Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Thing About "User-Generated' Sites - YGWYPF?

You hear an awful lot these days about the miracle of User-Generated Content on the Web, from all these startups and companies who believe they’ve found a way to create content-rich sites in no time, and at no cost.

You put up a wall, thousands of people presumably throw, uh, “material” up on it, and presto! You’ve got a bona fide content-driven website that attracts millions of visitors – mostly the immediate friends and family of the ones who threw all that compost up there – and you sell billions of dollars worth of contextual ads.

And it’s Free; it costs you mothing to create all those pages of what-all. It’s hard to argue with that… except by invoking YGWYPF, the timeless axiom that holds, “You Get What You Pay For.”

It reminds me of the pre-Internet, AOL days, when “chat rooms” were all the rage. But when I first joined, all I found was what I've heard people say MySpace is now full of: teens, or the teen-like, just mindlessly blabbing away. After a few visits, I was outta there.

CNET's Music section recently went through a redesign that now emphasizes commercially promoted bands over the user contributed music that they established the site with, because, as one of the staffers confided in their artists’ forum, 'Let’s be honest, most of it is awful.'

That's who usually shows up for these parties. If you’re lucky, you attract the kind of Early Adopters who enthusiastically add stuff that people do want to look at or listen to. But with success and increased visibility come the unseen throngs of those who, and how to put this gently, have less to offer.

Some have not yet developed their talent, let’s say, but either no one’s told them or they’re just not listening. Then there are the poor souls whose level of enjoyment is so limited that they can only delight in trashing things.

They’ll all dive in there and fill your site with junk, Because It’s There, and they can. There’s an old saying that, some people have nothing to say – but it takes a long time to find that out. So user-built sites may have a decent shot at a run, but it’s usually relatively short-term, and many such ventures wind up as ghost sites where the visitor soon realizes nobody's home anymore, it's all on auto-pilot, and they leave.

Not that there haven't been big successes, and it is pretty cool that you can throw some software out there and thousands of people will fill it up, potentially creating a new community from like-minded but widely distributed people who wouldn't have connected any other way. (See? We're not being totally Grinchy here.) But it ain't as easy at it looks to maintain and react to a site like that; it requires some strong editorial input and management, too, unless you're fine with site whose between-the-lines motto is, "The Lowest Common Denominator!"

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