December 10, 2006
2006: The Year of User-Generated Content, According to Pareles

Another interesting piece from today's New York Times from Jon Pareles. He discusses the business of user-generated content, in which platforms for uploading this content is selling for increasingly large numbers, such as the $580 million for MySpace and the $2 billion for YouTube.

He considers "user-generated content" the "paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006," although he considers it a more technocratic dressing up of the idea of self-expression.

Pareles writes:

All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.

Certainly, we've highlighted what we saw as some interesting trends in user-generated content over the year as well: the rise of interesting new business models like Turner's Super Deluxe and Comcast Ziddio; journalism's promotion of user-generated content such as with Channel One and ABC and CNN Exchange; fan generated content for media as diverse as Skeletor, The Ten Commandments, and Saved by the Bell; fan-generated promotion; and that's just scratching the surface of the myriad types of user-generated content covered here this year.

All of this echoes some of the questions raised by Jason Mittell and Ted Hovet here recently, in relation to media educators: fair use.

Pareles writes, "Folk cultures often work incrementally, adding bits of individuality to a well-established tradition, with time and memory determining what will last. In the user-generated realm, tradition is anything prerecorded, and all existing works seem to be there for the taking, copyrights aside."

And you can definitely see this echoed in the exodus of Japanese content from YouTube and the discussion surrounding the Comedy Central controversy.

Pareles writes:

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace -- some played two million or three million times -- tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

Be sure to give his lengthy commentary a look.

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for bringing this article to my attention.