boardIts been a tad quiet round here, I know – but we’ve had our heads down on the UGC work we’re doing for Ofcom, and very interesting it’s turning out to be.

On Tuesday we held the first of 2 workshops with internal stakeholders, bringing together a dozen or so people from various departments. We’d initially intended to carve up the session into 4 or 5 discussions, but it became quickly apparent that this was a very smart group, with a lot to say, so in truth we really only got into 2 of our topics in any depth .

Which is fine – not least as the first of these is all around definition(s). In our research so far – both in our literature review and in our interviews – the definition of UGC which keeps coming up is the one that kicks off the OECD’s 2007 report Participative Web: User-Generated-Content:
“i) content made publicly available over the Internet, ii) which reflects a certain amount of creative effort, and iii) which is created outside of professional routines and practices.”

Here’s the thing about that definition, though. For a start, that report itself lays down this caveat: “There is no widely accepted definition of UCC, and measuring its social, cultural and economic impacts are in the early stages.” And, more importantly, it’s nigh-on 6 years old; it hardly needs to be said that things have moved on since then. Just as Clay Shirky used I Can Has Cheezburger and Ushahidi to illustrate the two extreme poles of value in mass online activity in 2011’s Cognitive Surplus, we might take the Arab Spring and 50 Shades fan fiction to illustrate the impact of UGC over the last two years. But the point remains: things have moved on, and fast.

So a definition of the area under consideration is a pressing one for us, and here’s how we tried to get the group thinking about one. We’ve been thinking all along that rather than think of UGC as a single type of activity, we should consider it a continuum. However, as we’ve been going along we’ve come to think that several continua are possible, but for the purposes of this session we stuck with just two:

  • The continuum of engagement – from a foursquare check-in to creating and releasing an album on bandcamp
  • The continuum of professionalism – from completely un-remunerated to the bordering-on-pro

Now you might already feel some objections surfacing, but bear with me.

The first thing we had the group do was a quick brain dump of examples of UGC: platforms, brands, overarching activity types and so on. We then got the group to start arranging these along the first continuum – an axis of engagement from barely engaged at all to pretty much fully engaged. And from the get-go, this proved tricky, throwing up as many new questions as it answered (a recurring theme of this project so far, as I’ve observed previously).

  • Surely some platforms/brands can stretch along almost the whole spectrum? After all, serious photographers and holiday snappers alike might use Flickr or even Instagram. Think similarly for YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud and so on.
  • Do we naturally tend to think of some forms – especially literary ones – as inherently more “engaged” than others?
  • Is engagement something which is even measurable?
  • Is curation by definition less engaged than “pure” creation? But then, is a mash-up an act of creation or curation?

You get the picture, this was never going to be easy. Noneletheless, after some spirited discussion we settled down on a consensus which looked something like this:

continuum of engagement

Next up, we got the team to rearrange the map’s elements along our second continuum, that of professionalism. Now again, we instantly ended up in tricky water, and especially around the terminology. It goes without saying that terms like “professional” and “amateur” are loaded. Turn them into isms and you exacerbate this. “Professionalism” generally denotes seriousness, skill, quality; “amateurism”, for most, is an insult. Now we’ll return to the arguments around this later – it’s surely going to be one of the key areas for us to ponder – but for the purposes of this exercise, we defined the term somewhat literally: this was an axis from making no money at all right though to pretty much making a career of it.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as with the previous mapping exercise, lots of these elements could – and do – stretch right across the spectrum (fully “pro” bands are now using bandcamp, for instance), we eventually agreed that things were looking like this:

continuum of professionalism

This struck us as fascinating. In the first mapping exercise, the majority of the content was moving towards “highly engaged”; in the second we all agreed that most of this activity was nonetheless a more-or-less amateur (as in not-paid) pursuit.

So who are all these people quite so highly engaged in non-money making activities, and more to the point: why?

That was the second part of our discussion on Tuesday and in our next post we’ll be attempting to answer that question looking at some of the social, political, financial and personal drivers of UGC.