De-Scribed on User-Generated Content

De-Scribed has an interesting post on the question of whether User-Generated Content, (as visible on Myspace, Youtube etc) really represents a new media paradigm:

The fact is that the new media paradigm wouldn’t be possible without an already existant brand-saturated culture. In other words, the vast majority of user-generated content – the volume with which YouTube, MySpace, etc depend upon to maintain some future – is built up around the “branding” of the people involved. Reviews, comments, demonstrations, novelty sneak-peeks, even “what I like” lists… We define ourselves according to what we buy, what we watch and what we listen to, and so our communications, and our “social indicators” (i.e. things that say “who will like me?”) reflect this utterly.

Up to a point I would have to agree with this scepticism, in the sense that a large amount of user-generated content could be as derivative from ‘old media’ content. However I can think of two responses to this. The first, an old media studies argument, is that it doesn’t necessarily follow from the basically parasitic nature of ‘fan culture’ that nothing interesting, creative or original is going on there . Bands and brands (or bands as brands) can be seen as providing contexts for conversations that are not solely defined or limited by those contexts.

The second response is that the fact that user-generated content is both coexisting and interacting with ‘big’ media doesn’t necessarily stop it from representing a genuinely new form of media: new media forms often seem to sit alongside old media forms without entirely replacing them. If the criterion for a form of media to be recognised as radical or a new paradigm is that it be a total break with existing cultural forms and conventions then we could be waiting for a very long time….

2 Responses to “De-Scribed on User-Generated Content”

  1. Graham Lally says:

    Hi Ben, good to see you back in blogging action 🙂

    To take each paragraph in turn… I think the concept of ‘originality’ is probably a key, yet murky concept here. One of my points was that the distinction, between ‘context’ and ‘content’ is one that should be accepted thus – in order, possibly, to break out of the ‘old content’ vs ‘new content’ hype that seems to proliferate at the moment. That is, fan culture innovation is more prevalent than a culture of *independent* innovation. In trendy buzzwords, a large proportion of the ‘long tail’ is actually intrinsically linked to the other, mainstream end of the spectrum.

    To tie in with the second paragraph, then, this cultural ‘dependency’/context is the lead-up to an increasing corporatisation of user-generated content. I’ll probably blog these soon, but some examples I can think of 1) Nikon providing Flickr-style ‘gallery’ space for Nikon users, 2) the UK Tories looking to make inroads into social networking systems, 3) MTV possibly looking to buy YouTube and extend control over it. The end result, made not just possible but *probable* by a mass-produced culture, is less of a co-existence, and more of a co-opting of new ‘media’.

    In reality, then, the only thing likely to change ‘radically’ is simply the ‘product’ delivery system. Not, as many people would like to think, the whole economic infrastructure or network of control over what we consume.

  2. ben.l.roberts says:

    Perhaps partly what is at issue here is that I see two distinct sorts of claim being made about user-generated content: (i) the ‘long tail’ argument that suggests a weakening of brand control over the market place; (ii) the ‘network public sphere’ argument that suggests that wikis, blogs and so on represent a new form of public sphere which can set the agenda for political debate and counteract the effects of mass media. The two arguments, while superficially similar, are actually somewhat independent. I’m kind of agnostic about the economic argument; it seems reasonable to suggest that UGC is causing some kind of shift in market rules but I think I agree with you that there is no reason to suggest that this is leading to a weakening of brand culture.

    But even if new media market/economic condition continue to favour brands and large enterprise I don’t think this necessarily affects the argument that UGC represents a change in the way that public culture operates. That’s partly because I don’t think the issue of ownership is as important to new or micromedia as it is to mass media. Specifically I don’t think that owners have anything like as much ability to exert editorial control over content. Does it matter that all these blogs that are supposed to be constituting the network public sphere are being hosted by Google, News International and so on? Maybe not. Of course these companies can always take the ultimate sanction and remove content that they don’t approve of but doing so is bad PR and I’m not sure censorship will ‘scale’ very well. Equally even if youtube is owned by MTV I’m not sure that it would affect the type of video artefacts that their users can generate (although maybe you know more about this?)

    So I don’t see the economic argument as being as significant as the public sphere argument. I think that brand culture can continue to be a dominant force *and* something genuinely interesting can still be happening in relation to public culture/public sphere and new media.

    By the way, why is the case of UK tories ‘infiltrating’ social networking sites an example of corporatism?

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