Perhaps the most odious buzzword to emerge from the second coming of the web is “user-generated content” — my objection to this term is not just aesthetic (although it’s quite an ugly term). My real problem with user-generated content is the notion of a “user.” Rishad Tobaccowala of Denuo highlighted the unfortunate double meaning in his keynote at OMMA last fall:
User Generated Content: Since when did I become a heroin addict?
Treat me as a person, not some user, consumer, addict, shallow person defined by your brand or some other form of low life.
Worse than the negative word association is that the use of the term “user” in a media 2.0 context has completely obfuscated what is actually happening in media. Take this comment from Fred Wilson in his post on the end of page views:
Web pages themselves are changing, moving from pages controlled by publishers to pages controlled by users. I have no idea what percentage of total Internet pages viewed in the month of December are “controlled by users” (I’d love a number on that if anyone has it), but I am sure that percentage is increasing. I’d put some, but not all, social networking pages in this category. All blogs for sure. And the growing category of personalized start pages (Google, MyYahoo, Netvibes, etc) is a big part of this trend.
In most cases “users” in Media 2.0 are defined as the “people formerly known as the audience” or the “users” of Web 2.0 applications, including social networking sites like MySpace. The problem is that “users” are defined in opposition to “publishers” — as if people who create “blogs” are still in some lesser, “other” category, below and apart from traditional publishers like, uh, Yahoo.
Well, no. There is a revolution in media because people who create blogs and MySpace pages ARE publishers, and more importantly, they are now on equal footing with the “big,” “traditional” publishers. There has been a leveling of the playing field that renders largely meaningless the distinction between “users” and “publishers” — we’re all publishers now, and we’re all competing for the finite pie of attention. The problem is that the discourse on trends in online media still clings to the language of “us” and “them,” when it is all about the breakdown of that distinction.
Despite my objection to his use of “users,” Fred’s observation about trends in page views is an important one — smaller publishers, i.e. NOT USERS, do likely account for an increasing percentage of all page views. But I think it’s essential to recognize that the difference here is one of SCALE, not KIND. Traditional publishers who use cumbersome, out-dated multi-million dollar content management systems to publish on the web are also “users” of these over-priced systems, but they are publishers first.
It’s time we start adjusting our taxonomy to recognize that the tools do not define the activity or the output or the people doing it. There are large publishers and small publishers. There are people who publish for friends and family, and people who publish for professional colleagues, and people who publish for a (relatively) broad consumer audience. The revolution is that ANYONE can publish to the network and that anyone can leverage the power of the network.
That said, there is one respect in which some publishers are still “users” — when you publish to a platform like MySpace or YouTube, you cede control over the monetization of your publication. As I discussed in my last column, making money is certainly not the objective of everyone who publishes online. But regardless of financial motives, we are all seeking our share of attention — and anyone who publishes anything online is competing for their share.
So it’s time to throw off the mantle of “user” and be proud publishers — otherwise we’re going to get “used.”
Scott Karp is the publisher of the blog Publishing 2.0, which covers the convergence of media and technology.