One of the buzz phrases bouncing around the marketing world over the last couple of years is “user-generated content.” The proliferation of web sites such as MySpace, Flickr, and YouTube that combine individual content and social networking, and the blogosphere in general, has created a tidal wave of online content created by individuals hoping to reach out to an audience much larger than their friends and neighbors. In fact, users are often reaching out to an anonymous mass audience because they don’t even know their neighbors. Teens and adults alike can post content and connect with someone halfway around the world, even if no one is talking over the dinner table.
But what is at the heart of all this content? The simple answer: self-expression. We all have something to say, with words, pictures, music, or a multitude of other items. “Upload” is becoming the new universal language. Many see this phenomenon as a diffusion of power of the old media vanguards: a new paradigm that empowers the individual.
So, are blogging and www.myspace.com/yournamehere really the democratization of information? Does it increase our connectedness or does it feed a world of “me-talkers” screaming into the void? Is all this self-publishing a good thing? The answer is “yes.” Because achieving the intersection of the desire for self-expression with some thirst for truth is very cool. But then, whose truth is it? Doesn’t News Corporation own MySpace? Aren’t PR firms enlisting bloggers to disseminate well-crafted corporate spin? The truth is, as with any successful new media phenomenon, commercial interests will try to figure out how to exploit it. The trick is figuring out how to harness the energy of these online social networks and free expression zones without killing them.
One critical element needed in the development of the user-generated universe is a greater breadth of voices. When you peruse MySpace and some of the other social networking sites, it’s hard not to feel like this arena is basically some overblown, hormone-filled, virtual singles bar for the barely legal to try on different provocative personas without having the foggiest notion of the implications of their behavior. The early blogosphere seemed like a channel for tech nerds and political junkies to vent over the fact that they are smarter than everybody else, but no one knows it. YouTube’s origins seemed focused on young males attempting to emulate stunts from MTV’s “Jackass” to get noticed. (Wasn’t high school bad enough the first time around?)
But things are changing. Take, for example, the widely reported story of a septuagenarian English widower named Pete, who became the most-viewed video on YouTube recently. Some of the young groovers tried to ridicule this man for daring to play in their playground. But many, many, more came to the defense of this gentleman for reaching out and trying to impart a little of his experience in this world. I listened to Pete and read some of the thousands of comments on his page. Maybe there’s a thread of humanity that just can’t be overtaken by the “cool kids.”
Political campaigns have explored and exploited the power of the Net for some time, but some groups began to truly harness the power of blogs and citizen-generated mojo in the last election cycle. It’s hard to imagine that a candidate like Howard Dean would have become a national figure without the Internet. Now, it appears a group of political consultant heavyweights from both sides of the aisle are coming together with media and technology gurus to create www.hotsoup.com, “the first online community to unite Opinion Drivers from across the spectrum.” The stated goal is to provide a forum for “America’s 30 million influencers” to get beyond partisan politics and have genuine debate and discourse about relevant issues. If the site achieves anything close to this goal, then it will be a welcome relief…and a compelling destination. But let the buyer beware that he may be getting tapped for the slickest polling/message-testing guise devised by the guys who make their living doing just that. As I said before, commercial interests will find a way. Still, the online social network world is give and take, so we can choose to be part of the dialogue or not.
So are we seeing a maturation of the user-generated net medium from hormonal adolescence into something that welcomes more of us to participate? Maybe. Regardless, it’s worth getting out there and joining the conversation. At the very least, people are talking. And a few people out there have some pretty amazing things to say.