November 17, 2006
FOE: User-Generated Content
User-Generated Content
Biographical information for each panelist is available here.

Rob Tercek, President and Co-Founder of MultiMedia Networks. He spoke early in the session about the backlash directed toward traditional set up between producers and consumers, pointing particularly to the fact that major companies aren't set up to understand the medium but expects to be able to send everything out in a broad message and for users to just "sit there and listen while we talk." He says that companies aren't great at listening to their audiences, and that has driven this backlash.

Caterina Fake, Director of Tech Development at Yahoo!. Fake says that user-generated content is not only fun but allows people in this era to return to that scene of artistan culture from the 18th century where everyone is producers and everyone is consumers. The scene switches from a concert hall to a group of people setting around in no certain order playing music to each other. Everyone produces, and everyone consumes. And that's what she sees happening in these online spaces, where the division between producer and consumer just isn't quite as important anymore. Look at this point, for instance, about the shrinking distances of communication between producers and consumers, as to how that helps empower an environment for increased user-generated content. She sees this type of content as a way to differentiate from the masses for individuals and also for there to be true choice instead of a corporate producer-driven, limited sense of choice.

Ji Lee, Founder of The Bubble Project Video content has to be viewed just to see some of the great examples of user-generated content from the Bubble Project. The plan was to put an empty comic bubble up on public advertising and for viewers to be able to put their own comments on there. Examples from comments that were written online: (for Michael Douglas) I've had so much plastic surgery it hurts. Or, for Jennifer Lopez, I used to smoke krak on the 6 train.

Kevin Barrett, Director of Design for BioWare. He points out that rolepplaying games are no strangers to user-generated content but were driven by them, were pointless without them. Back decades ago, there may not have been a vibrant computer-driven gaming industry yet, but there was certainly games that thrived on user-generated content. He says that it wasn't something to talk about or discuss but what drove the gaming industry.

Also, see Rachel Clarke's posts about these presentations with more detailed transcripts of the event here and here and here, from her Licence to Roam site.

Dangers of Dialogue?

Ji says that, when corporations talk to consumers, it's almost like talking to a friend of his. "Telling a friend what I want to say is not a dialogue. By creating a dialogue, you're giving up control and listening to what other people have to say."

On the games side, Kevin points to both the opportunities and the risks opened up by dialogue. "Obviously, it's very natural for audiences in particular to want this user-generated content. We have opportunities in community generation." He brags about BioWare's ability to draw 50,000 new users a month into their Web site even when they aren't releasing games, but points out that that interest provides a very powerful tool. "We wanted to empower players and consumers and products with the ability to use a very powerful toolset to create these things in an electronic environment. YOu get a lot of hobbyists who get together and want to compare the quality of what they've done." In this case, he is talking about creating a platform to create user-generated content. He says that the biggest risk is that the content generated by users is 99 percent rubbish, "but it doesn't matter. It absolutely doesn't matter." Later discussion clarifies how cream will rise to the top in content and allowing these voices to be expressed leads to greater content, even if it also leads to greater noise.

Caterina says being honest with users makes all the difference. "When you're able as a company to fess up and say, 'We feel your pain,' it's kind of a refreshing change from the ways companies generally treat their users." She thinks back to her expriences with Flicka and found that being honest with users about problems with the sites and mistakes helped. "People were very forgiivng because we had the cojones to say, 'We screwed up.'"

Rate and Quality of User Participation

Joshua Green posed the question of whether it matters if all users don't participate. Kevin said that the most popular download they've had for a game five years old has been the community extension pack with user-generated content. "People wanted to download that content just to see what's in there," he said. "If people download this stuff because they're interested in what the rest of the community is building--they're interested to see what else is in there and what might be of interest to them." In short, user-generated content creates new audiences, in addition to new creators.

Caterina says that, while it's expensive to buy a professional level camera, the prices have been coming down more and more to give people access too tools to create compelling content. "Any day of the week, 100 amateurs will beat out a professional." Meanwhile, Rob says that, 20 years ago, there was an orthodoxy about how professional content was created. "A lot of this was started before this took off as a consumer phenomenon," he said. He pointed to his experiences in the past working with BBC, not wanting to do work out of the BBC handbook, and said that his work was considered sloppy. Now, that aesthetic is accepted after the penetration of low-quality visuals. "The distinction is no longer binary, so there's more of a spectrum for possibility. Even in a Jay Leno show today, you can see Jay Leno broadcasting quality programming and then throw up a video from YouTube as well."

Rob pointed out that tagging was a commentary about content, so that, while everyone isn't generating video or uploading content, they are using their opinion and still generating content in that way, giving everyone a way to chime in. Caterina talks about tagging from the Flicka aspect, explaining how the photo sharing site developed its business plan that moved away from ratings. "We were adamant about not adding that feature because this ain't The more you have these systems, the more likely it is that people will game them. It's an arms race. The less explicit the ratings system, the better off you are." In other words, a qualitative system rather than a purely quantitative one allows for more creativity from viewers of photos.

Kevin discusses whether community-generated game content could replace the need for professional content by a series of slides that need to be viewed in the eventual video to get his point of the caveman story he tells (would not quite be that easy to reproduce here). His ultimate point? That only until the nature of fun activities become understood by the community at large and when those principles are applied with a professional discipline at the user level will community-generated games content displace professional work.

They discuss how, in the gaming space and otherwise, user-generated content puts more of a story element back into discussion. In other words, when great graphics can't be produced quite as easily, the story becomes much more important, going back to those early role-playing games when graphics were minimal or non-existent. With greater graphics, story disappeared from the game in many ways, so that, according to Keivn, "you were still manipulating what the characters were doing, but there were a lot of games without strong story elements."

Audience questions drove the panel toward battling problems with security and battling with the consumer in many ways. This gets to the dangers always inherent with giving power to consumers, in that consumers can collectively wield more intelligence than the much smaller development team. Kevin says, "No matter how many developer hours you throw at a problem, the community's brainpower will still overpower it. It's like the finger in the dike--you have to keep plugging up the holes, but there's always a new problem we're trying to stick our fingers into until the industry manages to mature to the point we can fix the whole crisis." Rob says that "you can't be more clever than the Internet. There are minds that are awake when you're asleep and are often more motivated than you. Architectures that invite participation are more likely in the long haul to succeed than architectures that don't." Rob posits that the single player computer game era "has been a blip in the history" of games and that social gaming is the norm." He points out that "every person who's developed user-generated content will tell you a story about emergent behavior than they ever expected. We have to embrace the notion that people will create things you won't anticipate, and expose that site to people in a way you've never thought of."

Rewarding Users for Content

Caterina points out that Revver said it would pay users for content, while YouTube didn't. But it is the "quirky and human and not very polished and real" parts of YouTube that attracted users, rather than the more professional environment of Revver. However, she points out that people make money all the time with user-generated content, such as pointing to the example where someone received a whole series of Land Rover ads based on his Flickr photos. Ji Lee rejects the need for commercialism of user-generated content, pointing out that, "when content has a commercial purpose, it often loses interest for the users." He pointed to some of his experiences with the Bubble Project and said he got corporate interest in using it. "The idea kicked in that people were interested in the Bubble Project because there were no banner ads attached to it," he said.

Caterina points out that people have a certain amount of time to invest in participatory media sites and must make decisions about what site to dedicate time and energy into. She also points out that, after a period of time with people connecting, we're now in a period of constraint. "There are billions of people out there who we could contact and be friends with on Friendster, and now we're trying to constrict our social network to the 12 people who are in our family unit, our Dunbar number, the 150-200 people that maxes out the number of people you can know, which was the size of an ancient tribe."

The question and answer session led to a lot of other fascinating content and comments that will be available on the video of the conference. Keep coming back to the C3 site and the Futures of Entertainment site for updates.