Geeks, numbskulls, amateurs, idiots and loonies. Not exactly high praise for people who create user generated news content. Anthony Lilley suggests the stigma attached to UGC is enshrined in the term itself: “When did the word ‘user’ last have a positive meaning?” And a recent New Scientist article suggesting YouTubers are driven by attention seeking rather than altruism hasn’t helped. But where is all this name-calling coming from, and what sort of damage is it doing to the potential of citizen journalism?
I looked at a few ways contributors to UGC (broadcast and bloggers) have been discussed recently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reactions of high profile personalities have tended to be disdainful. The Register
reported this month that Culture and Media Secretary Andy Burnham patronised members of the Royal Television Society by telling them that “The internet is an excellent source of casual opinion.” And Paxman’s reaction
to Newnsnight’s “pathetic attempt” to embrace UGC in their ‘Oh My Newsnight’ section leaves us in little doubt about his opinion.
This Mitchell and Webb Look clip has a similar tone, and all reiterate that the audience’s “casual” opinion or experiences are often worth diddly-squat in the world of ‘real media’.
In a sense these reactions are understandable. Many professionals feel their trade is being threatened. As the Blog Herald’s Scott Karp
suggests, the boundary between publishers and consumers is being challenged. But what I found most interesting was the hierarchies within different factions of the ‘pro-sumer’ community; insults such as “geeks” and “numbskulls” all came from bloggers or UGC sites. Bloggers were keen to brand their fellow broadcast contributors ranting lunatics, while one Dr Vee
was completely unaware of the irony in stating “any old fool can rant down a microphone”. If UGC contributors are slinging mud at one another, how are we to break down the stereotypes held by the 99% of people
who don’t trust blogs or online forum content?
But whilst many think UGC is self-centred rubbish with nowhere near the rigour provided by professional journalists, Jemima Kiss
suggests flipping this criticism of selfish ignorance on its head. Far from being stupid, these ‘numbskulls’ are more likely to “know their subject inside out”. The video diary of the mother of a disabled child who has been affected by NHS funding cuts will know her subject 10 times better “than a journalist who might pick up a story for a few hours”. Citizen journalism in the form of UGC should not (and realistically I don’t believe it ever will) take over, but it could provide a very useful source of ‘niche knowledge’.
To be taken seriously UGC needs to do be doing serious things- and it is. Recent examples include GroundReport
breaking the story of bomb blasts in Bangalore, and ReadWriteWeb
reports that Britain’s (mini) earthquake in February was broken by BreakingNewsOn
, a Twitter based news site. The comments underneath these stories are indicative of the strong feelings that praise for UGC invokes on both sides of the divide. There is rubbish out there, but in continuing to attach a stigma to UGC fewer people will believe anyone is doing anything of worth.