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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why hire talent when your users will do the job for free...Web 2.0...Opportunity or disaster?

Warning: This post may use the term "Web 2.0." I understand why many people hate the expression and will do everything in their power to see it destroyed. It can be damn-near meaningless (so says the "inventor of the internet") and more than annoying to those who have long been providing more interactive online user experiences. Despite those limitations, it is a very fast and efficient way of describing certain online trends.

One of the few things about which you can be 100% sure is that the net will always be a hotbed of change. Stuff that seemed irreplaceable and beyond cool a few months ago will be laughably outdated tomorrow. The things upon which we relied have come and gone so quickly that we don't even notice the turnover. It's natural. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Some things are fads and they have a nice short lifespan. Other things have real value, capture interest and grow. They become trends that eventually become traditions that then become part of the bedrock of the very internet itsef. Well, at least until something new comes along and uproots it. That usually takes some time, though.

So, if you make your living online, you have to keep your eyes peeled. You have to see fads for what they are. If you decide to make a buck off of a fad, you need to get in on the front end and get out before it crashes and burns. You have to be able to spot trends and understand how they will or won't really produce major changes in your business. You need to understand the traditions and why they are there, recognizing that even if you can't see an alternative, one may be just around the next link or already in limited beta.

When you build a business online, you are building on constantly shifting terrain. Yeah, that's true out in brick and mortar land, too, but that kind of movement is like plate tectonics compared to the rapid changes on the internet.

Anyway, one trend (evidenced by many fads, by the way) may have a serious impact on those who plan to make a living as online writers. It might also influence the way potential content buyers choose to operate. I'm talking about user-generated content. In the Web 2.0 push to make online experiences communicative, conversational and interactive, many sites are inviting users to add to the content pool.

Fad: Making and watching green screen videos of Stephen Colbert fighting with a light saber.
Trend: User-generated content.
Tradition: Publishing your own content.

The fad shows that the producers of The Colbert Report understand the trend.

The trend is growing increasingly visible. Everyone from multinational corporations who peddle oil and petroleum-derived products to tiny little one-person start-ups are soliciting user-generated content (UGC).

Some people will tell you that it's going to put a big dent into the tradition. Some are playing it cool and saying it's all hype.

Two questions... (1) Why do they want it? (2) As a writer, should I fear it? (3) What should it mean to webmasters are accustomed to purchasing and publishing content?

Why UGC? I can think of a few good reasons to grab yourself from UGC if you are operating a website.

  • It's cheap. Free, really. Free content is never something at which to sneeze, even if it is lousy.
  • It's a marketing tool. Yes, people, smart businesses actually pore over that content to figure out what their visitors are doing, what they want to buy, etc.
  • It's interactive. That's the big Web 2.0 push--creating sites that have an increased level of interactivity. We can talk about the philosophical underpinnings of that some other time, but it is a (at least potentially) valid objective.
  • People like it. People like being able to comment, add, twist, turn, bend, and otherwise influence the nature of things and websites. We also love communicating and making connections with one another. UGC opportunities attract users.
Should I fear UGC?

If the demand for content was finite, I would be very afraid. If the world needs 100 units of content annually and discovers that it can obtain 50 units from UGC, that leaves only half of a pie for all of the other content producers (in-house and freelance) to fight over instead of the usual 100. Someone goes hungry. I wouldn't want that to be me.

Fortunately, the demand for content isn't finite. The web is growing at a record pace and the need for content is outstripping the supply. That is probably one of the reasons that UGC really started to appear in the first place. So, even though users will be keying in more and more text than ever before, there still should be plenty of room for a professional content writer to make a living.

However, that demand isn't so massive that things won't be influenced by the Web 2.0 trend and UGC. There will be people who used to buy professional content who will opt to make a run with UGC instead. There are those who haven't yet purchased pro content who never will because they will plan on filling in their content gaps with UGC. The presence of a rapidly growing user population also means that there will be more and more opportunities for businesses to get more UGC instead of paying M-E.

Plus, Web 2.0 is hot. It appears to be a fast trend and they create a great deal of heat. When things get that hot, people start recklessly hopping on bandwagons, leaving those of us who appear to be part of the "old ways" in the dust. Some of that might happen.

So, should I be afraid? Sort of, but not really. I could be a little more nervous than I am, but I realize that

  • There are still a lot of people committed to the publishing model who won't be changing any time soon.
  • Most UGC is crap. It takes up space, gives a sense of participatory satisfaction, and matches trend expectations, but not everyone is a great writer or the possessor of real information, nonetheless wisdom.
  • People will still need to recruit the UGC. There will be demand for those who can write in ways that inspire others to participate as users. There will be demand for those who can write the kind of quality content that draws users to a site in the first place.
  • Some things can't get handed off to the users. UGC has inherent limitations. You don't want users to write your sales letters or your press releases. You want to use their content to help in the construction of that material, but you won't have them right it. Look at Colbert, he's happy to let users make light saber fights, but he won't be having them write all the material, direct the show, or write the jokes any time soon.
What does it mean to the folks who operate websites?

Well, that depends on the site, I suppose. Overall, I see the rise of UGC as a great tool for many of the reasons listed earlier. I also see it as having some inherent limitations. I don't think it has to invariably trade off with more traditional and/or professional content, but I do think it makes perfect sense to supplement "regular" content with UGC.

I also think there is still a lot of room to make a lot of money using the publishing model. I personally have a hard time with many of David Bowen's comments about Web 2.0 (I think he downplays the philosophical advantages of a more democratized and interactive internet and there's something in the tone of his writing that comes off as a little elitist), but I do concur with the part of his Financial Times piece that argues there is plenty of room for growth and profit with the publishing model.

I think that most webmasters who don't get caught up in the hype and who continue to watch their bottom line grow without over-reliance on UGC and Web 2.0 trappings will end up in agreement, too.

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