User-Generated Content: News with street cred?

I was invited to take part in two weekend panels at the 21-24 February International Youth Service of the Federal Republic of Germany (IJAB) in Berlin.

The international conference concerned itself with the current challenges of reaching young people with news, educational offers and other purposes of youth work. The event, featuring workshops and panel discussions, was supported by the German Ministry of Familiy and Youth and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture.

The first panel in which I participated discussed the role of professionals and users in the process of generating content. The other probed into the function of mobile communication for youth work. Here is a brief summary of the basic theses of my contributions:

User generated content and the public sphere

To go at it from a sceptical position: User-generated content (UGC) and online participation do not by themselves cure apathy. To the contrary: A lot of it actually provides further means of escapism. While traditional media are predicated upon a destination model (go to CNN, go to the New York Times, etc.) that implies control and exclusivity as well as a preconception of trust, UGC is based on a network model and therefore not so much about finding content, but rather about being the content.

It can, therefore, be misleading to think that UGC is automatically the place where civil society is happening, because democracy needs more than a collection of discrete peer-to-peer communications; it needs actual debate, synthesising of opinions – and that’s where journalism comes into play. UGC is a source like many others and on an occasion that can prompt journalistic reporting. But UGC doesn’t replace it.

The head of BBC Newsroom, Peter Horrocks, has caught the essence of what is happening: He says that while the traditional model of news organisations was a rather safe middle of the road, balancing neutrality, UGC has changed that fundamentally. It has brought on a real change of paradigm: The old model is now outdated, and journalistic organisations must embrace a notion of radical impartiality, incorporating, covering and admitting a much broader range of views than before. The idea is to shift the balance between pre-moderated and post-moderated debate. This notion is now filtering into the circles of government and education as well.

So while professional media organisations (or youth workers, for that matter) have already become and maybe should become even more open to expressions of non-mainstream attitudes, they better not let UGC dictate their agenda or perspective indiscriminately, if at all. Providing a forum does not necessarily mean adopting the stuff that comes up there. But UGC can at the very least work as a corrective on group think inside professional circles.

And investigative journalism, in-depth reporting, uncovering untold stories that have been missed or ignored and presenting them to a larger public under a trusted brand, making the complex simple, the abstract and remote more human and real – that’s still necessary and sought after. The relationship between UGC and professional journalism is a complimentary one, not about one displacing the other.

And as the German “youth in media” study has revealed: About a quarter of young people just plainly believe what they read/see on the Internet, more so if they are younger or are less educated. Journalistic responsibility requires that we do something about this.

The role of professional (news) organisations

News organisations tend to belong to the kind of institutions being viewed by the younger public with some suspicion – just like government, church, big business. So introducing and involving UGC can get these institutions some street cred back. This can work especially if users can customise the information they want to consume, choose the preferred format (text, podcast, video, etc.) and are free to comment on it.

There are cooperative efforts happening within conventional media with UGC and Web 2.0 sites, where the conventional media try and use the network promotion effect of, say, Facebook, to increase readership for their own content. All it takes is one active news person in a larger circle of friends, and suddenly a number of people who never would come into contact with a classic news medium on their own start at least monitoring and eventually even reading news. And that on a platform that originally became famous for letting people show off their drunken antics to their friends.

One of the most interesting things that might happen here is setting up a recommendation service that is based on behavioural targeting rather than conscious and deliberate networking. As at and other commercial sites, personalised recommendations of journalistic content can be generated by statistics, while at the same time crossing over the borders of conventional news sites, in the vein of Google AdWords and AdSense, and thus getting closer to young people and youth information.

So what this means is: Going into environments of UGC can provide journalistic news outlets and youth information platforms with previously virtually unthinkable new dissemination, lend credibility among users who wouldn’t have previously looked at these outlets, and generate their interest in issues.

To get the best possible benefit out of UGC – both for their own work and for the public sphere – journalists and youth workers are in a good position to assist people providing it. Transfer journalistic skills into the free scene, and enable UGC through a number of helping measures and education. From the EJC’s experience, this primarily concerns tech support, financing and business models, providing the tools for research and dissemination – the agenda normally is already there, anyway.

UGC has different significance depending on the political culture it takes place in. Within pluralistic Western democracies, it’s kind of a given and a valuable addition to the public sphere, whereas in less developed and/or less democratic countries, sometimes UGC provides the only actual contribution to a democratic public sphere and forms a counterbalance to oligarchy- or government-controlled media. This is why the EJC specifically supports the Eastern European and Central Asian blogger scene.

The challenge of mobile communication

One of the most relevant up-and-coming channels for reaching young people is mobile devices – at the latest as soon as cheap data flatrates become available in the near future. Since mobile devices do not lend themselves to lengthy texts and most of the time do not have much of a keyboard, mobile communication will increasingly be about video. This means that we need major efforts to infuse video with actual content instead of mere entertainment. Recommendation systems and the intelligent use of existing platforms such as YouTube can go a long way in that direction.

But in order to make this happen, mobile devices must be interoperable and easily accessed. Hardware and software manufacturers and network providers alike want to be in control of the content, as they see it as one of the bases for their business interests. They are apt to camouflage these interests as technical limitations. But if they prevail (and today, it still seems like they do), future youth and general information will be largely commercial and thus present a lopsided view. Therefore, an alliance is needed between consumers, regulatory bodies and youth workers to enforce genuine plurality on mobile platforms.