User Generated Content: Scam or Savior

A recent entry on Seth Finkelstein’s blog made reference to a sardonic definition of user generated content (UGC) that reads in part:

“A new form of online scam in which you make all the content, and we keep all the money.”

Though the definition was intended to be humorous, it does reflect a growing discomfort with the idea of user generated content. As the recent Digg/Netscape flap indicated, many people feel that contributors should be paid or rewarded for their efforts. Some sites, such as Revver, already do.

Though the chorus of people requesting compensation is relatively small at this time, it is growing. If it gets much louder, it could have a direct impact on the Web at large as half of the top ten fastest-growing Web brands rely on UGC.

The question becomes clear, are UGC-based sites fair to their users and, if not, what can be done to make them as such without ruining the community feel that has made them so popular?

The answers, however, aren’t so clear.

A Brief History

The idea of UGC-based sites is nothing new. Long before even the first Web bubble there were personal home pages, forums and community sites that got most of their content from their users.

As anyone who had a personal homepage on Geocities or participated in a forum on Ezboard will tell you, those companies made a great deal of money by selling ads next to content that they didn’t pay for.

However, these sites provided a valuable service to the contributor. If it hadn’t been for the advertisements, the service would have likely cost the contributor money or simply not been available.

Ten years ago, simply hosting a site or a forum was a great great burden to bear, however, as costs have dropped and profits have soared, users began expecting more for less.

The Present

Despite these shifting ideas, many of the modern UGC sites do manage to provide services that heavily benefit contributors. YouTube, for example. provides expensive video hosting and tools for sharing the uploaded videos on the Web. Similarly, photo sharing sites such as Flickr and Photobucket provide tools for organizing and sharing photos, as well as hosting. Social networking sites such as Myspace provide a means to connect with friends and strangers.

The list goes on.

The water only becomes muddled when you deal with sites such as Digg, Reddit and even the new Netscape as well as Wiki sites such as Wikipedia. These sites provide no hosting, only limited interaction with other users and all visitors, including non-contributors, gain access to the trove of information that these sites contain.

On the surface, these sites offer nothing back to their users (not even attribution in some cases) other than a community feeling, one generated from the other “unpaid” contributors.

Despite this, thousands of people spend countless hours submitting to these sites, making the companies that own them wealthier while gaining very little in return.

The Greater Good

This kind of voluntary servitude is nothing new either. Open source software has, for decades, relied upon unrewarded effort from thousands of volunteers.

Whether you are editing Wikipedia, updating the Linux Kernel or posting Digg, you are contributing your time and effort into a greater good. Though you will reap the rewards of such a project, so will non-contributors. It comes down to whether or not you believe in stated objective or how enjoyable you find the work.

If you find the work fun and the cause important, you will almost certainly contribute something. If you find it to be fun but trivial or important but tedious, you may still contribute, but you are less likely.

Contributors to these sites feel a great deal of pride in what they do, especially sites such as Wikipedia, but also find it to be enjoyable. The combination of the entertainment (even competition) factor and the greater good are a potent mixture that causes people to give up countless hours to contribute with no expectation of a return.

The problem is that the companies that run many of these sites are not charities. They are for-profit companies that are making money on UGC. This has at least the potential to create disillusionment with the idea that their efforts are for the greater good.

The question is whether or not users will keep on contributing for free as it becomes obvious that their efforts are making the owners of the company wealthy. The answer depends largely on exactly how much fun the contributors have doing it.

However, it seems unlikely that such an image would help with the low contributor ratio many of these sites suffer.

But is it a Scam?

The honest answer to that question lies with the contributors themselves. They know what they are giving and what they are receiving. If they feel it is a worthwhile exchange, then it is not a scam.

However, it is important to note that many sites, if not most, rely upon UGC in some part, Plagiarism Today included. Any site that accepts comments, receives submissions or otherwise posts material received from the public is tapping, or at least trying to tap, that same desire to get something for nothing, even if they don’t realize it.

Though the benefits to the contributor vary wildly from site to site (attribution, a link, etc.), it’s the same desire for the contributor and the same reward to the site owner.

Though I personally do not understand people that donate large amounts of time to such efforts, I don’t mind submitting an article or two to Digg or making a few edits to Wikipedia any more than I mind leave a few comments on blog entries or forum topics.

Perhaps the greatest genius of these sites isn’t about finding a way to “trick” people into creating content for nothing, but in finding a way to tap an emotion, in a massive way, that makes people want to contribute and feel as if they benefit from it, even when there is no clear direct trade off.

So even though it’s not a scam to those most important, the contributors, it is still something well worth studying and learning from.

Conclusions

Even though the content is free to these sites, it is hard to call it a scam. Not only do the contributors seem to feel that their efforts are valuable and worthwhile, but countless other sites, often without realizing it, do the same thing.

Besides, free content is not without its pitfalls. Besides the plague of spam and other moderation problems, UGC comes with a slew of copyright issues.

Those issues will be discussed in tomorrow’s article, dealing with the intellectual property problems that arise when a site decides to base most of its material on UGC.

 

Tags: Digg, Reddit, Myspace, Social Networking, Web 2.0, UGC

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