The 'U' factor

"Who has that time and that energy and that passion [to make mashups, do blogs, make YouTube videos, etc.]?"

"The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is YOU." 

Source:-Times Magazine, 13 December 2006

That statement could well be the start of a whole new wave of media jostling for space with the big daddies of traditional media. It was really the success of YouTube that set the ball rolling for 'user generated content'. Supported by the millions of video clips put up on the site daily and with mind boggling traffic, YouTube has gained a mythological community-driven status today.

But skeptics still wonder if the YouTube model can be made into a profitable, viable business model. That Google bought out the site for $ 1.65 billion could put some of those questions to rest. But the litigation around YouTube for streaming copyrighted material may yet prove to be its undoing. Whether YouTube will go the Napster way is everybody's favourite question but the Web 2.0 revolution almost begs to differ judging by the number of digital and even mainstream media adapting to 'people generated content'.


In fact the basic premise around the sustainability of YouTube is also the basic premise around the growth of 'people generated content itself'. Is this medium limited to the online sphere alone?

The contribution of user generated content to news, music videos and commercials is fast negating this idea. Is this medium prone to pitfalls given the debate of copyright infringement? Even as we speak Google and Viacom battle it out in the courts and outside. The results could well spell out the future course for UGC.

The single most important question: is all the content out there purely put out by users for gratification, a shot of fame or to display talent or will we be able to generate revenue out of this content and distribute it equitably between you - the content generator - and the distributor. Monetization of UGC will be an important key in aiding both growth and quality of the content. (Would you pay to watch a cat play piano? Would the cat owner get a share of the money you pay? No! the cat gets nothing.)

These questions surrounding UGC are as pertinent in the Indian context as they are internationally. Although in India both content providers and platform providers would have to deal with basic issues of broadband connectivity.

In that sense, one cannot obviously deny the important role played by technology in aiding and abetting UGC. Cell phones with cameras, MMS and digital cameras have captured both moving and still images that have been played alongside traditional content.


Consider this: Torrential rains and the city stops in its tracks. A bomb blast and a media that couldn't get close enough. Visual images on television news channel that clearly spell out the story of these tragedies as they happened. Strike one for user generated news content packaged asCitizen Journalist.

A bunch of bloggers, a Roger Waters concert and a camera. Channel [V] had the perfect recipe for a user generated content show. Strike 2 for user generated content on a music channel.

Video clips, pictures and everyday emotions played to the tune of a rock song. VH1 incorporated them all into a Pentagram music video which will be played out on the music channels as well as made available for download on the mobile and net platforms. Strike 3 for user generated music video.

There are UG photographs on Flickr, UG commercials and even UG movies and documentaries. Besides, you have automobile design companies running open design contests, Reuters carries blog postings alongside its regular news feed and television channels are looking at business models to create 24 hour UGC driven channels.

It's a genre which is seeping into all the nooks and crannies that mainstream content producers cannot penetrate. But going by industry speak 'user generated content' for now is a fancy word that is still a few years away from fruition. Where it has made its biggest impact is in the newspace.

Crises like bomb blasts, terrorist attacks or accidents have brought to the fore people initiatives with still photographs and moving pictures. CNN IBN's Citizen Journalist won awards even as other news networks jumped onto the bandwagon. While one may argue that this usually works in fits and spurts and only around big crisis events, CNN IBN is also looking at including stories from everyday walks of life and converting them into feature segments played out as part of their news bulletin.

Internationally, BBC World relied heavily on user generated images during the 7 July and 21 July London bombings. In fact, the BBC website has a UGC dedicated segment on the site- www.yournews.com. Making a point on the effective use of people generated content on news channels. Cellcast and Sumo.TV CEO Pankaj Thakar says, "During the London bombings the content on news channels was skewed to almost 30 per cent broadcast news and 70 percent people generated content. That's the kind of impact UGC can have within news. Unfortunately, we feel happy about small scale initiatives likeCitizen Journalism?.why cant user generated content be more mainstream?"

While the public broadcaster did use 'people generated content' within mainstream news, it is still early days for UGC to claim the same space as news programming. Would a BBC weekly show like 'Your News' be weaved into news programming? 

UGC in Entertainment

The Ficci Frames convention held in Mumbai had a very interesting session on User Generated Content. A lady in the audience very passionately debated that 'once the material or content is out of the hands of the user, he has no more rights on what or how the buyer may use it so long as he has been paid his price'.

This is exactly the question a lot of users are now asking themselves. Posted online videos are no more secure and how they are used may not necessarily be appreciated by the user. In the current scenario, the freedom to post his thoughts or videos and make it available to people he wants - is the real driver.

This is the premise that music channels like Channel [V] and VH1 have used to create music programming and a music video respectively. Channel [V] had an enthusiastic bunch of bloggers who got together to shoot the Big [V] concert which was later telecast as a series. Says Channel [V] head Amar K Deb, "'Made by you', the blogumentary that spawned a series of music shows was a first of its kind experiment. But it fit in perfectly with Brand 'V'. People want to participate in our shows, be a part of the process. By definition, television is perceived to be a passive medium but with UGC it takes on a more interactive format. Whether it's our promos or music programming, our viewers want to contribute."

Deb also reveals that with the success of 'Made by you', Channel [V] will 'look at the blogumentary way even with upcoming shows like Channel [V] Launchpad and Get Gorgeous 4 where the model aspirants will be asked to maintain their blogs.

Close on the heels of Channel [V]'s initiative, VH1 the music and lifestyle channel also announced Shot by You. Pushing 'user interactivity' into the mainstream media, viewers were invited to listen to the latest track by Pentagram - 'Voice' posted online and use their camera phones or video recording devices to shoot footage that would best suit the feel of the music and send it to VH1.

While the response to the Nokia and VH1 partnered Shot by Youinitiative was impressive, the quality of video clips or pictures sent weren't always up to the mark bringing into question the quality of user generated content meant for traditional media.

Talking about the challenges the team faced during the making of the video VH1 General Manager Keertan Adyanthya said, "Since the use of digital media in our country is still at a nascent stage, many of the entries did not meet television standards. Very often the resolution of the footage sent was not suitable for use. Some of the footage sent was copyrighted material and again could not be used at all."

But music channels are all gung ho about introducing UGC as part of their programming. Deb goes so far as to say that UGC based programming allows the channel a "one to one platform. It also gives the viewer a chance to engage with the medium."

So why are platforms like Sumo.TV taking so long to establish themselves in India? 

The channel which was to launch early this year has pushed back its plans by a few months. Thakkar however believes that the ecosystem will evolve by the end of 2007, and there will be some good UGC shows on TV. At the end of the day it is television more than online media that is considered conducive to UGC. "TV is more accountable and requires moderation," explains Thakkar. That kind of moderation is easier in the already structured television set up.

So we've talked user, distributor, content and platforms. Now let's talk shop. But this is exactly where the debate deepens. Are the big brands wary of associating themselves with user generated content due to issues of copyright infringement and quality checks?

Yahoo Groups' IM Swaminathan is of the opinion that availability of UGC has had a huge impact on advertising and PR with more opportunities for viral marketing. "Bloggers are invited along with traditional media to press conferences and product launches. Marketers are now using them as samplers before launching their product into the market."

But all talks of UGC being advertiser friendly are still premature? The biggest hurdle is the revenue model adopted by mainstream medium. In the case of news and music channels, there are no set remunerations for the content provided. While news content is packaged as 'social responsibility of citizens', music channels are still conducting contests or purely providing a platform for good talent.

In this case, Thakkar tries to explain Sumo.TV's revenue model. "In our case its the broadcaster who pays for content. The revenue received from the broadcaster is then shared by all parties involved. Revenue also comes from the mobile downloads, which is where the operator comes in. 

What happens in the UK where we have a 24-hour channel is that people send photos and MMS' to us, and we aggregate content and choose on the basis of relevance. We then process it - restore it to make it broadcast quality. In fact, we're developing our own restoration tool. People then download this content via the mobile, so we need to have proper license in place and contact the user for his content. This way we make sure their IPR is protected."

The company is still looking at television to distribute this user generated content since television in India has a "long tell effect" he says. Thakkar also argues that traditional media like print and television are themselves not very encouraging when it comes to user generated content. "Consumers who have so far had only the option of professionally produced content are neither aware nor proactive about this new genre."

The next wave?

Web 2.0 is a social experiment and like any other experiment it could fail. But it's an experiment that has allowed scores of anonymous faces, voices and all kinds of talent to crop up and have their moment in the sun. By extension that also means that a lot of content out there is downright nonsensical. The pay per click or pay per download model would perhaps ensure that a lot of this material is either filtered or relegated to the 'back pages'.

Industry watchers however are more optimistic that in the long run there would be a shift from amateur content to professionally generated content. And this is when proper monetary systems would also be put into place.

As this UGC juggernaut rolls on some of the issues that it will have to contend with are - copyright infringement, monetization and multiple platforms. But for now, I am completely immersed in reading up on every blog and site that talks about user generated content. I've also made up my mind to shoot my own short film. Any takers?

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