The Value of User-Generated Content

Posted By BrokenClaw on August 23, 2007

User-generated content is all the rage on the Internet. Sites like YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, and Digg.com have been highlighted in mainstream media, so a lot of people have at least heard those names, even if they’ve never visited the sites or understand how they work. These four sites in particular, and probably hundreds of others, exist only because users (that’s people like you and me) take time to submit their own material (known as content on the Internet) or to edit and rewrite someone else’s material.

The issue is, that if any of these websites become wildly popular, the owner becomes wildly famous and/or rich, while no compensation is considered for the hundreds and thousands of people who volunteered their time and energy to make it popular. So what is a person’s motivation for participating in these user-generated sites? Well, I can tell you my motivation.

For a few years, I was a volunteer editor for the dmoz Open Directory Project. I did it because I felt like I could improve the product for the benefit of other users who shared the same interests as me. I did it because these niche categories were mostly ignored on the ODP, and I felt that I could bring a level of expertise, from a technical standpoint, to edit these non-technical categories. So there was an element of self-satisfaction in the whole process. On my personal website I certainly included a link to my ODP categories (ODP always made it clear that the correct terminology is not “my category”, but rather, “the category I edit”) where users could see my name listed at the bottom of the page. I left the ODP because I found other interests which took up my free time.

I have never submitted anything to YouTube or the other video-sharing sites, but it seems to me that they actually provide a tangible service to their submitters. Similar to the photo-sharing site Flickr, they provide a free service for users to share digital media with family, friends, and the world. Of course, commercial ventures and wanna-be professionals use YouTube as free advertisement. Other amateur submitters hope to gain their proverbial 15 minutes of fame by producing a viral video.

The term viral has mutated once again. The biological virus is characterized by its ability to infect a host for the purposes of self-replication. It was adopted into the computer lexicon as a piece of malicious software which gets copied covertly to your computer, and then replicates itself onto other computers. Now the term is used to describe digital media, a video or audio track, which gets passed around intentionally from friend to friend as “you gotta see this!”

In the case of Digg, the users find news or feature articles from anywhere on the Internet, post the link on Digg, and then other users vote on which are their favorites. The stories that get the most diggs move to the front page. There is a definite benefit for the actual writers and publishers of the original content, in that, the higher they are on the Digg rankings, the more traffic they get to their site. In fact, sometimes having an article posted to Digg can generate so many visitors that servers on small websites get overwhelmed, causing the site to crash. This phenomenon is the well-known digg effect. For the people who submit stories, there is a competition of who submits the most stories that make it to the front page. As I see it, it’s similar to a video game. You play the game for the entertainment value and to get bragging rights for the top score, but there isn’t much benefit beyond that. So when the owners of Digg cash in their highly-valued website, all of those users who spent countless hours playing the game to make digg what it is, get nothing. But I don’t see any difference from a company that produces a popular product. People buy it, tell their friends, they buy it, and the company makes a lot of money.

The Wikipedia is another huge website built on user-generated content. In essence it is an online encyclopedia, but its scope goes well beyond the traditional 30-volume set of books from your childhood. But the most unique feature is its method of growth. Any user, including you, can add material to the Wikipedia. The advantage is that the Wikipedia can be instantly updated. For example, when Barry Bonds broke the career home run record, it was immediately updated on his entry and on Hank Aaron’s entry before the game was over. For those unfamiliar with the site, it may sound like Wikipedia would get trashed by a lot of false information. The theory, though, is that so many people view and edit the articles, that people with expertise would immediately correct any misinformation. I have added material to Wikipedia myself. In all cases, my contributions are concerned with historical people and events, and I always post my references as part of the article. My motivation is similar to what I described about the ODP.

So what is the current state of funding for these sites? dmoz ODP is funded by the Netscape/Mozilla family of Internet products. YouTube was purchased by Google from the original developers for 1.65 billion dollars earlier this year. Digg is still funded by venture capital investors. Wikipedia is a non-profit venture which is funded by donations. Recently I heard the founder of Wikipedia being interviewed. The host asked him why he doesn’t just put advertising on the site, and he defended his decision to keep it non-profit. From my perspective, if Wikipedia ever becomes a profit-generating site, it undermines the motivation for users to volunteer their time and effort. Consider the following scenario.

An elderly widow in our neighborhood could not maintain the general upkeep on her home. The mortgage was settled, but she had no means to hire someone to do general repairs or even to cut the grass. So the neighborhood association took it upon themselves to help her out. The neighbors donated funds and material, and every weekend there were volunteers to mow the lawn, paint the porch, repair the roof, and even replace part of the tile floor inside. After several months, her house was looking pretty good, and we all felt rather proud of our accomplishment. And then her son showed up. He took her out of the house, put the house up for sale, and sold it for much more than it was worth only months before. How do you think the volunteers felt then?

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