Last week I reported back on our first workshop with Ofcom where we looked at two different spectrums (spectra?) for UGC: that of engagement and that of professionalism, or, more bluntly, making-money-out-of-it. You may recall that they looked something like this:
continuum of engagement

continuum of professionalism

Now, anomalies aside (and there are frankly many), these diagrams rather beg the question: if hardly anyone is making any money out of this, why the hell are so many doing it, and in such an engaged way? Or, if you prefer: what, exactly, are the drivers of UGC creation? (I should stress that here we’re thinking of  personal drivers or motivations; what drives individuals and companies to create businesses around UGC practice is something we’ll be looking at further down the line.

So, here are a few which cropped up in our discussion which will be forming the basis for further investigation and consideration when we’re writing our paper.

Self expression
Now self-expression is a pretty wide spectrum in itself; reasons to express oneself are as varied online as they are in the real world. Nonetheless, from a snarky comment on a blog post to the making of a full blown album and releasing it on, say, Soundcloud, having something to say is, arguably a universal phenomenon – it’s part of who we are as human beings. In the case of the latter, here’s something which cropped up in a conversation we had with Soundcloud’s Dave Haynes only last week: that over 10 hours of audio are uploaded to the site every minute. That’s a lot of self-expression.

(As an aside, personally I prefer the term self-expression to creativity. For one thing I think the C-word has become so widely used as to be meaningless. More importantly, creative approaches can be taken in myriad areas which aren’t inherently expressive, from maths to football. )

Social capital
This is, of course, closely related to self-expression, although I think it should be said that many enjoy expressive creation without the need to share. But when it comes to any form of self-publishing, plainly creators are stepping into a social space. A comment left unsaid is, well, a thought. To leave a comment or even the briefest of restaurant reviews in a public (and very possibly permanent) space, is to act in a way which elicits response, and to a greater or lesser extent we all do this to accord ourselves “capital”. Not everyone, of course, wants to build, in that horrible term, a “personal brand”, but anyone engaged in the creation and publication of UGC is by definition also engaged in some kind of relationship with others.

Once again, here’s Clay Shirky, many of whose ideas in Cognitive Surplus have informed our thinking to this point: “Consider the list of ideas contained in this list: publication, publicity, publicize, publish, publication, publicist, publisher. They are all centered on the act of making something public… ” It is possible to be in public and not necessarily be in conversation (except perhaps in the most “meta” of ways). But it’s difficult to imagine anyone choosing to be in public without caring what anyone else thinks.

We’ll leave aside the debate over whether altruism is always a form of enlightened self-interest, but let’s make the assertion that many, many people are involved in some form of UGC practice for basically altruistic reasons. Of course, political activism is the most overt of these, but we needn’t always think of online activism as being on a grand scale. Indeed, the advent of an inherently international network has ironically facilitated the rise of hyperlocal civic activism.

And altruism may not necessarily be political at all. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. We will inevitably have much to say about the collaboratively constructed reference site later on, but wherever once stands on its value (and to put a marker down from us: it is a great achievement), one can’t deny the extraordinary and almost entirely unrewarded effort involved in its creation. This creation can’t be filed under “social capital”; Wikipedia’s creators are effectively anonymous. It’s not really a form of activism; politically contentious areas are constantly under scrutiny. Rather, people share information on it to help others find stuff out – it is, essentially, information sharing (or, if you like, teaching) as pure altruism. There are other forms of information sharing which have a more personal agenda (see Mavenhood, below), but Wikipedia or, for that matter, IMDb or Discogs, to name two more genre-specific, collaboratively built reference works, arguably come about from a straightforward and unselfish need to share.

Mavenhood – or the sharing of expertise
Here we are into a subset of social capital, but it’s such an important one in the realm of UGC that it needs to be stressed. One of the most widely practiced areas in UGC is that of shared expertise, and again it’s a pretty wide range of activity

At one end of this particular spectrum is the forum and all its variations. There is seemingly no area of human activity or interest which doesn’t have an informed community of specialist practitioners sharing information and expertise. And many areas have dozens, if not hundreds. Try pasting either of these questions into Google if you need to see it demonstrated: How to tune a ukelele? or How do I run barefoot? Each will lead you to endless answers shared in YouTube, on specialist forums and on the sites of specialists (on whom more in a moment). You’ll encounter a world rich in advice, yes, and of course you’ll find an awful lot of disagreement (especially with the barefoot question, believe me). But what’s apparent in each case is a dispersed community of individuals who want to share their experience.

Unlike the Wikipedia or Discogs editor, however, the dispenser of advice in a specialist community is almost certainly motivated by a mix of both altruism and a need to gain in social capital. They may even be building a career. They certainly want to be heard; they are after all acting in a extremely public space, often in response to another community member’s question.  (And I should point out that this need not be confined to strictly specialist communities either. One of our case studies will be the collaboratively built H2G2 – “The Guide to Life, the Universe and Everything”, whose latest entries, as I write this evening, include an entry on Winchester Cathedral and Ham and Yam Chilli – that’s tomorrow dinner sorted then.)

And then, at the other end of the spectrum is the maven. “Maven” is an ancient term, but gained a new usage in Gladwell’s Tipping Point and has generally come to denote dominant experts in any field – and whose reach has been significantly increased by the advent of the web. Of course, mavens can and do carry out their work on a community site such as a forum or message board. But the truly successful ones tend to become their own “brands”, most often through the medium of a blog. Now at this point we’re beginning to push at the edges of the OECD definition of UGC we looked at last time, because as often as not, mavens are on the way to building a career out of their expertise, or else are consolidating a position already established by actual practice in a given discipline. But many are still in the realm of the amateur or at least pro-am, and the establishment of mavenhood is unquestionably a terrific motivation for many in the UGC field.

OK, that’s enough for this post. Later this week I’ll take a look at Personal Development, Career Building, Communication, Self-Image and that vital (if external) driver: tools.