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Why user generated content makes web editors nervous

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I originally posted this in July 2006, but thought I’d reprise it. Enjoy.

A while back, I explained to a web editor how the BBC was planning to introduce more user generated content (UGC) to its site – namely its new Share/Find/Play strategy.

As is increasingly common among web editors now getting to grips with UGC, the following sentiment sprung forth: won’t that mean masses of useless content to wade through?

I’m finding this is an increasingly common concern among content professionals.

I’m not trying to sell in UGC services as a whole here, but I’d like to document some of these concerns and provide some of my own thoughts on why they exist.

User generated content means poor quality

By who’s standards exactly? Granted, UGC can be riddled with appalling writing, unsubstantiated claims and conspiracy theories but unless you’re running a talent website for writers or budding journalists, who are we to judge?

UGC is about letting users express themselves in their own way. Resist the urge of the sub editor in you to correct content. Editing or censoring ‘errors’ in your users content is a big no-no. Let them be.

The same applies if you’re looking for balanced debate or hoping that the quality of your blogs will raise the profile of your site. Have faith in your community and put trust in the adage that users vote with their mouse. The online stars of your platform will gather momentum as they gain a following, while the never do wells wither away and die from the drought of page visits and replies.

All that editing and censorship will mean massively increased workloads

So what? Isn’t your remit to increase user traffic and activity on the site?

UGC isn’t just about blogs and forums of endless editorial debate. Content suffers when UGC is half heartedly applied to traditional publishing models, where the user is constrained in what they can submit.

Why only allow users to submit written editorial content? It’s no surprise that web editors have concerns over UGC because, understandably, they’re looking for quality editorial. But why? The vast majority of people aren’t professional writers. Many don’t like writing full stop.

Instead, give the user access to a completely open platform, where they can submit any type of content – editorial, but also audio, videos and images.

As the likes of YouTube and Flickr are showing, users are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are evolving from ‘readers’ to multimedia content producers.

What if I have empty blogs, forums or no user comments?

I’ve yet to meet an editor or journalist that’s never written an article which is designed to inspire debate or gain a reaction from readers.

Avoid having empty blogs and message boards – roll them out to carefully selected users or offer only one forum topic at a time. Once they grow, open up more and cast the net wider.

Never open up a major network of forum or blog networks on day one. Unless you’ve got millions in marketing spend or you’re MySpace in a position where your URL gets a mention in virtually every news wire on a daily basis, you need to coax users in slowly.

I’ll have to deal with – ugh – the public!

Ever worked in print journalism? If you have, you’ll know that letters to the editor and opinion articles are the lifeblood of any publication. Having a healthy post bag and bursting opinion schedule is a great position to be in. It shows that your readers trust and respect you enough to engage with you and your brand. Thanks to UGC, readers can now take this brand engagement to a whole new level.

UGC is a fad. It’s a waste of time and money

We’re seeing more and more mouse potatoes take root (see what I did there?) at home and, much to the alarm of employers, in the office.

The web is moving away from being solely a lean-to technology focused on information retrieval. This is about taking the traditional publishing model and applying the benefits of the web – interactivity, the ability to publish at minimal cost, automation and search.

Quality websites with opinion and debate have the edge over others which simply break news. A team of quality writers can initiate that debate, but now you can allow users to actively take part and reinforce that role / value. More users spending more time on your site have obvious benefits, not least to your ad sales team.

Don’t under estimate how valuable UGC really is. The traditional web publishing model, by its very nature, pumps out content which appeals to a mass or large niche audiences. Even the best attempts to be super niche will assume some common ground among users.

Blogs, on the other hand, allow this homogenous content to be tailored by really niche users with heterogeneious preferences and opinions. UGC effectively widens the appeal of your content, making it relevant to more audiences, no matter how small or individual – all this is possible with very little effort on your part.

Brent Hoberman joins Guardian Media Group

Brent Hoberman, founder of lastminute.com has joined the GMG as a non-executive director.

Is there a board in the UK he’s not sitting on? Alan Leighton will start getting jealous…

It’ll be interesting to see what he brings to the party. The web is clearly the Guardian’s primary channel.

Read about Brent’s new role.

Monkey magazine to launch


What is the fascination with monkeys in the men’s publishing arena? Dennis Publishing, publisher of Maxim magazine appears to be launching a downmarket glossy described by Real Business magazine as ‘boobs and bumpers galore.’

Wonder how the guys at monkeyslum.com (recently bought outright by Sky) feel about the new mag and its new site monkeymag.co.uk?

I hate monkeys.

*UPDATE* This post has had phenominal traffic, so it looks like it’s going to get a decent bit of traffic when it finally launches (before 2006?). While you’re here, would you do me the favour of leaving me a comment? Submit anything you like – what you think about this story, the blog as a whole, how it can be improved etc. Mucho, mucho appreciated.

If you found this article useful and you’re a member of Digg, Reddit, Technorati or newsvine, please click on ‘Social bookmark this‘.

Convergence Culture

I’d provide an easy to read summary of the Henry James article on BigShinyThing, only a) I haven’t quite got my head around it and b) I intend to read it in full on the train home so I do get my head around it.

Skimming through the yellowed highlights (which is a nice way of doing ‘pull quotes’), Henry Jenkins seems to provide an alternative view on collaborative media. It’s not about the technology.

Lastminute.com founder behind Univillage.com


I’ve seen this site before, but I had no idea Brent Hoberman, founder and now part-time chairman of Lastminute.com was behind it.

While browsing through the site again, I spotted something a tad worrying. As you can see in this sample profile, users are able to display their contact details. Not just email address, but their mobile phone number, exact residential address etc.

Having just finished writing web safety guidance for a social networking service, Univillage.com’s approach seems to completely jar with best practice, common sense etc.

I don’t know if users are warned off supplying such information (I’d try to register for myself, but an ‘ac.uk’ email is required), even so, users shouldn’t be allowed to display this in the first instance. Ideally, there needs to be a screening mechanism in place which allows visitors to send a request for the profiler’s contact details – then a decision to release this information can be made by the user.

Has Univillage unknowingly exposed its users to a mass of abusive texts, postal letters and, most worryingly, knocks on the front door of student residential halls?

**If you found this article useful and you’re a member of Digg, del.icio.us, Technorati or reddit, please click on ‘Social bookmark this‘. Fanks.

Google fights ‘genericide’

MediaGuardian’s Organ Grinder has asked the question: can the acceptance of a brand as a generic term (e.g. hoover, fridge etc) be damaging to the original brand?

This is an interesting point and I’d love to know what a branding specialist thinks.

Personally, I understand that Google wants to protect its trademark from being ‘diluted’, but they’ll find it near impossible to change people’s habits in using their trademark as a generic term for web search.

Has Hoover really suffered because of this generic naming issue? Is their current position in the market more to do with all electronics manufacturers being able to produce virtually identical products?

No, this is more about trademarks and competitors being able to call their product Google. Will that really happen? Ever seen Dyson packaging or advertising refer to its product as a ‘Hoover’?

Not everyone has the ability to produce a quality search engine on the scale of Google.

I don’t think Google has anything to worry about.

Be faithful and your reader will “stay awhile”

While ignoring the first golden rule about web writing (ie front loading – would the summary / bullets not have been better placed at the beginning of the article?), Amber Simmons’ article on A List Apart eventually provides some advice on how to ‘speak’ to your reader.

I’m not sure how effectively applying the Long Tail approach to web copy will work if you’re writing for a diverse audience, but it’ll no doubt prove useful for sites dealing with niche audiences.

Max Hastings musings from his memoirs

Just finished reading Max Hastings’ Editor.

As well as recommending that an editor must rule with fear, Max Hstings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London’s Evening Standard, offers some insight into the role of an editor on a national.

“Don Berry brilliantly expressed a fundemental thought about the paper the other day: he said that other titles are in the business of telling people each morning that the world is a quite different place from what it was yesterday. The Daily Telegraph is much more in the business of reassurance, of providing confirmation each morning for our readers that their world is looking pretty safe and stable.”

“Three factors determine whether talented writers stay with a newspaper: money; space; and relentless stroking…our docial and comliant
writers were, by and large, our least effective…Every editor, every boss of anything must play favourites. There is simply not enough time to play favourites.”