The cynical trap of User Generated Content – it does not democratise media

I was asked recently, though perhaps not sincerely: How has User Generated Content (UGC) changed journalism?

My reservations about the sincerity of the question were largely due to it being an attempt to promote a new commercial service by Lobster Media in collaboration with The commercial relationship that underpinned the publication is perhaps is the vindication of what follows.

I wrote about UCG many years ago in Digital Journalism, which I co-authored with Janet Jones. I wrote then that UGC,

can contribute to richer journalism, but it is also true that such material is usually exploited by corporate media in the context of economic calculations – it is often seen as cheap or free content for which the contributors need not be remunerated (p.30)

The scramble to incorporate UGC into news reports in the late 2000s under the guise of “democratisation” was cynical, and based on a notion of “democracy” that was conceptually unrecognisable.

In the very first instance, whose voices are heard? Many years ago I tried to explain to a then BBC News editor that their UGC “Have Your Say” on Venezuela may not reflect the voice of “the people”. On one hand we know those contributing from the UK have been subject to a rather significant propaganda campaign, which may skew understanding if one understands that news media may not be the arbiter of all truth.

On the other hand, the plentiful voices from Venezuela may not reflect Venezuelan society. Largely English speaking, articulate and with access to computers and the internet, those voices probably weren’t coming from Barrio 23 Enero. This is to say, there is a class and status relation in UGC and social media more generally. Heavy users are young, wealthy and educated. It is their voices that come through UGC.

So UGC is hardly democratic. Moreover, as the passage above suggests, UCG was akin to any other innovation in media technologies – it can be reduced in the final analysis to a commercial relation: UGC was simply free raw material.

Lobster Media’s initiative to remunerate UGC providers is admirable in a sense. News Flair does something similar with video work. So yes, it’s about time “citizen journalists” were paid by the companies making vast profits from their unpaid labour.

What does UGC really contribute?

In explaining its business model, Lobster Media relates UGC to exciting times in the media world, especially

the immediacy of social media. However, that’s not the only factor. At the very heart of this is a craving for authenticity – the genuine, gritty and unfiltered nature of UGC, which is bursting out from every corner of the globe. It’s legit and it’s as live as it gets

I’ve long held that immediacy is not a good in itself. Sometimes it can be useful, if for example there’s a flooded area to be avoided or an incident that may affect people’s movements in the immediate future.

However, the concept of immediacy in news is again an economic relation. The notion of the “scoop” was one in which journalists got the story out first, and therefore sales to the newspaper with the scoop would rise. Immediacy is an attention-grabber and little more.

Additionally the belief that it is more authentic than traditional content is questionable.

Even a tin pot philosopher is rather well aware that appearance and reality are not the same thing. There is little “authentic” about surface reality. News editors aren’t really very interested in long accounts that present a complex and deep reality. Indeed the first thing journalists are taught is how to make a complex world simplistic. As such they are taught to infantilise the public.

Take any recent incident and look at the UGC – immediate footage of people running, some screams, a siren, police cars. It tells us precisely nothing beyond the initial statement that “something has happened”. It offers no depth, no insight, no authenticity. It’s just filler. It’s candy for the childish mind.

But there’s a deeper problem with the account here. Immediacy has become the business model in journalism. Unreflective response is nurtured encouraged though UCG and social media platforms. The hyperreal is now the authentic.

Behind all this are scandal merchants whipping people up into hysteria over the latest scandal or tragedy. “Here something awfully terrible and very sad has happened….isn’t it terrible and sad?” Even the soundest minds are guided to rage so often articulated online.

Rage Markets in the UGC-Media Complex

UGC isn’t independent of mainstream media – a term itself less and less useful as they have adopted the forms of radical media as radical media had adopted the forms of mainstream. From the camera angles and POV to the topics, intonation and emphasis much of UGC copies the form of traditional reporting.

The Age of Moronism that Herbert Marcuse identified in the 1960s can be discerned in any shooting, protest, terrorist attack, and nowadays car crash.

If there’s an Islamist terrorist attack, right wing social media pounces upon it as evidence of the incompatibility of Islam with Western culture. At the same time the left will jump in to deny any causal relation and denounce those entertaining such a link as “Islamophobic”.

When there’s a white terrorist attack, the right is as likely to call it the action of a lone madman as the left is to call it evidence of organised white supremacism.

Rage Markets and the Crisis of Political Rationality

Social media encourages and almost demands ignorant speculation framed by the concerns or this or that political lifestyle. The echo chambers are getting bigger and louder to the extent that we have certainly reached a crisis of political rationality.

The echo chambers reinforce narratives with their mainstream counterparts egging them on – the Daily Mail on one side and its liberal-left analogue, the Independent, on the other.

The papers listen to their readers, tell them what they want to hear, which is then amplified through sharing on social media, and then integrated into news copy, and so the cycle continues.

Fuelling the respective rage market becomes the function of the press. And so news stories come to be written as click bait, tailor made for their respective markets to froth over.

The paradox is this. Social media and UGC don’t change things for the better. Flat earthers, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, racists, paranoid leftists, conservatives, xenophobes, internationalists, Corbynites, Brexiters, antifa, and each and every other grouping is encouraged to further fragment into what are effectively consumer groupings.

Links form networks, Facebook and Twitter accounts provide walls to keep out undesirables, so unchallenged adherence to unreflexive beliefs is untouched.

Safe spaces, bans, no platforming, Doxing, trigger warnings, unfriending, blocking are the tools of the new politics. Purity is key. Disagreement is the new taboo.

The unending cycles of confirmation bias within bubbles reinforces the walls, ensuring no dissenting idea can get in while Spanish Inquisitors roll in their graves.

“Tell them more of what they want to hear” is the mantra of the news editor. Abidingly the Daily Mail tells its readers of a new group seeking to impose Sharia in a genteel English village as The Independent tells its customers of the cognitive disabilities and racism of every white working class Brexit voter. Neither the Muslim nor the Brexiter can be reasoned with – they have no words, no reasons and can only be destroyed as the virtual pitchforks are brought out to do their bidding.

The problem of course is precisely what passes for “authenticity” and the supposed need for immediacy. The time compression that news media and particularly social media structure remove the space for reflection, consideration and thought. The commercial imperatives of the news media, and its basis in cost-benefit analysis are structurally positioned to remove the necessary conditions for democratised media.

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