Archives for posts with tag: UGC

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.


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.


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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!


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.


boardIts been a tad quiet round here, I know – but we’ve had our heads down on the UGC work we’re doing for Ofcom, and very interesting it’s turning out to be.

On Tuesday we held the first of 2 workshops with internal stakeholders, bringing together a dozen or so people from various departments. We’d initially intended to carve up the session into 4 or 5 discussions, but it became quickly apparent that this was a very smart group, with a lot to say, so in truth we really only got into 2 of our topics in any depth .

Which is fine – not least as the first of these is all around definition(s). In our research so far – both in our literature review and in our interviews – the definition of UGC which keeps coming up is the one that kicks off the OECD’s 2007 report Participative Web: User-Generated-Content:
“i) content made publicly available over the Internet, ii) which reflects a certain amount of creative effort, and iii) which is created outside of professional routines and practices.”

Here’s the thing about that definition, though. For a start, that report itself lays down this caveat: “There is no widely accepted definition of UCC, and measuring its social, cultural and economic impacts are in the early stages.” And, more importantly, it’s nigh-on 6 years old; it hardly needs to be said that things have moved on since then. Just as Clay Shirky used I Can Has Cheezburger and Ushahidi to illustrate the two extreme poles of value in mass online activity in 2011’s Cognitive Surplus, we might take the Arab Spring and 50 Shades fan fiction to illustrate the impact of UGC over the last two years. But the point remains: things have moved on, and fast.

So a definition of the area under consideration is a pressing one for us, and here’s how we tried to get the group thinking about one. We’ve been thinking all along that rather than think of UGC as a single type of activity, we should consider it a continuum. However, as we’ve been going along we’ve come to think that several continua are possible, but for the purposes of this session we stuck with just two:

  • The continuum of engagement – from a foursquare check-in to creating and releasing an album on bandcamp
  • The continuum of professionalism – from completely un-remunerated to the bordering-on-pro

Now you might already feel some objections surfacing, but bear with me.

The first thing we had the group do was a quick brain dump of examples of UGC: platforms, brands, overarching activity types and so on. We then got the group to start arranging these along the first continuum – an axis of engagement from barely engaged at all to pretty much fully engaged. And from the get-go, this proved tricky, throwing up as many new questions as it answered (a recurring theme of this project so far, as I’ve observed previously).

  • Surely some platforms/brands can stretch along almost the whole spectrum? After all, serious photographers and holiday snappers alike might use Flickr or even Instagram. Think similarly for YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud and so on.
  • Do we naturally tend to think of some forms – especially literary ones – as inherently more “engaged” than others?
  • Is engagement something which is even measurable?
  • Is curation by definition less engaged than “pure” creation? But then, is a mash-up an act of creation or curation?

You get the picture, this was never going to be easy. Noneletheless, after some spirited discussion we settled down on a consensus which looked something like this:

continuum of engagement

Next up, we got the team to rearrange the map’s elements along our second continuum, that of professionalism. Now again, we instantly ended up in tricky water, and especially around the terminology. It goes without saying that terms like “professional” and “amateur” are loaded. Turn them into isms and you exacerbate this. “Professionalism” generally denotes seriousness, skill, quality; “amateurism”, for most, is an insult. Now we’ll return to the arguments around this later – it’s surely going to be one of the key areas for us to ponder – but for the purposes of this exercise, we defined the term somewhat literally: this was an axis from making no money at all right though to pretty much making a career of it.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as with the previous mapping exercise, lots of these elements could – and do – stretch right across the spectrum (fully “pro” bands are now using bandcamp, for instance), we eventually agreed that things were looking like this:

continuum of professionalism

This struck us as fascinating. In the first mapping exercise, the majority of the content was moving towards “highly engaged”; in the second we all agreed that most of this activity was nonetheless a more-or-less amateur (as in not-paid) pursuit.

So who are all these people quite so highly engaged in non-money making activities, and more to the point: why?

That was the second part of our discussion on Tuesday and in our next post we’ll be attempting to answer that question looking at some of the social, political, financial and personal drivers of UGC.


We’re right at the beginning of our research into the impact and value of UGC, commissioned by Ofcom just before Christmas, as mentioned previously by Sarah (which, incidentally, goes some way to explaining the relative quiet on this blog over the last few days). This is always my favourite part of the process: mapping out the terrain, formulating questions, figuring out the best people to talk to, getting our heads around existing literature.

It’s also the point where we get to talk to great people, and this week has been exceptional on that front; we’ve had illuminating conversations with, among others, Robbie Stamp (one of the founders of the H2G2 – or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – community site, and chair of Not Panicking Ltd), Simone Smith (Founder of pressure group UGC Alliance*, based in San Francisco) and Nikhil Shah (founder of London based music tech start up MixCloud, which I’ve discussed on my own blog and will be talking about in more detail here), as well as to a couple of old friends, the BBC’s Nick Reynolds and arts consultant John Kieffer.

Of course, at this point, more questions are arising than are being answered! Here’s some of the stuff beginning to surface…

  • Can we come up with a meaningful definition for User-Generated Content?
  • At what point does UGC simply become content – is it when it’s professionalised (as per the OECD’s definition), or at some other point?
  • How can contributors to community-driven content sites share in any financial success? And how can they be protected from exploitation?
  • Where UGC practice is a question of social curation, how can value flow back to the original content’s creators?
  • Indeed, to what degree is curation an act of content creation?
  • How can ‘content incumbents’ derive value from UGC and social curation?
  • Has the “You Tube culture” created a mew aesthetic, and a new set of cultural values?
  • Away from the content industries, how can UGC benefit institutions, from the police to, say TFL?
  • How many people are creating, curating and/or consuming UGC and what information is there on demographics?

As we start to find answers to these question, and, indeed, as we start to raise others, well capture it all here. And as Sarah said in her post, please get in touch if you think you have something to contribute.


* Here’s Simone explaining the Alliance’s work:

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Ofcom is the UK’s communications regulator. Their role is to ensure people get the best from their communications services, are protected from scams and to ensure that competition thrives. In order to achieve these objectives Ofcom needs to understand all relevant areas, their impact on consumers and the UK economy and where regulation may need to be considered.

A fascinating emerging area is User Generated Content (UGC) and Ofcom’s Director of Internet Policy has recently appointed Turner Hopkins to help them develop a thought leadership position. In particular, we will help them to understand the importance of UGC to UK society and its economic impact, both now and 10 years hence.

We’ll be looking at user generated content through the lens of consumers, business and government. We’ll also be considering issues around: civil society, business models, technology, creativity and innovation. Our methodology includes desk research as well as interviews with people from the UGC community, commentators, researchers, business and other stakeholders.

We’ll be blogging and tweeting about the project as we go along, naturally. But, given the subject, it would be ironic not to invite contributions and suggestions from our readers, so if you would like to take part, please let us know.