Tag Archives: user generated content

Worth 1,000 words?

Some more evidence that digital creation and distribution of content will keep transforming the media – Getty Images has bought iStockphoto for a reported $50 million.

The web and digital technology have transformed the business of photography. But what at first made picture researchers’ lives easier has now made it much more difficult to make a living – after all, if they can search digital archives online from the comfort of their armchair, so can anyone else.

By the same token, it has also put immense pressure on photographers. Now anyone with a decent digital camera (which means most people with a digital camera) can not only take passable photos but also distribute them globally.

But it’s also put pressure on photo agencies. Let’s face it, almost no one sitting on the production desk of a low-budget print or web publication will pay much at all for stock images. Which is why iStockphoto has been such a runaway success.

Part of this is its simplicity – no phoning up the picture agency, or drawn-out verification process, just click and buy. And it’s pretty cheap – a small image costs about £3, a really big one less than £18.

It’s understandable that Getty wants to get a piece of this low-rent action. Yes, the pricing model undercuts the established agencies, but there’s not much they can do about that. So it makes a lot of sense to embrace the change than try to make a futile stand against it.

One interesting thing about the so-cheap-they’re-almost-free photo resources is that their prices seem to have actually been creeping up lately. Longer-term users may have noticed this already.

It’s interesting because it shows that people are prepared to pay something for digital content online. It also opens up the question of whether this has implications for other kinds of digital content, such as journalism.

I’m very sceptical that users will pay much, if anything, for access to journalism as we have traditionally known it online. But people are willing to pay some money for stock photography.

It’s not just business users – if the alternative is trawling through Flickr for hours to find a suitable image for no money, some individuals are prepared to pay a few dollars or pounds to save time and guarantee a better or more appropriate image for their website or whatever.

Getty clearly hopes that its existing high-end library will survive the arrival of ubiquitous digital imagery. But in case it doesn’t, it seems to understand that a big slice of the market is now in low-cost user-submitted material.

The key to success seems to be offering a product that offers some clear benefits:

  • Saves time
  • Increases choice
  • Is perceived as good value
  • Offers products people actually want

The parallels with journalism are not exact of course, but there’s a lesson here that’s still worth learning.

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Publish and be filtered

After wittering on for ever about why journalism is changing irrevocably, I’ve read two things that make the point much more clearly.

One is a post by Scott Porad on Journalism 2.0 on the relationship between journalism and the I Can Has Cheezburger brand of user-generated humour. The other is a weighty essay by internet pundit Clay Shirky on the danger of imposing classification schemes on web content. 

Scott Porad’s point is that there is a “fundamental shift in the concept of reporting from ‘sourcing’ toward ‘filtering’.”

In times gone by, a lot of the value of a reporter was the ability to dig out sources. Now, there are sources by the million. The value of journalism lies in filtering these to find the most reliable. Tools and techniques to do the filtering will become much more valuable in future (journalists and graduates take note).

The Clay Shirky essay – “Ontology is Overrated” – is a much heavier piece, but there is a similarly clear and relevant lesson in it. 

When you catalogue books in a library, you assign books to slots in a classification system. You need this, because a book is an abject and needs to go on a shelf. 

But the internet has no shelves. Instead, it has a vast wash of content that is impossible to fit into a pre-determined classification system. 

So we have taken to putting content on to the web and letting people assign their own classification tags to it (think Flickr). 

As Shirky says:

In a world where publishing is expensive, the act of publishing is also a statement of quality – the filter comes before the publication. In a world where publishing is cheap, putting something out there says nothing about its quality. It’s what happens after it gets published that matters. If people don’t point to it, other people won’t read it. But the idea that the filtering is after the publishing is incredibly foreign to journalists.

It’s that last sentence that sums up our problems in a nutshell. The web is all about filtering after publishing. Journalists will find their work cut out to keep up with that.

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Do professional media standards matter?

I suggested earlier that structural change is irrevocably changing the media model

Reader Bill Bennett is sceptical. He comments:

The acid test: Can an average 14-year-old create a TV network that anyone would consider worth watching? The answer is “probably not”.

Substitute ‘average 14-year-old’ with “team of experienced professional TV network executives” and ask the same question.

He’s absolutely right, of course – most of the time the end product becomes something vastly different from what we old-style media consumers consider to be professionally produced journalism and/or entertainment.

But does this undermine the core argument? I think not. 

Crucially the argument is an economic one. When even 14-year-olds have access to, in effect, global broadcasting technology, the effect is destabilising for old-style “professional” media. 

Sure, the quality will be amateurish. But remember that there is a vast amount of it available online. And we’re also changing the relationship between producers and consumers.

Media consumers are more likely to be media producers as well. They tend to have a more active relationship with content than older viewers and readers are used to. 

In effect, it’s a double whammy. Web users spend time looking at user-generated, web-based content, but they also spend time creating it. 

That’s time that they don’t spend passively consuming professionally produced content on TV. 

And don’t underestimate the ability of ludicrously amateurish content to eat into viewing time. You only have to look at things like the Boxxy phenomenon or other fleeting me-me-me stars such as Australia’s Natalie Tran to see the numbers involved – there are millions of viewers here. 

So why does this matter?

TV networks, and print media, rely on a certain density and quality of eyeballs to maintain their pull for high-paying advertising. Lose enough of those eyeballs and you start losing revenue. 

Crucially, if you drop below a certain threshold, you lose enough revenue to make your broadcast or publishing model fail – no matter that you still have many eager viewers or readers left

And it’s easier than you think to make this happen. If 25% of your potential audience spends just 25% of their time on YouTube instead of watching mainstream broadcast media, your audience drops significantly. 

Much of the decline in terrestrial TV viewing share has been down to channel fragmentation from digital broadcasting. But it’s notable that, according to reports from the BBC and the IPA, the 16-24 age group in particular is now being distracted by the internet and is watching TV less overall. 

Yes – maybe younger viewers will get bored with mobile phone video mashups and come back to ITV eventually (if it’s still broadcasting). But I suspect this won’t bring back the golden age of expensive, high-quality professional journalism that we in the media hanker after. 

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