Home / Business Focus
Mon, Dec 11, 2006 - Page 11 News List

The brave new world of user content

PROMISING ANARCHY Companies spent billions of dollars buying Web sites whose only real value is content provided by users, an investment that is changing the face of business

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Imagine paying US$580 million for an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips.

That's what Rupert Murdoch did when his News Corp bought MySpace in July. Then imagine paying US$1.65 billion for a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing along with their stereos. That's what Google got when it bought YouTube in October.

Empty vessels

What these two highly strategic companies spent more than US$2 billion on is a couple of empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.

All that material is "user generated content," this year's paramount cultural buzz phrase. It's a term that must appeal to the technocratic instincts of investors. Some could prefer something a little more old-fashioned: self-expression.

Terminology aside, this will be remembered as the year that the old-line media mogul, the online media titan and millions of individual Web users agreed: It demands attention.

It's on Web sites like YouTube, MySpace, Dailymotion, PureVolume, GarageBand and Metacafe. It's homemade art independently distributed and inventively promoted. It's borrowed art that has been warped, wrecked, mocked and sometimes improved. It's blogs and open-source software and collaborative wikis and personal Web pages. It's word of mouth that can reach the entire world.

It's often inept, but every so often it's inspired, or at least worth a mouse click. It has made stars, at least momentarily, of characters like the video diarist Lonelygirl -- who turned out to be a fictional creation -- and the power-pop band OK Go, whose treadmill choreography earned far more plays than its albums.

And now that Web entrepreneurs have recognized the potential for profit, it's also a sweet deal: amateurs, and some calculating professionals, supply the raw material free. Private individuals aren't private anymore; everyone wants to preen.

All that free-flowing self expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture.

And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own?

In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.

Tech oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected.

The virtual painting galleries, the free songs, the video blogs, the comedy clips, the online novels -- all of them followed the rise of the Internet and the spread of broadband as inevitably as water spills through a crack in a dam. Why keep your creativity, or the lack of it, to yourself when you can invite the world to see?

User-generated content -- turning the audience into the auteur -- isn't exactly an online innovation. It's as old as America's Funniest Home Videos, or letters to the editor, or community sings, or Talmudic commentary, or graffiti. The difference is that in past eras most self-expression stayed close to home. Users generated traditional cultures and honed regional styles, concentrated by geographical isolation.

This story has been viewed 3226 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top