User-generated content vs. reader-created context

For an internal IDG newsletter I was asked to pick the industry buzzword that most annoys me and write a brief essay explaining why. I chose user-generated content and wrote the following:

Everything about this buzzphrase annoys me. First, calling people "users" is pernicious. It distances and dehumanizes, and should be stricken from the IT vocabulary (see Those clueless users) as well as from the publishing vocabulary. IT has customers and clients, not users. IT-oriented publishers have readers, not users.

Second, "content" is a word that reminds me more of sausage than of storytelling (see Sausage, traffic, and clueless users). As writers and editors we don't "generate" "content," we tell stories that inform, educate, and entertain -- or should.

Now that the original vision of a two-way web is finally made real, we can distinguish between amateur storytellers (in the best and highest sense of amateur) and professional storytellers. Thanks to the contributions of the amateurs -- who are of course professional practitioners of the disciplines that we "cover" -- we can tell deeper, richer, more well-informed stories about the products and services they create, and the work they do. Those stories are valuable, and the business I want to be in is based on that value, not on the "monetization" of "user-generated content".

It's not enough to merely be annoyed, so in the spirit of constructivism I'd like to suggest some positive alternatives. Two ideas come to mind. The first idea is Eric von Hippel's notion of lead-user innovation. In the publishing world, the prevailing notion of user-generated content is that you can get lots of people to blog, or comment, or annotate, or otherwise freely contribute "content" that you get to "monetize." The problem, though, is that lead users -- i.e., the most innovative and influential readers (and advertisers) -- are also the ones most willing and able to publish effectively on their own. Enlightened 21st-century publishers will create value by further empowering, and then collaborating with, those lead users.

The second idea is implicit in John Willinsky's re-imagining of education. Although it's too late to expunge the word user from von Hippel's formulation, Willinsky thankfully did not coin the phrase user-generated context. So I will instead propose reader-created context.

To briefly summarize Willinsky's argument, there are two prerequisites for effective reading: motivation, and context. Life circumstances either do, or don't, provide the necessary motivation. When they do, it comes down to a question of context. Education either did, or didn't, supply the necessary context. If it didn't, that context can be acquired by means of what CJ Rayhill calls on-demand learning.

Much of own work -- in tagging, in intelligent search, in screencasting -- aims to empower readers, listeners, and viewers to create context and learn on demand. Enlightened 21st-century publishers will create value from that kind of empowerment too.

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