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More on user-generated content

I mentioned blogs to a friend in New York the other day and he went on a gentle tirade. He’s frustrated by the distraction blogs present and and he pointed out that the current obsession with blogs has elevated the knee-jerk reaction to the level of informed, reflective analysis.


He’s absolutely right: A blog is never going to be as deep or careful or lasting as a book. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own value. We just need to be careful about thinking that the kind of fast meal we put together after work is of the same standard as a full-fledged and carefully planned dinner by someone who knows where to get the best local ingredients and how to cook them beautifully. (Funny, we don’t generally seem to confuse those two things!)

And blogs aren’t always the right medium; there are many different forms worth trying. Faithful readers may remember that I got involved with the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), which has almost become my second home now, after speaking about wikis at a brown-bag lunch meeting. Every time this is mentioned, I have felt guilty about not continuing to use them at work. But just this week, as we set up the trial GuanxiBlogs, the wiki came into its own again, as a way to organize and share guidelines for the GuanxiBloggers. The blogger group consists only a few staff and regular contributors now, while we work out the kinks, but will expand considerably—and we don’t want Trevor run ragged with questions about how to post photo thumbnails. The wiki will enable the bloggers themselves to add tips and correct our guidelines, and they’ll do it, I’m sure, because each will benefit from having good instructions available.

Fortuitously, there was an SIIA Brown Bag lunch presentation about user-generated content (UGC) last week when I was in New York—perfect timing and perfect topic, and a chance to connect with the New Media committee (the Gang of Four) working on plans for Content Division board’s use of social media.

Before the presentation, “Tapping into User Generated Content,” a few of us were talking about the different sites with UGC (you’ve got to learn that acronym, I’m afraid: User-Generated Content) and agreed that we don’t want opinions from just anyone who wanders onto a site. We only care about certain people’s opinions—not that we’d need to know them, but we want to qualify them in different ways. This could be by palate, or taste, or knowledge. We got to wondering how we could use the registration process, common at free websites, to get information that would enable other people to say, “I want to know what contributors with these characteristics think about these items.” Think how boring most registrations are, though. I decided that we should try something that’s more of a survey, and amusing, to garner information, and would love to hear of any really original registration systems designed for this or other purposes.

One of the speakers was Bruce D. Smith of, which makes Wikipedia content the centerpiece of its online platform (kind of weird, I know, given that Wikipedia is available free elsewhere—and it can’t be edited at, not to mention the accuracy issue) and recently acquired WikiAnswers, a site where people pose questions and other users answer them. Here’s text from the homepage: “You don’t need to be an expert. Thousands of people just contribute a few tidbits of new information, or improve spelling and grammar.” (By the way, while I love the idea of tapping the expertise of people without formal training or qualifications, I don’t want to read answers from people who don’t actually know something. I’m reminded of one of the huge risks in asking for directions in a strange place. Many people, in a spirit of helpfulness, will give detailed directions without actually knowing what they’re talking about. Even emailed directions often have major inaccuracies, because people who live in a place make assumptions, can’t estimate distances, and don’t observe the details that a strange needs. Besides that, I’ve been spoiled by London‘s A-Z.)

Bruce was articulate about their goals and included the idea of community building in his remarks: “The experience of content creation needs to be easy and engaging, and you want to expose content to broadest community possible. Search engine optimization is essential. Content needs to be designed so it’ll appear on the first page of web searches.” He also pointed out something that I know from experience (as do various friends and colleagues whom I have mentioned by name on the blog): Search engines rank UGC high in algorithms. This is one reason for us to start He’s a financial guy, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that, “The value of a community depends on how big and how vibrant a community is.” Several panelists commented that users generating new content, “They act like your employees.” This struck me as very odd: They may produce content as some employees do, but their motivation is completely different, and we have little opportunity to guide and mentor them, let alone to direct (or criticize) their work.

Another commented on how important personal contact with the company is to people. “They don’t expect to be treated nicely by large corporations,” so when he emails someone directly he finds it has a huge impact on his or her involvement.

There seemed to be general agreement that monitoring customer usage and reactions is essential (though no one put a price tag on this, or on what it might cost to do anything else with all that content) and that focusing on monetizing UGC is not likely to produce most successful site long-term.

But I was amazed that no one used the word trust, a key component of community building and really essential, on both sides. We publishers and our readers would like to know how much they can trust UGC, and the users want to trust us with their content.

I left with a few questions:

  • Who owns the content? Larry Schwartz of Newstext raised this and no one had much of an answer. There seems general agreement that it doesn’t matter until the corporation receiving the UGC starts making money with it—but that day isn’t far off.
  • What’s the ratio of time spending writing/reading (or producing/viewing) others’ content on different types of websites? What are the trends, and how does this affect the potential for monetization? The underlying question is this: Are people spending their time in order to BE published, or are they receiving value from the content? The former would make UGC a kind of vanity publishing; the latter would mean that UGC has some long-term value, as does a book or other commercially produced and managed content product.
  • What is the value of publisher aggregation and editing of UGC?

The video link to “Tapping into User Generated Content” is available online at For a list of upcoming Brown Bag Lunches, please visit

One thought on “More on user-generated content

  1. Good posts on this. I think the ownership and monetization points are key. Also the points about “employees” raise some interesting issues. As you point out, they are not paid, nor can they be mentored or critcized. It is similar to sales compensation models. If I pay you 100% salary, I can control all of your sales behavior. If on the other hand, you are on 100% commission, I can’t control much at all. Seems that a lot of UGC falls into the latter. Just like at DIGG.

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