Here’s the second of our posts looking at the potential value of UGC to the UK, drawn from our research and writing for Ofcom. Previously we thought about this economic terms. This time out we’ll think about some of UGC’s potential political and social value.

Political engagement and debate

The Arab Spring, the Obama election campaigns, the Occupy movement (and, just possibly, its obverse, the Tea Party movement); these are the poster children for the impact of social media and its role in political life. They are undoubtedly huge moments in the development of mass digital participation in politics and social change, but two questions stand out for this paper: to what degree has a more engaged kind of UGC begun to have a political impact? And to what degree has this happened in the UK?

It’s tempting to look to the power of the blog. Two highly influential blogs on the political right in the UK are Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes . The two blogs are as similar as they are different. Both would claim to uphold traditional Conservative Party values at a time of an arguable identity crisis for the party. On the other hand, Tim Montgomerie’s Conservative Home sees itself more as a voice for the Conservative grassroots, while Paul Staines’ Guido Fawkes “Blog of plots, rumours and conspiracy” takes a more satirical approach.

Both blogs have undoubtedly been influential, with both Montgomerie and Staines seen as go-to commentators by the mainstream media. But the question hangs over their status as UGC. Staines has founded MessageSpace, an advertising agency which advises political clients; meanwhile, as observed by Wikipedia: “In September 2009 Lord Ashcroft the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party took a controlling stake of 57.5% in PoliticsHome, the company which owns and operates ConservativeHome .”

And yet, if we compare these sites, admittedly somewhat oddly, to musicians or film-makers who either consciously or unwittingly build a professional career from previous UGC activity, political voices moving from the user-generated margins to political centre stage in some ways only validate the importance of UGC. It’s not as though Montgomerie and Staines are unique. Across the political spectrum there’s a greater amount of opinion available than at any time since the age of pamphlet – and with almost certainly greater public access.

And the engagement needn’t be as deeply engaged as blogging. The BBC’s Question Time is a 34-year old television show which brings together politicians to answer questions from the public. As a format it has barely changed over the years, but BBC insiders say something very simple has reinvigorated the brand: the creation of the twitter hashtag #BBCQT. By using this hashtag – which is promoted on air – viewers can respond “in real time”. We’re using quote marks here as the programme is aired 24 hours after recording, which unfortunately stops panelists responding to comments on twitter. Nonetheless, even time-shifted as it is, the engagement feels real and massive. This doesn’t take place on the BBC’s servers and is therefore not moderated; the barriers to entry are low; and it feels part of “a bigger thing”. It is undoubtedly a new kind of political engagement, and if it sometime feels like a bear pit, well that’s the nature of the beast.

How all of this will play out in the long run remains to be seen. Conservative Home and Guido Fawkes have to different degrees been absorbed into the political mainstream. Users of “#BBCQT” rather rely on the presence of the show, and by extension the BBC to give any context to their work. But it seems reasonable to assume at this stage that the use of UGC to drive political engagement and even activism will only grow and grow. How the political and media establishments respond to this will be crucial.

Information & knowledge sharing

We have noted the rise of the specialist forum, message board or online community above, in the context of personal and social drivers. They create great value, too. Of course, Wikipedia rightly remains the pinnacle of information sharing (and we won’t rehearse our reasons for the claim) but the specialist forum can create vast amounts of valuable information in specialist areas of endeavour on a scale not previously conceived precisely because of the sheer number of people engaged and connected.

Previously, the mass communications paradigm served specialist communities poorly, at best offering niche broadcasting or publication, generally on a national scale at best. International communities of special interest, from model train hobbyists to amateur astronomers did exist, but they found it difficult to achieve critical mass and were generally hard to find in the first place. And apart from a very limited back channel (“a reader writes” and so on) they were resolutely one-way. That’s a weakness even in the mainstream, but amongst specialist communities it’s plain daft, and potentially suicidal; the whole point about specialism is that often the real insight lies beyond a coterie of paid up experts.

If this all sounds like a worldwide cohort of hobbyists then consider networks like Mumsnet and PatientsLikeMe . These communities offer extraordinary levels of information and support to people facing parenthood and illness – information and support from people in the same boat. The communication dynamic is the same as on forums discussing woodworking or digital photography, but few would argue that the value was somewhat greater. Moreover, where medical resources are stretched sufficiently that the one thing the medical professions find difficult to offer is time, and when patients expect to be more informed than ever before, then forums like these offer an invaluable and unprecedented service.

This comes with risk of course. Any community comes with its cranks; they can do rather more harm, however, when discussing how to treat or at least live with an illness than, say, how to string a double bass, but the great strength of large, diverse communities is that as often as not, these potentially dangerous voices are filtered out. Nonetheless, it’s something we will look at under challenges, later.

Increased quality/reach of education
This is something of an extension of the foregoing, but a little different, too. Formal education in the UK has already been affected at primary and secondary level and, in some cases, to a profound degree. Despite all the previous concerns about privacy and security, many schools have moved with both alacrity and great speed from the walled garden approach of the digital whiteboard ecosystem to a more “open” use of tablets and laptops. Furthermore, secondary schools have implicitly acknowledged the easy availability of information (and the ease of plagiarism) that comes with the digital age, in their pulling back from coursework contributions to GCSE grades. In some ways, the tertiary sector has been slower to respond, compelling Clay Shirky to compare universities to the record industry in the early 90s, that is, knowing something huge – possibly existential – is happening as a result of digital technology, but resolutely refusing to deal with it.
In fairness, many HFSE institutions have put material online – in some cases up to and including entire courses and live lectures – and the so-called MOOC, or massively open online course, the cause célèbre of educational progressives right now. Indeed, the recently launched Open University-led Futurelearn is an initiative specifically to help traditional academia exploit the advent of the MOOC – and arguably catch up with the lead established by such American schemes as Coursera .

And yet where is UGC in all of this? The model is still one-way, albeit one-to-a-lot-more-many than it was possible to achieve in a lecture theatre.

There are exceptions to this. Take Ed Cooke’s brilliant Memrise . Ed is both a British technology entrepreneur and one of the world’s very few Grand Masters of Memory; Memrise brings both of these things together and is a fine example of the potential for UGC in education. The website is all about speed learning and uses games to achieve its ends. It covers everything from languages to modern art, but what distinguishes it from some of its equivalents is that games – if you like, “courses” – can be posted by approved members of the community, crucially giving it the opportunity to scale with rather more ease than traditional education services. And of course it has the USP of user-generated content: it can draw on a much wider pool of “teaching” talent than its competitors.

Admittedly, at this stage Memrise is somewhat limited to learning facts or skills; the kind of rigorous analytical skills taught by the very best teachers and academics are beyond its purview. Nonetheless, despite the fact that a lot has to shake out at the meeting point of tech and formal education, Memrise offers a glimpse of the power of UGC in this environment.

Ko-Su and Quipper are 2 other UK-based startups using UGC to disrupt learning. Both provide platforms open to anyone who wants to teach and learn via mobile devices.

Localism & hyperlocalism
Nesta’s March 2012 report into hyperlocal media Here and Now, UK hyperlocal media today had this to say under the heading “Harnessing the Power of Communities”:

“Most successful hyperlocal sites don’t simply broadcast information, they engage in two-way dialogue with their readers. This means good community management is crucial for building a thriving hyperlocal service.

Communities specialist Richard Millington has recently identified the four key principles which community members seek from a sustained involvement:
• Power to effect change.
• Recognition and appreciation.
• Affiliation with friends.
• A sense of achievement.

These principles are not unique to the online world, and hyperlocal players have as much to
learn from the community development sector as they do from other media outlets…With such a close connection and overlap between the creators and consumers of hyperlocal content, engaging and involving the local community is critical to building a loyal audience. If handled correctly, this community engagement can play a key role in determining the success and longevity of a hyperlocal service [our italics]. An engaged network of participants can help solicit new content and funding, reduce volunteer churn, and lead to more and better content as loyal contributors stay involved and hone their skills.”

We would, of course, support these claims, and recognise in Millington’s “four key principles” some of the themes covered in our own personal and social drivers. However, as with the development of the MOOC discussed earlier, the sense here remains one of finding ways for traditional local media to engage with local communities at a more granular level, and in a more conversational way – but still in a media-audience relationship.

This is of course understandable: local media, most especially the print media, but also local radio and television, is under the gravest threat of its life. Using digital media smartly to fight for survival is a no brainer.

But there’s another story in here: that of micro-media services emerging on a local scale, UGC activity aggregated around locality instead of activity or pursuit (although of course it can be both). Blogs, Facebook groups, twitter feeds have all proven to be useful at a hyperlocal level. These services can cover local issues as diverse as environmentalism, crime control, care for the elderly, transport and parking and so on. In this regard alone, hyperlocal UGC offers vast potential for social good.

But they can facilitate business too. Thurso cinema is the UK’s most northerly cinema; its Facebook page has over a quarter of the town’s population of 9000 signed up and has become not only a marketing tool for the cinema but an aid in its programming policy and a hub of a lively, engaged community.

And there are other models emerging to monetise hyperlocal UGC. The brainchild of a former local journalist and football blogger, Rick Waghorn, Addiply is a platform which facilitates targetted advertising for local bloggers and publishers. Waghorn told the Guardian:

“We empower both the local/niche publisher and the local/niche advertiser to source and place perfectly-targetted, digital advertising themselves without third party intervention. It’s your very own do-it-yourself, self-service advertising kit. A simple, robust, transparent bolt-on.

“It offers the publisher the chance to set his own rates and model be it pay-per-click, cost-per-thousand and two, key alternatives for that local/niche advertising market that can be pay-per-week or pay-per-month, just as you would in the Post Office. Applicable to any local/niche blog the world over; plus any ‘old media’ niche/local publishing site. Can be run off your mobile phone.”

Of course one could argue that Google AdSense has been a tool for monetising blogs for some years now, but the fact that platforms are being developed specifically with hyperlocal – and pro-amateur – media in mind suggests that, while traditional local media may be in its death throes, something altogether more interesting might be emerging at local level.

Increased digital participation & diversity
On the surface, it seems unlikely that the opportunity to create UGC has driven citizens online in quite the same numbers as have the opportunities to consume content or indeed for transactional purposes. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that for the first half of its life, from its inception in the early 1990s through its mainstream take up at the turn of the century, the web was arguably driven by UGC – it was barely professional at all!

One demographic group are of particular interest here, and precisely because they are often overlooked when it comes to discussions about internet penetration: the 55+ group, whom we might generalise as Baby Boomers or retirees. This is an age group who largely came of age before the rise of the personal computer; some may have had to use PCs in the latter part of their careers, but many won’t have. Yet the advent of the smart phone and the tablet have been a boon to this generation, with new, far more intuitive user interface approaches replacing the desktop paradigm.

In terms of UGC, this is a group that has the one attribute possessed by no other (with the possible exception of teens): time. And of course they have a rich variety of experience. Certainly the take up of social media has been astounding in this group, with 55+ women being one of Facebook’s fastest growing demographics for some time now. Meanwhile, Saga a lifestyle portal for the over 50s (built on the existing company largely known for selling holidays and insurance) has for many years run Saga Zone , a massive community site with forums on everything from health and holidays to technology and relationships. Sadly, at the time of writing, apparent widespread racism and religious intolerance have led Saga Zone to close as of February 26, 2013.

While the recent lesson from Saga Zone might be a salutary one – one we’ll be thinking about at some length in writing our report for Ofcom –  there’s no doubt that for many among the older demographic, the opportunity to create, contribute and communicate have been at least as strong as the opportunity to consume in their reasons to go online.