So here’s a final few thoughts in our series of posts about some of the motivations for people creating UGC. And this time, it’s (literally) personal. At least in parts.

Career building
Now I admit this is where we get to push right up to the boundary between user-generated content and plain old content. One of our interviewees, who’s thought longer and harder than most about UGC, suggested that the point at which an online creator can, thanks to income derived from their creative work, “give up their day job”, then they’re no longer making UGC practitioner in the purest sense. They may well be making something different to traditional content, but it’s not UGC. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how circuitously that income stream comes about. A blogger who takes no advertising on their site, but who engages in lucrative paid for engagements off the back of their blog is not a UGC producer.

I broadly agree with this, but have one slight problem with it. It’s one of narrative, causation even. Let’s take a successful blogger who’s turned their thought leadership into a full-time career; was their writing up to the point of “going pro” UGC? Did it stop being UGC the moment they, well, quit the day job? In the case of the the successful blogger-turned-maven this is probably neither-here-nor-there, I grant you. But what of someone who’s aiming to build a potential career? At this point things become a tad trickier.

Let me speak personally here. I myself am, one way or another, involved in an awful lot of activity that may well be termed UGC, and have grappled endlessly with this issue as a result. I make music and sound art under two guises, Abyssal Labs and Boom Logistics; I blog on digital media matters here at Turner Hopkins on the Creative Industries KTN blog; I blog about music and the arts more generally on DGMFS and of course I tweet. Oh, and along with Sarah, I keep a tumblr. The music projects do have the potential to make money, as they are both based on paid-for downloads. However, I make all the music available to stream for free. I have no illusions about paying the bills with the downloads income, but I do see the making music available online as part of a wider process of being involved in music semi-professionally (I’ll address whether this is a career below). Blogging here and on CIKTN on the other hand, is definitely part of my “real” career as a consultant – that is, a career which does pay the bills. Likewise the tweeting, though interestingly, in that space, I have chosen not to delineate between my “life” and “work”, so the @simonphopkins feed is an at times bewildering mix of links to stories about the media, technology, opera and extreme metal. As for DGMFS, well that’s well and truly under the “no cash here” banner.

The question Sarah and I have often asked is: would our careers as consultants be harmed if we didn’t blog, if we didn’t tweet? We may never know the answer as we’re unlikely to stop anytime soon, but the answer is: very possibly not. But, I would argue that it’s essential for us to do these things to understand how all “this stuff” works. Call it research, if you want, but a highly involved kind of research. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs properly if we weren’t involved in this way, so in my mind at least there’s no question that, at the very least, blogging on Turner Hopkins and tweeting on related matters is part of my work, so let’s for now say that it’s not real UGC. But what about that other stuff: the music and and DGMFS? It barely makes money at all and certainly not enough to cover my time, if I were to measure my time in purely financial terms (which I don’t of course). So it’s classic UGC.

So why do I feel so uncomfortable with the distinction? Mostly, I think, because it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t fit with my experience of what it is to be doing this. To me it all feels part of a wider career; I’m lucky that one part of that career creates an income stream, but still, it’s all part of the same thing.

I think what this points to is a new conception of just what a “career” is – and this isn’t the nub of the research we’re doing for Ofcom it is at the very least a theme we’ll return to over and over. As more and more of us work in the knowledge industries, so more and more of us inevitably develop portfolio careers (and yes, that sentence does contain at least two ugly phrases, but there you go) – careers that encompass many aspects and will almost certainly blur the boundaries between our “work” and “lives”. A career (which in any case, with the exception of the “professions”, is almost always something we create retrospectively) begins to look like the some of things we do seriously in the world, some of which, if we’re lucky, will earn us a living. In this regard, UGC is arguably a vital part of career development, regardless of how much incomes it generates directly.

And if that wasn’t abstruse enough, let’s talk about:

Communication, or being part of the conversation
Throughout this research and thinking, we’ve been very aware of eliding “social media” and “UGC”; it’s one of the reasons we’ve spent so long on definitions. When it comes to thinking about UGC as part of the wider trend towards more widely practiced personal communication then we really run this danger. In any case, I feel we’ve covered a lot of this under previous headings.

Nonetheless, it should be said noted that while much of what often hideously termed “the public conversation” is carried in what can be considered UGC. Sometimes this goes on in such short-form ways as to qualify only as the lightest touch UGC. As I write I’m watch a s**t storm blow up on twitter about The Sun’s highly offensive Reeva Steenkamp/Oscar Pistorius cover, for instance. But the debate can be carried out more deeply or rather with engagement, and frequently is. It will be interesting to see how the aforementioned Sun uproar will develop into more considered blog posts over this weekend.

It’s worth noting, sticking with this case for a moment, that professional writers – The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade for instance – have already responded to the broohaha. Non-pros, right at this minute, will mostly be at work (notwithstanding my comments about careers in the knowledge industries above!) As a result, we can see that a more considered, long form user-generated response to any news situation may necessarily take longer to build than the professional one, with professional journalism now allied as much to the website as it is the next print run. Nonetheless, speed of response isn’t everything and it’s essential to view a lot of UGC as an active part of the overarching democratic process.

And of course sometimes, the “conversation” isn’t verbal at all. Today’s other breaking news is of a spectacular and unprecedented meteorite shower in the Urals. It would have been a story in its own right, but the footage of various meteorites burning their way through the skies in an almost biblical fashion have of course been caught on smart phones and dash-cams and consequently the story has become a truly visual one – and a massively shared experience. As I write  – just a few hours after the shower –  one YouTube compliation of clips has already amassed 1.5 million views and nearly 4000 comments. That’s a different kind of conversation…

I was going to take a look at tools in the post as well, but this strikes me this is long enough, and I think tools need their own place in this discussion, so check back in for that. I’ll also be writing imminently about value – what it is and how we go about measuring it.

Simon

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