Mejia: User-generated content: A fad, or here to stay?

Since YouTube was founded in early 2005, it has hosted over 80 million videos. In 2006, Time Magazine declared “you” the Person of the Year. The recent presidential campaign attests to the influence of blogs and other forms of social media. Indeed, user-generated content has become incredibly prominent in today’s technological environment. But it remains unclear whether it will continue to influence media or just remain a footnote in history as a passing trend.

User-generated content isn’t a new idea. Think back to companies who hold contests in which consumers create a slogan or an idea for a product. It can be argued that the purpose of such contests was not primarily to obtain a new logo or slogan, but to advertise the company. The contests’ value lay not in the ideas it generated, but rather in the role it played in promoting the company among consumers. Since the advent of the Internet, however, there has been a marked shift away from this trend. The astronomical success of Web sites like YouTube and many blogs have demonstrated that people are capable of producing captivating content.

But user-generated content needs to be taken more seriously by the regular media in order to remain relevant. It is common to see news broadcasts making use of blogs or YouTube videos, but it seems their primary intent is to establish themselves as technologically savvy, rather than to use the technology effectively to better their reporting. Likewise, recent contests to create commercials made use of user-generated content as a gimmick. Few people remember the commercials themselves, though the contests succeeded in getting the names of the companies out there. And while large sites like YouTube display ads from which they receive revenue, the creators of YouTube videos themselves receive no payment. For user-generated content to transcend the category of a fad, it must be treated as more than a moneymaking gambit.

Another problem with user-generated content (and social networking in general) is the tendency toward groupthink. This is easy to see on political Web sites like Huffington Post or Conservapedia that are largely ideologically homogenous. But this tendency is problematic on nonpolitical sites, such as Digg, too. Even though the sites espouse free speech and refrain from endorsing a particular opinion, it’s common to see a poster that goes against the general consensus instantly disregarded. This happens regardless of how well-thought out or valid an argument is.

More recent events, however, seem to suggest things are getting better. In the recent presidential election, blogs and smaller Web sites were, in many ways, as useful as larger media sources. These smaller sites were able to update much more quickly than their corporate counterparts and could report on a broader variety of news.

Some methods are able to pay content creators. Apple’s App Store allows individuals with programming experience to create an application and sell it online, where millions of users can access it. Though Apple takes a small fee for each sale, the developers receive the majority. Or take Little Big Planet, a recently released PlayStation 3 game that allows users to design characters and sell them online in a similar fashion.

User-generated content stands to become an important part of media if it can overcome these hurdles. There have been many incredible examples of user-generated content in recent years and it seems that these will only become more commonplace in upcoming years, taking their place alongside traditional media.

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