Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Stifling the stigma: UGC and stereotyping

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.

1 comment:

Huw said...

If a person has informed prior knowledge about a subject tackled in a television programme, they should mention it. Sadly, 99.9% of the people who comment on the website of such programmes don't know anything about the subject in hand, and think that they have a right to broadcast to the world the full level of their ignorance.

Still, the idea is there - get the unknown experts in.

That's the point behind stations such as the BBC asking for people's views: they want to know how people who have personally experienced certain subjects react to programmes tackling them, either emotionally ("if you have been affected by any of the themes in this programme...") or intellectually ("What do you think?"). These programmes, far from wanting the uneducated views of anyone and everyone, want the enlightened views of people with knowledge of the subject so that anyone reading the feedback pages can be educated second-hand not only by the programme, but by its viewers.

A more cynical view is that they want to show off their website. Being a cynic, I believe this is usually the case.

Mitchell and Webb hit it dead on.

Fully aware of the hypocrisy of what I am about to do, read my vaguely journalistic thoughts about the world courtesy of my blog at