“User Generated Content”

I’m in Brussels at the Media & Learning conference, partly as a former MEDEA Award finalist, but also because I rather enjoy this sort of opportunity to contextualise and to think. I don’t do many conferences, and this one’s slightly (oddly?) outside my remit, so it’s a useful experience.

This afternoon I was talking about SciCast and exploring some of the lessons we’ve learned from it over the years, but one of the things that stuck out was my fellow presenters in the session referring to ‘user-generated content’. I may have reacted slightly badly to the phrase, and a couple of people picked up on Deborah Arnold’s use of my substitute, so I figure it’s worth rehashing the argument.

Frankly, I thought Mark Pilgrim had dealt with this more than four years ago:

“user-generated content”: a new form of online scam in which you make all the content, and we keep all the money.


In the geek media circles I sometimes inhabit the term seems long dead, but at this conference I’m shocked to find it’s still routine parlance. Here’s why I don’t use the phrase in relation to SciCast: every single word is wrong.

User: people who make media published by my project aren’t users, they’re partners, contributors, guests, … ‘user’ has a sneering connotation of low-life disregard, but contributors are the lifeblood of the project. They’re the crucial actors, not me. They’re the centre of it, not me. They’re the active participants: they’re not meekly passive “users”. Ugh.

Generated: You think the ‘users’ simply ‘generate’ stuff? They press a button and media pops out? No – they slave over their work, pouring heart and soul into it, making it an expression of themselves and their values. I sweat blood over my writing and my films, and my contributors do too. They certainly don’t ‘generate’ it.

Content: what the hell is ‘content’? These ‘users’ aren’t ‘generating’ ‘content’: they’re real people, putting serious effort into proper films, writing, photography, artwork, music.

Every single aspect of ‘user generated content’ belittles the central contribution we’re asking our contributors to make.

The danger goes beyond linguistic niceties: if we allow the phrase to become familiar, we might start believing it. We might start assuming that one ‘user’ is interchangeable with another, that one piece of ‘content’ can be swapped for five alternatives, that if we want more, we simply wait for it to be ‘generated.’

Our audiences and partners deserve more respect than that. They’re putting the effort in, and the least we can do is thank them for it, recognise their dedication, and make them feel valued.

I don’t much like “contributed media” either, but at least it’s not rude to the people who matter most.

[edit: Martin Austwick takes me to task, though from my reading we actually agree that it’s attitude that’s important rather than semantics. For the record, the thing I thought I’d be picked up on was referring to ‘my contributors’ – the audience don’t belong to me, if anything the platform I provide belongs to them.]

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