctions that defined user-generated content have begun to break down (thanks in no small part to services like Revver that can give anyone an ad-sponsored business model). If user-generated content means anything now, it is merely a certain style of production that is associated with the origins of the term. �
And so, I hereby pronounce user-generated content dead as a business term. Any business person who continues to believe that they can just set up some submission UI and people will hand over the rights� to worthwhile content for free deserves his fate. Another saying of which I’m fond is: “you get what you pay for.” People who want to be part of the network in order to reap the benefit of value created at the edges had better start thinking harder about how they can contribute some value too.