UGC and Participation: The Communications Scholar’s New Clothes?

This week’s readings both broached the relationship of user-generated content (UGC) with traditional (i.e. “one-way” communications models). Although the two articles examined the phenomenon from markedly distinct perspectives, with one observing UGC on commercial sites in developed settings, the other UGC as content on both the internet and through traditional communications systems (video and radio) in the developing world, the two articles did find common ground.

From my perspective, one theme which bound the two articles together was summarized nicely in a rhetorical question in the Jonsson & Ornebring piece. “Are audience members addressed as user-citizens, or user-consumers, or some kind of combination of the two?” For Jonsson & Ornebring, the answer was both. UGC was seen not only as the act of participatory citizenship, but also a predictor of increased site use as well as a net-strengthener of future consumption behaviors. In short, participation, as the authors argued, became something of a branding exercise for the host news organizations.

In the Tacchi piece, a somewhat more troubling emphasis on the consumption side of UGC emerges. The author observes about research regarding EAN. Ironically, despite professing qualitative and participatory methods, the metrics used to assess the “success” of UGC in development and social change applications are the same ones we’ve always used. Tacchi makes an ambitious attempt to present the approach as somehow novel or locally sensitive, employing a plethora of buzzwords like “impact,” “qualitative,” “engagement,” et cetera, yet the section is rounded out: “This produces qualitative data in a way that aims to not only ‘prove’ impact to donor organizations, but also allow the organization to ‘improve’ its practices.”

This is to say that once the veneer is stripped off and the fancy lingo removed, the basic scenario is the same as that partially observed by Jonsson & Ornebring. For Jonsson & Ornebring, UGC is in part an effort to address user-consumers (i.e. the “old” communications business model). For Tacchi, new models are validated only through the application of antiquated metrics of “success” which serve to either maintain, increase, or end, “participatory” communications opportunities. (This is to say that both contexts, despite the optimistic premise of UGC, are still dependent on the traditional business models UGC claims to subvert. Replace “donor organizations” with “advertisers” and boom… Tacchi has officially discovered the media.)

As a field, communications scholars have this amazing tendency to perceive newness where in fact, it isn’t. (At one point, Tacchi discusses the exciting new, participatory communications system emerging in India called the radio.) As is my custom, an old South Park clip naturally leapt to mind. Equipping users with the tools to generate their own content isn’t necessarily a novel addition to communications, that’s pretty much how communications systems start.

The frustrating thing, though, is this isn’t necessarily the case. True participation and user-generated content can be tremendously powerful, however, this week’s papers struggled to differentiate the old from the new, a differentiation necessary for UGC to achieve it’s true potential.

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4 thoughts on “UGC and Participation: The Communications Scholar’s New Clothes?

  1. I like to think we said roughly the same thing in two different ways with our readings. I cannot help but think that a lot of the approaches of user content that communications academics take is like trying to take a round peg and shoving it into an old-timey square opening and then calling the broken toy an advancement. And as you sort of got at, the metrics of judging “success” of participation and user content is kind of silly too. Are we going by raw value or volume or voice or what?

  2. Your post is very illuminating for me. I totally agree with you that true participation and user-generated content could be far more powerful than they are today. As we have discussed in class, today’s participation are mostly “fake”. When we speak out our “voices”, in very few cases will our voices be truly heard or valued by people outside our existing community. It usually turns out that people who listen to us are still the ones who connect with us in real life. Therefore, today’s user-generated content and participation are more about strengthening the existing associations rather than linking the whole media world together.

  3. Excellent post! Your precise insights in comparing the two articles nicely point up the shortcomings in the UGC practices that are described in the articles. I’m often struck by how much so-called UGC actually offers only fake participation. I’d like to see more measurement of outcomes — were there any results affecting the participants? If not, I would say there was no real participation.

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