Posts Tagged user generated content

Celebrity generated content

Katy Perry caused a storm on Twitter (photo: Michael @ NW Lens)

Emily Fairbairn

There’s a lot of scaremongering that goes on about user generated content replacing ‘real’ journalism.  With so many people doing it for free, will we all be out of a job in a few years? cry frightened journalism students. Well no, because amateurs will never have the skills, training and resources of professionals, so they will never replace them.  Kate Dubinski has written a brilliant post on the subject over at the London Free Press, and I couldn’t agree with her more.

“The stuff we’re paid to do is — in part because we’re paid to do it — as professional, accurate and removed of bias as we can possibly make it,” she argues.

“You pick up the paper, you read a story online, and you (should) know it’s been run through several filters before it got to you.  Those filters have hopefully caught typos, glaring holes in logic, bias, and all the rest of the stuff that makes you “trust” us.’

But this is not to say that user generated content is not of terrific importance in modern news-gathering. Crucially, Dubinski adds that “citizen journalists become sources for professional journalists, not necessarily competition.”

And what sources they are. As this blog has previously noted, citizen journalists are the eyes on the ground as humanity suffers earthquakes, genocide, revolution, tsunami. They are the ones who catch the police out if they overstep the mark, and they are the ones who go where the mainstream media can’t. Their videos, tweets and testimonies are gold-dust to a professional journalist,  providing detail, colour and expertise which could not come from anywhere else.

But UGC does far more than simply improve stories that old-school journalists would always have reported on anyway.  In fact, certain ‘users’ create stories by the mere act of ‘generating content’. I am of course, talking about celebs. How often do you see a story which is based entirely on what some tabloid favorite has said on Twitter?  Over at my beloved Mail Online today, you will see that the top story is ‘Katy Perry in Twitter Feud with Calvin Harris over tour‘. The journalist doesn’t even need to do any work; a quick look at Twitter sees the entire story unfolding neatly all by itself, unobstructed by secrecy or worse, PR.

And it doesn’t even need to be the content of what the celebrities are tweeting. When George Michael and Charlie Sheen joined Twitter, the mere fact that they had done so made headline news.

Social media, crowd sourcing, citizen journalism, user generated content; all are undeniably amazing sources. Far from threatening professional journalists, UGC has made their life easier. Stories are there: created, or found, by someone else. Just as citizen journalists need the mainstream media to publicise their content if it is ever to reach the masses, so the mainstream media increasingly takes its stories from UGC. It’s a two-way relationship which is mutually beneficial.

But journalists must not let UGC make them lazy. Reporting on what a famous person says on Twitter is not particularly interesting; any readers who are interested in said celebrity probably follow them anyway, so reporting two hours later on a public online exchange is basically redundant. Quoting Twitter users, many hiding behind a veil of online anonymity, is no substitute to meeting real people and talking to them (Metro I’m looking at you.) As Dubinski says, journalists are the gatekeepers, and they must select, filter and give an intelligent platform to the UGC that really needs to be seen.

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UGC: a lifesaver?

DEVASTATED: February's earthquake in NZ (photo: Flickr)

Emily Fairbairn

I urge you to read Kaila Colbin’s eloquent blog on MediaPost, A Message From Christchurch On The Value Of User-Generated Content. As a survivor of the earthquake in Christchurch, Colbin argues that it is user generated content that allows life to go on, helps a stricken country reasess itself and gets aid quickly to those who need it. More importantly still, it connects people. She puts it far better than I could:

 

“In a disaster, UGC is not here for your entertainment. It is not competing with network news for ad dollars. It does not care whether you think it should be pitted against the professionals for a journalism award. It is a way for people experiencing the most significant event of their lives to bear witness, to cry out their pain and their suffering and their need, to connect with people close by who are sharing the experience and with people far away who, but for their voices, might mistake these events for a blockbuster movie filmed on a sound stage. No human can fail to be moved by the horrific tragedy of Japan, made so real by the user-generated content coming from that ravaged coastline — its very lack of professionalism making it so abundantly clear that there is no difference at all between us and them. In these turbulent times, we cannot afford to distance ourselves from the humanity at the other end of the camera, and from the reality that there but for the grace go we.”

Looking at her words, though, one thing is clear. User generated content is not doing anything new. It’s just doing it better. Reaching out to other survivors, recording personal testimonies of disasters, calling out to the rest of the world for help: these are things that humanity has been doing forever. The explosion of user generated content just enables these things to be done faster, more easily and on a bigger scale.

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Mohammed Nabbous, hero of citizen journalism

By Emily Fairbairn
Mohammed Nabbous died this week.   Described as “the face of Libyan citizen journalism” by NPR’s Andy Carvin, Nabbous, known as Mo, was the primary contact for many Western journalists. He documented the Libyan revolution from a citizen’s point of view, posting exclusive videos that revealed the violence wreaked by Colonel Gadaffi’s troops against rebels in Benghazi. He founded the TV channel Libya Al Hurra TV, and was killed in the process of exposing attacks carried out by Gadaffi’s forces during a supposed cease-fire. Roy Greenslade of the Guardian writes that Mo was “regarded as one of the few credible, independent sources of news and analysis of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the city.”

Mo’s death is therefore not just a tragedy for his family, but for the watching world as well. Work by fearless individuals like him is the only way that the rest of us will hear about the horrors carried out in the parts of the world that shut out the mainstream media. It’s an old cliche, but knowledge is power; we should be little surprised that Gadaffi’s regime wanted him dead.

When Mo’s pregnant wife Perdita tearfully announced his death on Libya Alhurra, she reaffirmed the importance of the citizen journalist and insisted that Mo must not be allowed to die in vain.

“I want to let all of you to know that Mohammad has passed away for this cause. He died for this cause, and let’s hope that Libya will become free,” she said.

“Please keep the channel going, please post videos, and just move every authority you have to do something against this. There’s still bombing, there’s still shooting, and more people are going to die. Don’t let what Mo started go for nothing, people. Make it worth it.”

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User generated sense

Emily Fairbairn

Generating content does not have to mean creating something from scratch.

In fact, users are increasingly called on to re-generate content: make something interesting out of something boring.

Clever web-savvy users can turn incomprehensible data into something excting and enticing.  Even the government has caught on to this.

Data.gov.uk is a government project that publishes data with the aim of  ‘promoting innovation though encouraging the use and re-use of government data-sets.’

So the government has all this information.  It doesn’t exactly know what to do with it- why not give it to the public and see what interesting things they can do?

I had a look at the data that the site holds on the homeless, and used data-visualising tool Many Eyes to turn it into something comprehensible. The end result is way more easy to digest than those reams and reams of spreadsheets, don’t you think?

Homeless by ethnicity, 2010 Many Eyes

Homeless by age, 2010 Many Eyes

Homeless by region, 2010 Many Eyes

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Japan’s earthquake and the power of the citizen journalist

Emily Fairbairn The world has stood transfixed as the tragic events in Japan unfold.  All over the globe people were able to see instantly the scale of the devastation, thanks largely to the amount of content being posted online by survivors.

Tweets from Tokyo hit 1,200 per minute as the tsunami swept the Japanese coastline, and YouTube is flooded with shakily shot footage of the disaster. In fact, so many videos have been uploaded that the site is collating them on its CitizenTube channel.

It is at times like these that the power of the citizen journalist is reaffirmed.  Only those at the scene of the disaster can truly tell the story, and thanks to the explosion of social media and new technology they can tell it better than ever. The last devastating earthquake to hit Japan, in 1995, was nowhere near as well documented. Now the world sees the destruction instantly and graphically, and what a sight it is.

Hopefully the shocking images and testimonials pouring out of Japan will help mobilise the aid effort as quickly as possible. In the mean time, the sheer scale of videos, blogs and tweets serve as a reminder of how much journalism has benefited from the rise of user generated content. How awful that it takes a disaster like this to do so.

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Guardian vs Mail: is engaging with users really that important?

Cheryl Cole, darling of the Mail Online (photo: dailymail.co.uk)

Emily Fairbairn

Speaking in Toronto this week, Emily Bell, former head of digital at The Guardian, argued that newspapers must be ‘of the web, not just on the web’. She believes that the success of The Guardian’s website is down to it’s determination to embrace new opportunities offered by the internet. This includes user generated content, harnessed most strikingly by the Comment is Free section of the website. (You can read a great summary of Bell’s whole speech here at gigaom.com.)

As British newspapers scramble to cope with the impact of the web, the guardian.co.uk is undoubtedly one of the big success stories. It is certainly the most innovative, and this has been rewarded with more than 39m monthly browsers.

But this is dwarfed by the sheer might of the Mail Online, which attracts a massive 56m users per month.

And this is where it gets interesting. Because the Mail is the opposite of the Guardian. It doesn’t exactly ‘engage’ with its readers. It doesn’t run live blogs, or feature infographics, or podcasts, or any of the other web-only trinkets that the Guardian relies so heavily on. It rarely links to other articles. It’s journalists are not part of the Twitteratti, as the Guardian’s are; in fact, bar a few sports writers, Mail journalists keep themselves to themselves online and are far outnumbered by Mail-hating parodies, (@stopdailymail, @DailyWail, @DMReporter to name a few). Sure, you can comment on the Mail’s website, but you get the sense this is more people mouthing off rather than an actual engaged debate between users, which is what the Guardian has tried so hard to foster.

This goes against all of the received wisdom on making it big on the web. Paul Bradshaw, online journalism tutor at City University, argues that the arrogance of failing to engage, to link, to consciously stimulate debate online is traditional journalism’s single biggest flaw. In his opinion, fostering communities who talk to each other should be journalism’s most pressing aim:

Any online operation that does not incorporate its users in production is not only democratically deficient, it is commercially inefficient.

Of course some are inclined to see user generated content as a mass of ignorance, abuse and waffle. Those people should ask how much work has been put into attracting good contributors? Into developing a healthy commenting culture? And how much has been invested into giving the good users a reason to keep coming back?

The Mail is guilty of this very arrogance. It is essentially an old-fashioned newspaper, online. But it remains on top; you could hardly accuse it of being ‘commercially inefficient’.

The reason the Mail Online is so popular is simple; it runs great stories, with even better pictures. And, like the hard-copy Mail, it is persuasively laid-out (who can resist that pink showbiz sidebar?) The old maxim proves true: content is king. And it’s the kind of content that only the resources, access and well-honed skill of a traditional news institution could produce.

So how do we measure success online? Is it level of engagement, or is it pure hits? The Guardian or The Mail? I have a hunch what the advertisers might say.

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‘The demise of justifications for writing for free’

By Emily Fairbairn

Read Douglas Rushkoff’s insightful piece on the sale of the Huffington Post, perhaps the most prominent example the internet offers of the power of user generated content.

As a long-time contributor to HuffPo, Rushkoff writes that he was happy to write for free because it felt like he was part of a community and a more important purpose:

“There’s value being extracted from our labour, for sure, by advertisers or whoever, but the sense was always that we were writing for Arianna – contributing to an empire that spent its winnings bussing people to watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do their thing in Washington. Yes, there are compensating benefits – like getting links or hits or book sales – but it was a very soft quid pro quo based in a sense of shared purpose, and participation in a community beyond the mega-media-corporate sphere of influence.”

But now that HuffPo has been sold to AOL, Rushkoff is not so sure he will want to contribute anymore. So is this the key to user generated content?

When you ask someone to comment or contribute online, the likelihood is that you are asking them to do so for free. So they will need a good reason to expend their time and energy contributing to something which will undoubtedly in turn make money, somewhere, for somebody else.

If a user feels like they are part of something, like they are among other like-minded people, and that the site they are on MEANS something, then they will contribute. Content is rooted in community; you can’t create one without the other.

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