Web 2.0 – User Generated Content or garbage?

wastebinSome months ago, an Internet Form that I belonged to was taken offline after an internal dispute….and it never came back.  The upshot of it was that the content of the forum was no longer available – gone for good.  Of course, it wasn’t all pearls of ever-lasting wisdom, but there was some interesting stuff there that’s now gone forever.  A week or so ago, another friend commented on my Facebook profile about the ephemeral nature of a lot of what we put online  as ‘User Generated Content’, and it’s quality, and that got me thinking about just how much user generated content is worthy of any form of retention.

‘Web 2.0’ is very much about user generated content; a Web 2.0 site is essentially designed by the interaction that it offers users of the site – be it the ability to configure the user experience, participate in discussions, real time chat, post articles or images, whatever.   For those of us from the 70s and 80s,  it’s all very reminiscent of the paper based fanzines and newsletters we created, or the BBS systems of the 1980s and 990s – of course, the sheer volume and speed of communication offered by Web 2.0 exceeds the earlier versions of ‘user generated content’.

One might even include things like ‘Letters to the Editor’ in newspapers and magazines – how many of us knew someone who’d had a letter published in the local, or even national, press?  And then you get in to the rarer scenario of having an article, poem or story accepted for publication – and getting paid for it.  I still remember all the details of the first article that I had published in 1982 in the now defunct magazine ‘Electronics and Computing Monthly’.

The further you go back, the more important one thing becomes – and that’s editorial filtering.  Basically, space was limited in magazines, and so you wanted to fill it with what would sell.  And that’s where the quality control of the editor came in.  Even with fanzines, there was a similar need – you had a limited amount of space dictated by the cost of copying, postage and the time taken to type and duplicate it all.

Today, many of these limitations are gone – cost of publication is minimal, distribution is done by the reader picking their copy up form your site, etc.  Anyone can set up a publication in the form of a site, and expect to get a lot of content from users of the site.  In theory, a perfect world of conversation between similarly minded people across the globe, with no editor getting in the way and dictating policy.  It’s a wonderful dream.  And it doesn’t work.

To be honest, most people are just not up to the job of writing for an audience; the editor didn’t introduce censorship – he or she bought along quality control, focus and direction for the publication.  I’m far from perfect myself, but I learnt quite a bit about writing for an audience by having a couple of hundred article and a dozen or so books published in the days of the ‘paper press’.  If we forget the obvious nonsense that turns up as comment on blogs – the spam, the ‘me too’ and ‘I agree’ posts – then much of what does end up online is often poorly phrased rant or loosely disguised ‘advertorial’.   A lot of content on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the online discussion forums is by it’s nature ephemeral – water cooler discussions enshrined in hard disc space – and the good stuff that you do find is typically drowned in the noise.

Like I said, I’m far from perfect and am conscious enough of my own abilities to know that my blog is simply the 2010 equivalent of a fanzine written by me and with a small audience.  But it’s important that we don’t get fixated on the idea that the removal of editorial policy on the web and the resultant ‘free for all’ for people to provide content is necessarily good.

It isn’t.  It’s removed quality control, and generated a Web that is increasingly full of rubbish.  If you want quality – look for sites with editorial policy or moderation.

2 thoughts on “Web 2.0 – User Generated Content or garbage?

  1. Andrew Keen argues the same point in his book “The Cult of the Amateur,” which serves as a defense of cultural gatekeepers. As Keen insists, without someone to tell us what’s bad and what’s good, anything can become popular, and therefore our long-term cultural influence is determined more by an individual’s popularity and marketing savvy than his actual artistic quality and relevance.

    The depressing part of this argument is that it presumes all audiences are idiots, incapable of sniffing out the good stuff (and seeing through the charlatans) by themselves. And that may actually be true. But the bigger problem is that the ease of modern media creation means anyone CAN get noticed, which makes it harder for those who “deserve” to get noticed to rise noticeably above the din.

    If we, as an audience, were more critical of what we consumed, we’d be more likely to make smart choices. We’d reward the good, rather than the accessible. But that means we’d also have to hold ourselves to a higher standard as media consumers, AND we’d need to provide articulate feedback that would help those who “almost” produce media at a high-quality level with the critiques they need to improve.

    And if you think writing for an audience is harrowing, imagine how hard it is to *read* intelligently…

  2. It’s a vexed question.

    The vast majority of input on Forums, FaceBook or Twitter is completely ephemeral – a thought for a moment in time. Hopefully nteresting, entertaining and illuminating – but all too often, just complete pointless rubbish that is not worth a moment of anyone’s time, never mind being preserved for eternity.

    But then again, some of the comments that are made – especially on Twitter, I have to say – are interesting, thoughtful, amusing, perceptive – well worth reading and re-reading.

    And some/many Forum posts I have read have been works of art in their own right, at once thought-provoking, funny, enlightening, illuminating, challenging, stimulating – carefully crafted and created with thought and intelligence. Some would not be out of place in an academic journal. These are more than worthy of preserving and keeping safe – they add to the sum of human knowledge, and are as important as anything published in the traditional manner.

    How do we sort out the online ‘wheat from the chaff’, and ensure that quality contributions are not lost to the future? Interesting question.

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