What turns a passive reader online into an active participant? What makes them comment on a story or post a photograph? So many of us skim content online but won’t bother to comment, because that requires a more in-depth level of engagement which we will not necessarily give, in our hurry to click through to the next story.
In her perceptive blog on the BBC College of Journalism website, Claire Wardle attempts to answer the question ‘what makes people send in their stuff?’. Research she did back in 2007 showed that one of the most significant reasons that people did not submit material was that they felt that they “did not know enough to comment or add anything.”
Such a feeling does not seem to worry commentators on the Mail Online, the UK’s most popular newspaper website. One of the most commented on stories this week is the news that Mohammed is now the most popular name in Britain for baby boys. If you know anything about the Daily Mail, it’s not hard to see why this story is so popular. Comments such as “this is a kick in the teeth to all decent British people by a treacherous labour government who have given our country away” (thanks, Martin from Clitheroe) show that not everyone is put off commenting by the small obstacle of being ill-informed.
The Mail Online generates a lively debate between its readers, thanks to a clever system that allows users to like or dislike comments, which enables them to interact with the commenting process without actually having to comment themselves. This can even create a situation where the debate between commentators becomes even more compelling than the article itself, as was the case when Jan Moir wrote that notorious piece on Stephen Gately’s death last year. The like/dislike system, which mirrors the popular ‘like’ button on Facebook, makes UGC simple- another factor which Wardle argues is crucial in encouraging readers to participate.
However, although comments are important, user-generated content is surely most useful when it provides news, rather than merely reaction. The London bombings in July 2005 are described as the point when citizen-generated content ‘went mainstream’, with the BBC’s main newscast the next day beginning with a package edited entirely from videos sent in by the public.
Wardle argues that people need a clear reason to contribute, beyond ‘interactivity for interactivity’s sake’. The 7/7 bombings unquestionably presented this reason. But that was an extraordinary day. What about ordinary days? Journalists get paid to turn the mundane into interesting content. What will inspire the rest of us?