Archives for category: user-generated content

Last Monday (June 9th) saw the 6th BBC Online Briefing, outlining the organisation’s digital activity for external stakeholders and suppliers. I was lucky enough to be asked along again so as ever, I thought I’d report back (and, yes, it’s taken a week but what can I say, we’ve been busy).

Once again we were in the BBC’s storied Radio Theatre, and the event was hosted by the thoroughly charming Fiona Bruce, who seemed to be relishing this second appearance and generally got under the skin of the discussions more than last time (sometimes provocatively so, but we’ll get to that later).

BBC Online’s current priorities – BBC iPlayer, myBBC, innovation at scale, “the BBC, online” and continuous delivery  – were emblazoned on a banner by the side of the stage and in his opening key note,  BBC Future Media Director Ralph Rivera outlined these through a series of concrete examples from across “the products”, including:

  • the roll out of the Knowledge and Learning “iWonder” guides (a huge task involving the consolidation of material from over 200 existing sites)
  • long-form journalism in News (in which I gather our good friend Paul Finn of Fitzroy and Finn had a major part in designing)
  • the new iPlayer, launched in BETA in March
  • the re-tooling of “below the waterline” features such as metadata ingest
  • the ongoing development of Playlister
  • ditto with BBC Live, which will give, over the summer, “the Olympic experience” to Wimbledon, Glastonbury, the Commonwealth Games and of course the World Cup, which I gather is happening as I write

Ralph went on the discuss the importance of working with external companies. He admitted that it was still difficult for outsiders to work with the organisation, but that the development of the new roster, broken into Testing, Design and Services, was hopefully going to be a big step in improving things. He also pointed out that the external quota is “a floor, not a ceiling”; the impressive fact that last year’s external spend in digital was 30% – around £19.5 million) suggests that this is more than just rhetoric.

Robin Cramp was up next, talking though Connected Studio‘s work over the last six months (much of which, of course, we’ve reported on this blog). Robin first introduced Matt Shearer, from BBC News Labs and Chris Rush, of the agency Realise who talked us through Referend-erm, an interactive hub about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, aimed at 16-24 year olds, where “no question is to big, to small or too stupid to ask”. I was pleased to see that the team had opted to to create an app but rather a mobile-first, fully responsive website. Matt described the work as a “speedboat project” – enabling the the team to build something outside the organisation’s usual roadmap.

Robin was joined by CS Head Adrian Woolard. The two talked through upcoming CS projects, which would include working with the Natural History on their next behemoth series, One Planet, as well as with Radio 3, building on the work already done around classical music, and the World Service. Adrian also discussed a project encouraging coding for teenagers and hinted at a new platform to enable “innovation at scale” – but couldn’t say what it was jut yet…

John Page from R&D then presented a range of work that showed just how BBC R&D was “at the heart of reinventing our industry”, looking ahead in time frames of 3, 5 and 10 years. “Broadcast as a system” had traditionally been Create>>Deliver>>Consume, but several factors were disrupting the model, including end-to-end IP, data-centrism and new devices and interfaces. R&D are currently responding to these shifts by concentrating on projects that are:

  • immersive (a project using Oculus Rift and binaural sound to present chamber performances by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra)
  • data-centric (overlays on sports event)
  • interactive/personal/adaptive (personalised sound mixing of live events)

John also discussed the importance of collaboration with outside agencies including tech manufacturers, SMEs, digital agencies (I was pleased to see that they’ve been working with my old firm Somethin’ Else) and academia.

The final presentation of the first half came from Carmen Aitken from BBC Audiences, who came to talk not about “the death of TV” – but rather its future, based on various in-depth audience research methods. TV, however it’s consumed, continues to satisfy four key needs: sociability, sensory stimulation, synchrony and relaxation. Interestingly, research shows that most viewers generally know what they want to watch, and find it via EPG, PVR and VOD – very much in that order. As for those of us who have given up on the TV as a device entirely – well, we are still very much outliers, although it’s worth noting that we tend to use laptops to do so rather than tablets.

Carmen posited three scenarios for the future of TV, using car-based metaphors:

  • Flying Cars model – a completely disrupted landscape
  • Horse and cart model – business as usual
  • Modified car model – some hybrid of the present and new forms of consumption

She made a cogent argument for the likelihood of the last one, of course. I personally emain unconvinced, and, as I’ve said before, when thinking about the future of media generally, we’d all do well to think about Nasseem Taleb’s “turkey graph“.

After a brief break, the stage was taken by polymath Dave Birss, who’d been asked to think about what he would do if given a digital-only network to run (one couldn’t help but think of BBC Three here, but that was never made explicit). Dave set out to test a series of assumptions, in each case taking them part fairly comprehensively. These included:

  • Assumption – “The success of a programme = the number of viewers.” Dave – why couldn’t we use the number of interactions as a success measure? Wouldn’t this tell us more about how an audience really felt?
  • Assumption: “We make programmes for people sitting on the settee.” Dave – really? Tech gives us the ability to make location-based, context-appropriate content.
  • Assumption: – “Digital stuff should be an extension of TV content.” Dave – why not start “in the real world”? What about “player-written drama” or “social-guided programming”?
  • Assumption: “Content needs to be edited to fixed lengths.” Dave – why not have expandable content”, content which might initially appear as a 3 minute stub, which might expand to 90 minutes if the viewer wanted to see, say, a whole interview.

This last point was the most compelling for me, but interestingly it’s where Fiona Bruce came in, making the observation that from her experience, lengthy, un-edited interviews led to “crapitude”. Well, I think it’s a question of intention: if you go into an interview knowing that you can fix things in the edit there’s no real jeopardy – no incentive to make a good long-from interview. But speaking as podcast junkie, I have to say that the scene is pretty inspiring – and I rarely, if ever, come across a dud. (Note that Dubner & Levitt and are doing the rounds at the moment, promoting Think Like A Freak; most of what I’ve heard on the radio so far has been soundbyte-y, but not this fabulous hour-long conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Most definitely not an example of crapitude.)

The session was rounded off with a Q&A with Ralph and Matthew Postgate, Controller of R&D. Questions covered included:

  • What tech gets you most excited? Matthew – broadcasting data sets and the Internet of Things; Ralph – truly interactive, immersive video.
  • What the role of UGC? Ralph – something we can draw on, but not our core mission nor a strength; “we are the signal in the noise”.
  • What are the key qualities you’re looking for in a collaborator:P Ralph – creativity, diversity, a focus on delivery – and tenacity.
  • Will the licence renewal process affect innovation? Matthew – yes, but positively, driving innovation in areas like personalisation.

Once again, it was a thoroughly engaging afternoon, and a revealing one two. Congratulations to all involved and I look forward to the next one…

Simon

Simon posted last month about the briefing event we ran at Ofcom just prior to the publication of our report on UGC. I’ve just found these photos I shot there, which I thought I would share.

Campbell Cowie, Director of Internet Policy at Ofcom, and commissioner of our report.

campbell

Sophie Walpole, of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

sophieRobbie Stamp, of H2G2,

robbie 2Our old friend Nick Reynolds, from the BBC.

nickThe panel in full.

panelOh, and Simon, of course.

simonSarah

We were very pleased to see that TechDirt, the US blog that reports intelligently on trends in technology and business, has picked up on our report for Ofcom about UGC. In a piece entitled UK’s Ofcom Recognizes That Copyright Can Be A Threat To User Generated Content, Glyn Moody picks up in particular on the themes around intellectual property which we outlined in the report.

Notice that “IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) practice” is seen as a threat to UGC, rather than the other way around, which is traditionally how things are presented, especially when penalties for infringement are being discussed. That’s hugely encouraging, because it suggests that Ofcom and other UK government departments might start seeing UGC as a huge opportunity for creativity, not a threat to it, as it is so often painted.

All-in-all, then, this 70-page report is a valuable contribution to the debate about the role of copyright in the digital age. Let’s hope the policy makers in the UK and around the world read it, understand it, and act on it.

It’s not often that our work is published – it’s generally for our clients’ internal purposes – so it’s great to be picked up on this occasion when we have been. And its’s always nice to be so closely read – so thanks, Glyn!

Sarah

One of the pleasures of putting together the Value of UGC paper for Ofcom earlier this year is the number of people who have been in touch through the blog with comments and queries. Nice to have an audience!

One thing emerged from a reader’s query recently that I thought deserved an airing here. Why were we down on the importance of mashups, which have been so widely cited everywhere as a great example of the kinds of creativity enabled by the advent of digital? Specifically, we said: “‘The mash-up is arguably an over-stated case, and probably more beloved by the digital media commentariat than by the general population.’”

Which, in the cold light of day, does look harsh! But here’s my response, which I hope clarifies the position:

… our contention isn’t so much based on evidence as on lack of evidence for the opposite view. That is to say, that while the digerati like to talk about mash-up culture at some length, I see little beyond anecdotal evidence that the mash-up is anything more than a minority activity within the overall community of practice. 
 
That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s important, and indeed at times thrilling. I’m a huge fan of collage-based art from the Dadaists, through Fluxus to John Zorn, Plunderphonics and Negativland. And yes, the occasional Internet meme (it dates me but my favourite remains the whole “Shreds” series pioneered by StSanders). It’s just that I think the mashup’s case has been somewhat overstated, because it makes for good copy and is easy for people to get their head round.

I hope that clarifies our position, but if anyone’s got any further thoughts on the matter, or just wants to get into an argument, please, get in touch!

And just to underline how much I personally do love collage-y stuff, I’ll leave you with this, courtesy of Got-Djent, just this morning. Not exactly a mashup, but not exactly a cover either, it’s Brazilian guitarist Michel Oliveira’s technical metal take on Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”. No, I’m not sure what its legal status is, but it rocks.

Simon

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Even occasional readers of this blog will know that earlier this year we delivered a hefty old report on the value of User-Generated Content to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. Well, last month Ofcom published the report, but we were away at the time and failed to report it here! Anyhow, here’s what Ofcom had to say on the report’s publication:

Ofcom has today published a report, carried out by Turner Hopkins, into user-generated content (UGC) online. The report considers the value of UGC to the UK, the opportunities it presents and the resulting implications for policymakers, including Ofcom as the UKs communications regulator. The study is relevant to Ofcoms duty to promote the interests of citizens and consumers, and to a strategic purpose outlined in Ofcom’s Annual Plan 2013/14 to “promote opportunities to participate”.

We also held an internal event at Ofcom prior to publication, running through some of our headline findings and hosting a panel discussion with three of the paper’s interviewees: Robbie Stamp of H2G2, Sophie Walpole of the V&A and Nick Reynolds from the BBC Internet Blog, who’s had some things to say about the report on his own blog.

Many thanks to all the report’s contributors including those of you who got in touch via this blog. And special thanks to Campbell Cowie and Katie Lucas at Ofcom for all their support during the project. You can download the report here, and please – all feedback is welcome!

Simon

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As part of my Content Industries Specialist role with the Creative Industries KTN I have, over the last few months, been sitting on the Data Building Blocks sub group of the Copyright Hub. It’s a phenomenally clever bunch of people, with decades’ worth of experience in the area of rights/assets/data across several industries, including music, AV, broadcast and book publishing. As the group’s strategic input into the main project shapes up I’m sure I’ll be reporting on it, but in the meantime I simply want to draw your attention to the very first iteration of the Copyright Hub, which launched last Monday.

Funnily enough, only this weekend, the acerbic and generally spot-on US music and tech blogger Bob Lefsetz made this observation, in a lengthy post entitled Changes in Our Lifetime:

Music… Was something you listened to, now it’s something you use. You add it to YouTube clips, you integrate it with your projects, it’s all done very easily but copyright law has still not caught up with today’s uses, nor has the music industry.

Well, the Copyright Hub has come about in response to that very situation; specifically, its institution was recommended by the 2011 Hargreaves Review of Copyright, which asked for the implementation of an “industry-led solution to improve copyright licensing”. And again, it’s the “long tail” of the kind of mash ups and music re-use Lefsetz talks about above which the Hub is principally there to deal with. Remember: this is a very long and potentially very lucrative tail indeed. As we cited in our recently-published Ofcom report into UGC, at the height of the Harlem Shake meme, over 4000 different versions were being uploaded to YouTube daily.

Of course, the Copyright Hub is there to deal with all media, not simply music. And I should point out that the Hub team are very clear that this launch iteration (a handsome site built by Lime Digital) is highly experimental and early-stage at this point. Further iterations will respond to the ways in which the public takes to this version, amongst other research and thinking – a responsive approach of which we highly approve at TH, of course!

It’s going to be fascinating to watch the proposition develop.

Simon

Turner Hopkins HQ has moved to the West Country for a week or so. So, while in the area, we took the opportunity to visit an old colleague and friend, the (genuinely) legendary mastering engineer Simon Heyworth, at his studio, Super Audio Mastering, in the extraordinary setting of the Dartmoor National Park (which is probably enough superlatives for one sentence).

simonheyworthI was privileged to work with Simon back in the 90s, when I was at Virgin Records, following a quite schizophrenic career path: on one hand I was overseeing general “catalogue exploitation” (think reissues, box sets, mid price catalogue marketing campaigns and the like for artists such as Bryan Ferry and Genesis); on the other I was creating a series of compilations of new (mostly electronic) underground music and newly commissioned albums which went on to be something of a cult phenomenon and even has its own Wikipedia entry (which no, I didn’t write) under the heading “‪Virgin Ambient series‬”.

Simon was a key collaborator in both these areas of activity. He cut his teeth as a studio engineer and producer in the 70s. Actually, “cut his teeth” barely does it justice: Simon mixed Tubular Bells, thus playing a pivotal role in launching a legendary musical career and an even more legendary business empire. But by the time I was working with Simon he’d carved out a role as one of the three or four best known mastering engineers on the planet.

For those not in the know, mastering is effectively the last stage in the process of getting recorded music out into the world. Once music has been written, recorded, mixed and “produced” (a pretty nebulous term in all honesty) it needs one final little bit of attention, and that’s mastering, a process which will render the finished product something that can be cut to vinyl, CD, cassette and, yes, download file. There are two clichés about mastering: that it’s about sprinkling on “fairy dust” and that it’s a “dark art”. Most clichés are a bit shonky; these ones aren’t.

First the “fairy dust” cliché. A good recording isn’t going to make a woeful piece of music anything other than woeful; a great mix won’t fix a bad recording; and great mastering won’t rectify a bad mix. But my God, it can make the mediocre sound good, and make the good sound like something you’d lie down in front of a train to hear once.

As for the “dark arts” stuff, well… All I can say on that is that I used to attend pretty much every mastering session Simon did for me while I was at Virgin and I had absolutely no idea what he was doing with all that tech, and, more profoundly, had no idea how he was able to hear what he did. And yet, and yet… the transformation he wrought on the music he worked on was palpable. The irony is that after my own personal learning curve from Hell of coming to grips with composing, recording and mixing over the last four years, I’ve learned what all the component technical parts of mastering are – say, limiting, compressing, EQing – and yet as a result, the alchemical process of mastering remains more mysterious to me than ever. Really, it does.

(Over the last decade or so, Simon has also added mastering in 5.1 surround sound to his repertoire of dark arts skills; that might seem a detail at this point, but hang in there… )

news

Anyhow, the whole issue of mastering has been on my mind in two very different contexts recently: my own personal music making and our report into the value of User-Generated Content (UGC) for Ofcom. And the conversation we had with Simon (and after listening to King Crimson‘s Thrak in 5.1 – oh my) took in some themes that I think are relevant here. I’ll look at them – briefly (because in truth, there are three separate essays to be written here) under the headings of Quality, Attention and Business.

Quality

Firstly there’s the issue of quality. Specifically, sound quality, although I think this applies across the digital media industries in many ways. I’m going to leave aside the issue of whether sound quality took a step back with the advent of CD (seriously, I’m not going there; a discussion of the superiority of vinyl on the World Service* this evening had me shouting at the radio, and really, I’m 46 so need to think about my blood pressure). Broadly speaking, the history of phonography from the turn of last century until, let’s say, the turn of this one, was one of continual progress**.

The age of digital has arguably been wonderful for the music fan – of any genre – in terms of access. But access has come at a price: along with the bathwater of inconvenience and artificial scarcity we’ve unquestionably thrown out the bathwater of sonic quality. Here’s the thing about the kind of alchemical transformations I’m claiming on behalf of Simon Heyworth and his brethren: does it count for diddly in the age of the unquestionably convenient but thoroughly compromised MP3 (which I use as a stand in for all compressed digital files)? And what about when those files are played back on crappy earbuds or on “docking stations” or – God help us –  phone speakers?

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been trumpeting the opportunities presented by the digital revolution for the avid music fan since 2001, as one of the participants of the DTI’s Digital Music Mission and as a co-author of the resultant report, Monetising Anarchy. At one stage I even began to ditch my CD collection as I ripped it. Thankfully I didn’t get far – a fried hard drive brought me to my senses – although, as I was perversely making my way backwards alphabetically I ditched CDs by, among others, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Yo La Tengo, Yes and Xenakis. All replaced now, but really, what was I thinking?

I grant you that the epiphany I had – that is, this just doesn’t sound that good – is one which I would like to think will come to many of us. But, but… many people don’t have the opportunities to listen to music closely as “life takes over” (see Attention below) and, more to the point, a whole generation is growing up who frankly doesn’t know any better.

I remember to this day my first hi-fi experience: my grandfather’s stepson (it’s complicated) had just acquired a Japanese hi-fi and played me Blue Öyster Cult‘s Don’t Fear The Reaper. I was 9 or thereabouts, and had literally never heard anything like it. Not so much the song – although it is, to be clear, a hard rock masterpiece – but the sound. Like something to swim in, or drown in.

Wind forward a generation and half a lifetime: I’d just recently set up a decent mid-range Cambridge Audio CD player and amp and Audio Research speakers at home. Over dinner, with some music playing away quietly in the background, my teenage daughter Lily asked if that was surround sound. “No, Lily, that’s stereo.” I don’t mean this patronisingly; it sort of breaks my heart that her sonic horizons have been, well, so severely limited by her compressed digital upbringing.

I dearly hope something hasn’t been lost forever – that would be a tragedy.

Attention

So, back at Simon’s studio we’re listening to Crimson in surround and I begin to ponder: how many people in the world have a set up at home to appreciate this? The pragmatic answer to that is: enough to make this a viable business not only for Simon but for the repertoire owners and musicians (sometimes the same thing!) remixing their back catalogues in 5.1, and producers like Porcupine Tree’s brilliant Steven Wilson who are carving out careers as 5.1 remix engineers. But more broadly, I got to wondering: does anyone actually sit down and listen to music any more?

That could sound like the question of a middle-aged man, I realise. Your life gets busier and suddenly, where’s the time to listen to a whole album, let alone all three and a third sides of The Köln Concert ? (Although we all seem to find time to watch Masterchef or Game of Thrones, but that’s something for another time.)  But I don’t think it’s just that. I’ve watched my own three children, all music fans in their own way, grow up with music as seldom more than an accompaniment. There’s always something else going on. The acerbic and brilliant music business and tech commentator Bob Lefsetz has written often about how music no longer “drives the culture”. This is undoubtedly true, but why, exactly? Where I diverge from Lefsetz is that I certainly don’t believe it’s about the quality of the music being produced currently. Personally speaking, records made in the last decade by, among many others, Meshuggah, Richard Skelton, Rufus Wainright and Pat Metheny are in my metaphorical grab-from-the-burning-house scenario.

Rather, could it be that music is no longer a central part of the culture precisely because we simply don’t pay attention as closely as we once did? Is that why live is where the action is? Because the answer to the question “What is it that live music has that recoded doesn’t?” is, simply: your attention.

Business

So here’s the final thing, and the one which relates to my personal music making and to our more general thesis about UGC. If mastering is a dark art, it’s because, like all dark arts,the principal component of its practice is experience. Remember my comment about what Simon Heyworth can hear? Well, I’m sure some of that is a gift, but I’m convinced that Simon’s ability simply comes from doing this for decades. Think about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and the 10,000 hours required to become really good at something. Simon’s almost certainly put in 5 times that. And then some.

That experience, of course, comes at a price.

So can Simon’s skills – the process of mastering – be acquired more cheaply? In terms of kit, well, almost. The kit in Simon’s studio is beyond the financial reach of most “bedroom” producers. But the plugins available for a relatively small amount of money are incredible – easily equivalent to “pro” studios from just a few years ago.

But can you buy those years of experience, those years of listening? I think you can answer that one.

We discussed this at a recent workshop with Ofcom, indeed, we had a bit of a testy discussion about it. The kit becomes ever more available, but the time? The experience? You can’t buy that.

The truth is, if you want your recordings to sound truly professional, to have that extra thing, you need it mastered by someone who can hear. But in a world where even Lady Gaga is allegedly making only coppers from her Spotify streams, then where do the rest of us raise the money from digital to pay for the kind of attention which might just make our efforts sound as good as records we grew up with? Well, as it it happens, Simon’s studio offers cut price deals for the growing hoards of “unsigned” artists like me. Personally, I’ll be taking up his offer.

Simon

*The context, for what it’s worth, was Record Store Day, of which, to be clear, I heartily approve. I’ll be off to Black Cat Records in Taunton tomorrow to see what they’re doing to commemorate.

** See Greg Milner’s masterful – and hugely entertaining – history of music and sound recording, Perfecting Sound Forever.

We haven’t had chance to play with this yet, but in any case, here’s a brief video introducing GuardianWitness, a platform for uploading UGC news.

Simon

Here’s the final of our three posts looking at the potential value of user-generated content to the UK, taken from our research for Ofcom; we’ve looked at economic and social and political value, so now let’s take a look at its value in the arts and culture sectors.

Cultural value is always subjective, and nowhere more so than in the realm of UGC. For every tech Utopian espousing the creative/artistic/cultural importance of UGC there’s a naysayer. Andrew Keen is one the most prominent of these; he is, among other things, the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy, a controversial jeremiad against user-generated culture (whose title rather gives away its position). We mention this here only to qualify any remarks we make about the value of UGC in the wider creative culture, that is to say, there are other angles on this. So instead of “taking sides”, instead we’ll look at some of the contributions UGC can make to roles and processes with the cultural industries. We’ll leave to one side whether the creative output is good or not.

Talent spotting

In 2012 a new orchestra performed at the Proms, the annual summer-long festival of classical music in London, widely held to be the world’s greatest classical music festival. They were the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, a 120-piece band conducted by the acclaimed Mark Elder. They played a notably difficult set of modern pieces by Stravinsky, Britten and Mahler as well as a new commission by Charlotte Bray. It was, by any standards, a remarkable concert, but what made it rather more so was that the orchestra comprised players from over 30 countries who had only come together for the first time just weeks before the Prom.

The project was run by Aldeburgh Music’s Britten-Pears young artist programme, who, over the course of 3 years auditioned musicians almost entirely through YouTube submissions. We are somewhere past skateboarding cats at this point. The whole project was undoubtedly a complex and expensive one, with both corporate and public sector partners, including the British Council. And when it came to some territories, traditional auditioning methods (that is, tapes) were resorted to; China was the most notable in this regard, home as it is to some of the most promising young classical players in the world – but without YouTube.

YouTube had in fact already been demonstrated as a classical music recruitment tool by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project in 2011, but the Aldeburgh World Orchestra’s appearance at the Proms, at the heart of the high culture world, was a remarkable example of the power of UGC in talent spotting. It might be an outlier, but across the arts and media, adroit talent scouts are scouring blogs, fan fiction sites, and video- and audio-sharing services to source a new generation of artists and creatives.

Skills development

Skills development is the flip side of talent spotting – it’s how the talent gets developed in the first place. We’ve covered skills exchange and personal development at some length in the Drivers section, so won’t go over that territory again other than to reiterate our core observation here. Communities of interest around craft skills and creativity are providing an unprecedented level of access to information and experience for students in any creative pursuit. At the same time they supply a platform for demonstrating what a student has learned and a back channel for (often rather robust) feedback. It should hardly need saying that a hugely increased talent pool of creative practitioners is of inestimable value to the cultural industries, and to the very quality of creative practice itself.

Audience engagement

If the consumer-producer contract is changing as rapidly and as profoundly as this paper suggests, then so is the relationship between the cultural institution and its audiences. This applies as much to the commercial venue as it does to a funded one.

This has not necessarily come easily to cultural incumbents. For many institutions and companies, “digital” until very recently has been merely one wing of marketing; for some it remains that way. In this context it’s often hard to make a case for the encouragement of UGC. For instance, very few live arts venues host user reviews of their work. It’s not hard to see why; as one senior member of an opera company put it to us, “You try sitting down with a Diva and explaining why someone’s slagging her off on your site.”

Yet even caustic user reviews can drive sales of creative work. Amazon is the exemplar here. There’s no sense that the ecommerce company vets their user reviews editorially; public opinion is on display warts and all (just take a look at the user reviews of Andrew Keen’s book cited above). In traditional marketing terms this would be nonsensical; why list a product with negative reviews? What’s happening here, however, is a very different marketing paradigm, one in which we trust Amazon (whatever we think of it in other ways) as an honest broker. That it’s proved a successful strategy should hardly need pointing out. More orthodox cultural organisations have rather different operating models to Amazon, of course, but there is a great deal to be learned from the retail behemoth.

Beyond the user review/comment/post, cultural institutions are using the encouragement audio-visual UGC to build relationships with their audience, although once we’re into this realm the degree of guardianship can become onerous. Take the world of amateur film-making. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have, at different points, been involved in the showcasing of amateur shorts, the former notably with the BBC Film Network. Tellingly, the Channel 4 initiative lasted less than a year and the BBC’s has now been mothballed, that is, no submissions have been possible since 2012. The suspicion remains that these can be useful recruitment and talent spotting tools (see above) but are high-cost ways of engaging with the audience.

Yet other cultural organisations have taken arguably more radical approaches. The English National Opera’s highly ambitious Mini Operas project created a series of collaborative pieces on the basis of submission of written scripts, music (via SoundCloud) and video (via Vimeo) bringing together hopefuls in a series of different disciplines, and rewarding them with a year of mentoring. Of course, this kind of audience engagement programme takes money, and is certainly easier to justify within a publically-funded environment. Indeed, institutions such as the ENO receive finding partly on the basis of innovation in audience development. But Mini Operas points to new approaches even for this most conventional of art forms.

A final word: on participation vs consumption

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-grandparent) 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.

Simon

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.

Simon