User generated content – the engagement spectrum
“User-generated content” as a buzzword has the feel of a concept that the world collectively discovered at some point in 2004. But as with all such things, the reality was a much more gradual process, and UGC itself covers a spectrum of engagement possibilities. We can get a better feel for the evolution of the trend by considering the path it took to reach the riotous proliferation we see today.
A good starting point for the engagement spectrum is the most recent report on Social Technographics by Forrester Research. They categorise user participation levels into five relatively self-explanatory segments, arranged roughly by decreasing engagement: Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners and finally Spectators. In practice, of course, there can be profound differences within each of these categories; there’s a big jump between uploading cameraphone videos of drunken antics, for example, and spending countless personal hours attempting to produce a polished short film.
A rule of thumb for social networks states that 90% of users will be merely observers, 9% contributors, and just 1% truly active participators. This suggests an intuitive picture of the situation for UGC in general: the classic long-tail curve. A small percentage of the population is passionately engaged with the business of generating content; a slightly larger group participates somewhat less often or less deeply; and the long tail itself consists of the thousands upon millions of users simply rating videos on YouTube or noting whether reviews on Amazon are useful or not.
Three simple conceptual data-points illustrate how the trend has evolved.
Using those under the age of 25 as a crude proxy for ‘the future’, and those over 25 as some representation of ‘the present’, the results of Forrester’s Social Technographics research suggest that the long tail is becoming fatter over time, while retaining its basic shape. More and more users are participating more and more often, and at ever higher levels of engagement.
The third data point lies in the distant past. As has been noted,
“User generated content has been around for 25 years, it’s the publishing and distribution that’s changing.”
In the earliest days of open-source, before it even had a name, small groups of hackers passionate about computing would work unpaid (the key difference between UGC and regular work – at least for now) to create applications that met their needs, sharing their work – and the means to improve it further – with anyone that wanted it.
Thus the earliest form of the (digital) UGC curve took the form of a narrow cliff, representing profoundly deep engagement by a small number of users, and an entirely flat tail. As the barriers to making significant contributions are reduced, and more opportunities to make small contributions are provided, the cliff has eroded to create today’s shallow curve.
Looking at it this way, it’s clear that UGC is not so much about running user-created ad competitions; it’s much more to do with making it easier for consumers to move up the participation ladder.
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