User generated content doesn’t belong on the mainstream media

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about “citizen journalism” and its relationship with the mainstream media. “User generated content” is very trendy at the moment. I had expected that to happen, but it hasn’t turned out quite the way I expected it.

Some people seem dead set on framing the whole issue as some kind of colossal battle between the mainstream media and citizen journalism. But bloggers often depend on the mainstream media for its stories — with a few notable exceptions of course. And by the same token, the mainstream media depends on citizens more and more to send in images of big news events such as the London bombings.

This is all well and good, but unfortunately it has become a sickeningly trendy thing for news outlets to do now. Now every time a turkey sneezes it’s all, “Send us your pictures to”, or even worse, “Have your say by recording yourself on your 3G phone.” I mean really. UGC has become a gimmick used by news channels to make them look all hip and cool.

Channel Five News seems particularly keen on the idea of citizen journalism. But they are so eager to push it forward that they end up completely missing the point. For one thing, one report I saw was an irredeemably dull item about cycle lanes. Not cycle lanes in general. Cycle lanes in one gentleman’s town.

Clearly, this man was quite concerned about cycle lanes (I can’t remember why, it was so boring). But what had obviously happened was that he emailed some special “Speak your brains” email address and some producer picked it up and said, “Great! That’s a really boring story, just like what them citizen journalists are into. Let’s do it!” And then they sent along a professional production crew and got this chap to talk about cycle lanes.

But that isn’t citizen journalism at all. The production crew probably made the decision that he would cheesily present the whole item in his cycling gear, riding down the cycle lanes and then “happening to bump into a camera” and mouth off about cycle lanes in a monotone fashion.

All they needed was a pointless two-way and that would have been it — citizen journalism becomes everything that’s bad about the mainstream media. Essentially it was a normal news report in every way, except that it was presented by somebody with little or no television experience. This is more like Points of View than blogging. In the blogosphere, this “story” about cycle lanes would never have attracted any attention whatsoever. Channel Five decided to put it on its prime time news programme.

The point for me about blogging is that normal-ish people have a big conversation. Sometimes they write about their own experiences and create their own stories about the world around them. People eventually find like-minded people and share their experiences, debate and have a conversation. Channel Five just took some guy with a hobby horse and plonked him in front of a camera.

Radio Five Live recently had some boring thing called “Your Five Live” or something. I think it lasted an entire week. And it was terrible. All week they were trailing a special debate to be. chaired by that voice of reason Stephen Nolan, about “the issue you told us concerned you the most”. Yes, you guessed it — immigration. That issue that seems to attract the regular Five Live phone-in callers but doesn’t seem to fuss people in the blogosphere that much.

I didn’t listen to the debate. I would probably have found it too depressing. It would have been a carnival of the knuckle-draggers. Maybe I am being a snob. Surely these are normal people who have every right to voice their opinion. Well, yes. But any old fool can rant down a microphone.

As I said, the point about blogging is that you have a proper discussion and a debate. Sometimes Five Live manages this, but more often it doesn’t. You just get somebody inflicting us with his verbal diarrhoea before being cut off by the presenter because it’s time for the news.

And just have a look at BBC News 24 or Sky News. Large chunks of the day are often dedicated to “Have your say” “debates”. What this actually means is numbskulls sending in emails and some editor somewhere picking the juiciest ones which a presenter then reads one line of. What you get is half a dozen emailers all of which have their own personal chips on their shoulder — but no conversation, no debate, no intelligence.

A new programme on Channel 4 caught my eye this weekend. It’s called Homemade, and it actually bills itself as YouTube for the television. People generate their own content and submit it to Channel 4. But once again this completely misses the point. The point about YouTube is that you decide for yourself what you want to watch.

Homemade is still put together by a bunch of television professionals who have chosen what they would like us to watch. The viewer gets no choice in the matter here. And we could especially do without the annoying Dave Berry presenting links between all of the clips.

All we have now is a rag-bag of items filmed on poor-quality cameras. Presumably the producers of Homemade thought the randomness and low quality images was what made YouTube popular. Well, not so. Most people just use YouTube to watch actual television programmes anyway.

The mainstream media needs to realise what user generated content can actually be useful for. At the moment, it is just a trendy gimmick — and its uses get more annoying by the week. People will always want television stations to create quality, big-budget programmes. If people wanted something home made they would watch YouTube, not Channel 4.

As for the news programmes, they need to be more aware that their job is to report the big news stories with expert analysis. If people wanted to know what people on the street thought, they would just read a blog. As things stand, user generated content on news programmes are toe-curlingly embarassing and always encourage me to switch off.

That is not to say that citizens can’t have an input in the news. Images of Concorde on fire and the inside of the bombed train in London genuinely added to the story, and professionals were not in a position to film these. That is the sort of cooperation between “citizens” and the “mainstream media” that can work brilliantly. The rest is just awful, gimmicky rubbish.

This post by Kevin Anderson is very interesting. The key quote:

The mainstream media believes that “user-generated content” has to come through their sites, their walled gardens of tightly controlled participation, so they miss the vastly larger opportunity that exists on the internet as a whole.


  1. […] doctorvee: User generated content doesn’t belong on the mainstream media Duncan Stephen on big media companies’ tendency to completely miss the point about blogging and YouTube: “UGC has become a gimmick used by news channels to make them look all hip and cool.” Except that (tags: ugc citizenjournalism television five channel5 fivelive bbc skynews interactivity) […]

  2. Citizen journalism and it’s relation to mainstream media, as you’ve mentioned extensively, is supposed to be a way for sides of a story to be put forward that wouldn’t normally be filmed.

    You’re spot on when you say that broadcasters seem to be taking things to an extreme and 24 hour TV news is to blame for this – completely – too much time and not enough news/resources to fill it.

    The BBC doesn’t seem to be waking up to this (to a certain extent) with a new guideline that suggests ‘we’ should be joining conversations on other sites instead of starting them again on ours.

  3. Content is the key here. It is expensive to do MSM and some of the things that you talk about fill up valuable time between the blockbuster stories and shows. My friend is high up in Fox Corporation in Los Angeles, who invented vacuous television shows such as Cops, which populate much of TV now. Apparently Rupert loved the strategy because it was so cheap (and popular). TV for the common man.

  4. […] Doctorvee isn’t happy: (User Generated Content) has become a sickeningly trendy thing for news outlets to do now. Now every time a turkey sneezes it’s all, “Send us your pictures to”, or even worse, “Have your say by recording yourself on your 3G phone.” I mean really. UGC has become a gimmick used by news channels to make them look all hip and cool…. […]

  5. I agree. It frustrates me a bit that ‘social’ is the new buzzword as far as the web is concerned, and that every day there’s another report in the media about this ‘ere new-fangled blogging.

    Online communities and people voicing their opinions/pictures of their cat are as old as the internet; there must be people who work in television who remember Yoof TV in the 80s and can save us all the embarrassment of tuning into some of the shows you mention, which are in the same vein – but without the hideous pastel fashion and bad rap soundtracks.

    If there is a big deal nowadays it’s the ability to find, effectively peer-review and then share amazing user-generated content in a variety of formats more easily (by the use of tagging and memes etc.) and contribute regardless of your level of computer literacy (unlike way back when you had to telnet into the university’s system and do everything from the command line, or have a masterful grasp of HTML) – not mainstream media just dumping any old crap on us under the guise of freedom of transmission. Watch cable telly in the US to see how that can backfire…

  6. I posted about this myself just the other day – there is nothing about “user generated content” that makes it inherently good. Hell, lots of it isn’t even particularly participatory or even draws people away from meaningful participation.

    Along with the it’s often of questionable quality issue , I’m also concerned that the calls to action made by mainstream media organisations are often empty – participation as a way of generating data on particitipation rather than as a way of furthering understanding or improving our story telling.

    Tsk tsk all you bean counting UGC data munchers out there…

  7. I agree with you Kevin. UCG content should be subject to debate and discussion and unfortunately main stream media will not allow general users to freely express their thoughts.

    That’s why UGC works well on the internet – you are free. We can all CHOOSE what we want to see/read and also express how we feel about it.

    But there is one thing you must not forget – TV is dying out and they will do anything to reduce costs and whilst filling the white spaces with any rubbish.

  8. I very much enjoy certain genres of this new media and loved the autograph guy from Homemade. I remember he had his own chatshow and it was one of the best bits of TV that year.

    User generated content is good for TV on some occassions and people like Mark Boardman , Dave Berry and T4 bring a new style to TV which has a targeted audience ( 15-25)