The idea of giving the public free content via commercial radio and television has been central to the distribution of media for decades. Consumers have willingly received content for free, because the content was paid for by the accompanying advertising. When the Internet began to flourish a debate began about how content was being distributed for free online, including business documents that had previously been available only at a cost of sometimes hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece. The debate still rages about how free content models should be handled for professionally designed materials, but now the public is also allowed and even encouraged to create their own user-generated content (UGC) and make it available to everyone for free.
UGC is used for a wide range of media including news, research, gossip, social media, blogging, digital video sites, podcasting, and numerous other applications. Additionally, UGC often employs open-source or free software, free or flexible licensing agreements, and other strategies to relax barriers to allowing the public to collaborate and discover materials on their own. UGC has been characterized by some as being a type of “conversational” media, as opposed to the type of “packaged” media that consumers have been delivered for more than a century. So shifting the role of the audience from a passive one to an active one has been a tremendous change to the way free content is delivered today. The creative and participatory audience is embracing the tools and applications to create their own content, and mass media corporations and the ever-increasing global business community are continually finding new ways to leverage UCG to their advantage.
In many cases UCG is used for only a portion of a website. For example, in online stores such as Amazon and Overstock, most of the content is designed and prepared by site administrators and developers. But regular visitors and shoppers to these sites can write and post user reviews of products they have bought. Such content is usually monitored by administrators to ensure that it meets website content rules, but there is usually no charge for uploading this content, as it adds to the usability of the site and serves as free advertising for the products sold on the site.
Today’s media companies are beginning to realize that users can create lots of material that will interest a broader range of site visitors, and they can adjust their business models to adapt to this material. For example, visitors to newspaper and tabloid websites can contribute UCG by sending in movies, posts, and photographs. The BBC has set up a UGC team that has led to the mainstream arrival of the “citizen journalist” approach to delivering news online. The BBC regularly receives thousands of photographs from viewers, and it doesn’t have to pay for them.
In 2006, American news mogul CNN launched the CNN iReport, a new portal that brings in UCG news from Internet visitors. Many major television news portals have realized that journalism provided by regular citizens is not a valuable part of broadcast news online, and they regularly solicit videos, photographs, and commentary from viewers.
Facebook, Youtube and other social networking sites have seen how important UGC has been to their explosive growth and popularity, and mainstream media outlets and business websites are quickly jumping on the bandwagon. With UGC, the idea of giving visitors a chance to participate in the content rather than simply consuming pre-packaged content is totally revising the way companies are approaching public relations and advertising.