User Generated Content & the Remaking of Media Publishing

Reports of newspapers and magazines closings are daily occurrences. Similar reports of the closing of book publishing houses appear regularly. These three leading forms of traditional print publishing—newspapers, magazines, and books—are in free fall. Their recent demise mirrors the earlier experience that befell the music industry in the wake of the wide-scale adoption of the MP3 digital format. Today, technological destabilization and market instability are compounded by a profound economic recession.

Jason Epstein, a long-time publishing executive, recently wrote: "Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author." It sets free a new publishing paradigm, one not limited to the print media. As Epstein points out, the digitalization of print publishing is the enabling step in the transition from Gutenberg’s moveable type to computer-based creativity and Internet distribution. He notes, with almost utopian euphoria, "the huge, worldwide market for digital content, however, is not a fantasy. It will be large, very diverse, and very surprising: its cultural impact cannot be imagined" (New York Review of Books, March 11, 2010).

Most overlooked and most important for the development of a true, democratic 21st century culture is that digitalization fosters an historically unprecedented volume and variety of popular forms of creative expression, user-generated content (UGC). UGC provides many people with the tools and techniques to not only speak for themselves, but also to find an audience and, thus, enter into the public dialogue in a way that was not previously possible. Whether this contributes to increased knowledge, more informed decision-making, and more effective political organizing remains to be seen.

New Genres

A handful of examples suggest the scope of the new "genres" remaking the publishing landscape. In 2009, Wikipedia, the premier UGC research tool, posted an estimated 2.7 million articles (in English) from 75,000 contributors and had some 700 million visitors. Craigslist, the online ad service that has singlehandedly created havoc with the newspaper industry, had 636 million searches during the month of January 2010. Still other forms of UGC suggest the scope of change underway. eBay, the online auction house, had 635 million searches in November 2009 and Second Life, the popular "virtual" UGC online community, has an estimated 700,000 "residents."

Online blogs have become the new political pamphlet, the personal tract, the idiosyncratic self-published manifesto. They are promoted by news organizations like CNN, specialty groups like the Huffington Post, and an ever-growing universe of lone commentators. Blog publishing services rely on software that is proprietary, free, open-source (e.g., WordPress) or are developer hosted (e.g. TypePad). According to comScore, this new information and opinion platform is proliferating with 133 million new blogs added worldwide since 2002 and 346 million worldwide readers in March 2008.

The popular adoption of Web 2.0 social networking applications signals a further reconfiguration of what is understood as publishing. Sites like Facebook and Twitter represent complementary models of highly personal yet very public forms of self-expression. They bridge the user-generated genre of letter writing (historically hand written) and the more public (and printed) pamphlet or tract and transforms formerly private communications to public exchanges.

As a distinct Web 2.0 culture emerges, the line demarcating the socially acceptable shifts. Less then a century ago, people accepted the shared experience of telephone conversations as a modern innovation. The private in-home telephone, phone booth, and car phone superseded shared communication. Today, we live in a public space in which (one side of) intimate cell-phone conversations are shared with complete strangers in the most banal of public venues—be they restaurants, airport lounges, or movie theater lines. The private lives of 400 million "friends" are publicly shared on Facebook as are the public communications of 75 million Twitter members.

Digitalization has had its greatest impact on video media. Since its inception a century ago, the full-motion entertainment business, first as film, followed by analog television and then cable and home video, has witnessed repeated struggles over the creation and distribution of programming content to the end-user audience. Critical Supreme Court decisions, including Motion Picture Patents (1917), Paramount (1949), and Sony (1984), disrupted the industry’s monopolistic tendencies. During this analog era, UGC video slowly emerged with the introduction of 16mm and 8mm film in the pre-World War II era, followed by home video in the 1970s and, most importantly, with the introduction of Sony’s camcorder in 1985. The adoption of digital media tools and techniques since the 1990s fostered an explosive growth of UGC video.

The online market-tracking firm, comScore, reports that 173 million U.S. Internet users watched 33.4 billion videos (with a total of 173 billion unique page views) in January 2010. This in a nation with just over 300 million people living in 120 million households and, according to Nielsen, approximately 228 million Internet subscribers as of August 2009. Most illuminating, comScore found that the top five nontraditional media sites, including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, dominate online video distribution. It estimates that this sector accounts for nearly 45 percent of all videos viewed; Google sites alone, especially YouTube, accounted for 39.5 percent of viewers. YouTube received nearly 13 billion views in January 2010, with individual viewers watching an estimated 93 videos on average during the month, an increase of 50 percent from January 2009. Another source estimates that in March 2008, YouTube offered 70 million videos from 200,000 producers. For all the zany private videos, the most popular YouTube videos tend to be professionally produced and run for promotional purposes, though market research projections anticipate UGC content increasing to 60 percent of online video traffic over the next few years.

History of UGC

Amateur" artists, whether writers, painters, sculptors, or musicians, have long created UGC. During the post-WWII era, the amateur arts expanded to include new forms of technology-based creative expression and, more importantly, new makers, those traditionally defined as ordinary consumers. The line between amateur art and UGC, like that between amateur and professional or auteur, is slippery.

User-generated film emerged in the 1920s when Kodak introduced the 16mm Kodascope film stock and camera. During the Depression, Kodak followed with the 8mm format to appeal to amateur or "home movie" enthusiasts. However, the new technologies introduced during the post-WWII era launched popular media making and publishing. Polaroid’s self-printing instant camera, introduced in 1946, revolutionized photography. It enabled users to take a photograph and have it automatically duplicated in about a minute. It brought mechanical reproduction to UGC. The mimeograph machine dates from one of Thomas Edison’s early inventions and was long used as a low-cost alternative for the production of newsletters and bulletins. However, the introduction of the Xerox photo-duplication process in the 1960s popularized the mass reproduction of black-and-white words and images.

The 1960s counterculture movement fostered an alternative sensibility as underground poets, writers, journalists, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists took full advantage of relatively affordable and easier-to-use creative and distribution technologies to forge a new sensibility. These artists used the new technologies to break the tyranny exercised by the big media companies over the "content" marketplace. Equally important, maverick artists showed ordinary creators, those who did not consider themselves "artists," that personal voices and visions could not only be created but could find an audience.

Two developments proved especially critical. First, the rise of the underground press and "citizen journalism" gave voice to the 1960s counterculture music, literature, and lifestyle as much as it chronicled the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, and women’s movements. Second, the 1960s democratic spirit fueled the 1970s battle over community or PEG (public, education, and government) television. The outcome of these struggles established public access cable, an early form of UGC video, which has been institutionalized in nearly all subsequent cable licensing agreements, though under attack today.

What Polaroid did for the still image, VHS home video did for the moving image. Until the introduction of home video, unless one was exceptionally competent technically, the ordinary consumer could not reproduce 16mm or 8mm film—or a photograph for that matter, let alone print a book. You needed a commercial vendor to process moving or still images or text.

Home video offered greater freedom not only over image production, but also the reproduction and distribution of full-motion representations. Ampex introduced the first videotape recorder in 1956 as part of a technical effort to make television production more efficient and economical. In 1967, Sony brought out the first portable analog tape system. It wasn’t until the introduction of VHS tape by JVC in the mid-1970s and Sony’s camcorder in 1982 that a viable popular UGC video movement emerged. It freed amateurs and "pro-sumers" to express themselves in highly personal ways.

The further maturation of analog technologies during the 1980s and the adoption digital media in the 1990s set the stage for the explosive growth of 21st century UGC video. The Supreme Court’s 1984 Sony decision decriminalizing a consumer’s right to off-air copying (i.e., downloading) of broadcast programs helped spur the adoption of the VCR. As the price of VHS production equipment dropped, more and more people began making their own programs. Most UGC was poorly shot, often with only a cheap hand-held camera and with equally poor quality audio and lighting. Nevertheless, much of it found a loyal audience. What UGC lacked in professional quality, it made up in viewer identification, a sense that one was watching the real thing.

The steady maturation of the computer industry during the post-WWII era set the stage for the transition to digital video. Key to this process was the continuing evolution of the integrated circuit following the logic known as "Moore’s Law," by which processing speed doubles every 18 months or so combined with a comparable price decline. A host of complementary technical developments, including advances in compression, data storage, digital cameras (e.g., Sony introduced its first digital camera in 1995), and appropriate editing tools, furthered this process. By 2000, digital video became the creative standard.

Transforming Media

American media publishing has been profoundly transformed since the end of World War II. Two of the dominant popular prewar media, movies and radio, were eclipsed by a series of postwar technology revolutions. First, the widespread adoption of analog broadcast and cable television, followed by the popular acceptance of home video reconceived the moving image. Second, the digital revolution introduced a host of computer-based media tools and technologies that created the age of ubiquitous content. Third, the incorporation of the Internet and mobile connective is transforming the media pallet.

Publishing is in a state of crisis. Old business models are no longer working and new ones have yet proven viable. Nearly all of the major corporate players in each media sector, from books and newspapers to music and videogames to movies and television, are struggling to figure out how to survive and better position themselves for a new world just emerging.

The conventional business models for most media publishing sectors are well established and pretty simple. For book and game publishing, the model is based on a consumer paying a retail price based on the fees associated with maintaining a retail outlet and the costs assumed by the publisher, including a writer’s or programmer’s advance, editing, printing, marketing, and shipping. For magazines and newspapers, it’s the combination of retail sales and advertising revenue to cover operating costs and profits. Costs associated with content creation and distribution for broadcast television are covered by advertising revenues, while for cable programming, it’s advertising and subscriber fees. For movies, it’s the box-office ticket sales plus a host of ancillary revenues, including DVD sales, international licensing, and now web streaming. The media game is based on securing the greatest number of revenue streams.

These models helped establish the formal three-tier structure that defines "professional" media. On one tier are the writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other creative professionals who work alone or in consort with others to create a work of "art," the original content. They normally receive an advance that is recouped (along with innumerable marketing charges) by the publisher on unit sales. The second tier consists of the publishers, be it a book, game, record, or video production company (along with their innumerable minions) that transforms the work of art into a commercial product. The third tier consists of the matrix of facilitators or middle-vendors that distribute media publications from the content publisher to the customer or audience who purchases it. These include the book or videogame or record retailer, cable operator, and online vendor.

UGC upsets this three-tier structure and the associated business models of traditional media publishing. UGC is a form of freeware, content given away free-of-charge. Freeware is computer software numbering in the thousands and covers a wide assortment of applications, from business titles to antivirus programs to videogames. It is popular with a small sector of well-informed computer users and those looking for a bargain.

Most open source programs, like freeware, do not threaten corporately-produced applications that dominate the commercial software market. One notable exception is Linux server software.

Two distinct programming models define the online UGC market. The dominant approach is the platform model, one in which a company hosts or aggregates end-user content. Platforms include both commercial and noncommercial venues. Among the leading commercial sites are Facebook (VC financed), YouTube (Google owned,) and Second Life (Linden Lab owned). A parallel UGC reseller platform model is represented by eBay (public company) and Apple’s iTunes. Among the leading noncommercial (or less commercial) platforms are Wikipedia (Jaime Wales and foundation), WordPress (Matt Mullenweg and foundation), and Craigslist (Craig Newmark and company). The second UGC approach is the personal offering model represented by the lone blogger or website specializing in a highly idiosyncratic business or service. The challenge facing both approaches, like the more conventional media publishing industry, is whether they are financially sustainable.

"Sustainability" means different things to different people. The more corporate entities, like News Corp. (with MySpace and Photobucket) and Google (with YouTube and Blogger), have built businesses exploiting "free" user-generated materials as the content for a new publishing medium. For example, the UGC aggregated by Google’s YouTube serves as a way to challenge the dominant TV/cable conglomerates that either produce their own content or acquire it from a third-party supplier. Similarly, the UGC aggregated by News Corp.’s MySpace provides a wedge for an established media publisher to expand into a new programming sector. Each strategy requires a viable revenue model, one that is not only profitable but doesn’t scare away the providers of "free" content who keep viewers coming back. MySpace’s effort to include ads seems to be a major factor in its declining popularity. However, Google’s decision to share YouTube ad revenues with the video’s producer marks a major shift among commercial UGC platform providers, essentially turning YouTube into a mini TV network. YouTube’s sale of indie films from the 2010 Sundance festival extends its revenue model and pushes it up against Netflix and other more specialized online indie film retailers.

Sustainability for less- or non-corporate UGC publishers takes a variety of forms. Wikipedia and WordPress do not take advertising or subscriber fees, but accept contributions to their foundations. It is not clear how viable this model is for long-term sustainability. For example, recent changes in Wikipedia’s editorial policy (e.g., who edits submissions, the decline in the number of senior editors) may be tied to problems with its utopian business model. Another model is Craigslist’s effort to democratize the publication of classified ads. It is quite successful, operating in 570 cities around the world and charging modest fees to employment recruiters, real estate brokers, and sex workers, while all other postings are free. Its 2009 revenues were estimated at $100 million. Sites seeking advertising support represent a third approach. This approach can be daunting as it is predicated on increasing "unique visitors" to get advertisers (agencies and Google’s adwords) measured in terms of CPMs (cost per thousand) that range from a few cents to $15 or more, depending on traffic and how desirable the specific audience. Finally, the classic indie media maker model conceives UGC as a labor of love. This sector involves the amateur who will likely have a day job and cultivate her/his creativity, in whatever form it takes, outside the workplace. In our post-industrial, post-modern society, these makers proliferate.

Media Marketplace

The media-publishing marketplace is built on the blockbuster product model. Over the last three to four decades, book, music, and movie publishers grabbed onto the blockbuster strategy to drive increased sales of a handful of "hit" titles. These publishers marshaled their promotional and marketing dollars to push pre-select "branded" products to maximize anticipated financial returns. Some were successful, many others were flops. Nevertheless, this strategy defines Hollywood’s "tent pole" model for the release of a slate of titles. Under this strategy, the blockbuster is expected to capture sufficient returns to cover the costs of the lost-leader titles that fail financially (at least in the short term) but fill out a distribution schedule. UGC challenges this model.

The current crisis facing media publishing involves more then digital destabilization and economic instability. It is rooted in the long-term consequences of the publishing industry’s adherence to the blockbuster product strategy. It is a strategy that not only is represented in the concentration of resources into a few major releases, but also leads to industry concentration dominated by a few major players. The majors in each media-publishing sector benefit significantly from the blockbuster—perhaps too much. The super-blockbuster Avatar has broken all movie exhibition records, once again proving the wisdom of the blockbuster strategy, yet oddly, as the blockbuster model reaches its performance zenith, it seems to be faltering as new technological and market conditions are undercutting the blockbuster’s long-term viability. These forces are undermining the homogeneous culture blockbusters cultivate.

With the digitalization of content creation and Internet (and wireless) distribution comes an increasing powerful undertow within the media marketplace. This undertow consists of the ever-growing number of "amateur" media makers who create their own content and the equally powerful segment of the consuming public open to a wider variety of original and unconventional media content. It remains to be seen whether digitalization and the proliferation of user-generated content will sustain a viable alternative media publishing community.


David Rosen is a writer and consultant living in New York.