We’re driving towards the first draft of our report into UGC for Ofcom; here’s something I wrote earlier today. I’m not sure it’ll make the final cut – might be a tad too polemical. In any case, it’s pretty heartfelt and comes at the end of a couple of months of absorption in this stuff (a period in which I’ve “crossed the floor” several times about the whole topic). It’s also a period in which I’ve been finishing my own debut solo album, something which has been pretty traumatising, but has arguably made my thinking about pro-amateur creativity somewhat more acute. So like I say, heart on sleeve ‘n’ all…
We opened this section of cultural value by observing that any judgments in this area are highly subjective. So let’s end with a brief, highly subjective claim. Mass consumption of others’ creative work is a relatively new paradigm in the realm of creativity. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century is widely cited as the beginning of the mass media, but it’s what historian Paul Starr terms “The Rising of Technological Networks” in the mid 19th Century which provided the tipping point; the subsequent inventions of radio, phonography and television only served to deepen the degree to which massive audiences could be reached and entertained.
A curious thing happened in the years immediately after WWII, at least in the West: a public with more spare time on its hands than at any time in human history found itself with the technological means to consume thousands of hours of others’ creative endeavours year in, year out. Let’s be clear about this: this is unprecedented. When our grandparents (perhaps great-grandparents) claimed, We had to make our own entertainment, they weren’t lying.
We would argue that the new UGC paradigm is in many ways a return to a time of making our own entertainment. Of course, it is on an unimaginably different scale, with entirely new opportunities to learn, collaborate, communicate, promote. Is this a world of unbridled brilliance? Hardly. But here’s the thing. When UGC detractors make their case they always hold up the cultural greats and argue that rather than writing a post on Blogger or sticking a snap on Flickr we’d all be better off watching Kubrick or Mad Men or reading Nabokov or listening to Miles Davis or… you get the picture. And yet: is that what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, really?
In truth, we would argue that lives are immeasurably enriched by participation over passive consumption, indeed, that practice in any discipline deepens our very appreciation of it as a consumer. And in this, we feel, lies the true cultural value UGC.