The internet has and continues to revolutionise the way communication is happening across the world. This is only possible because people participate. Social media has further extended the ease and a large part of that is the sharing of material created not by professionals but by the same people as those who are viewing and sharing to their networks. Herman (2013, p.40) calls it a “dynamic process of interactivity and networked collaboration”. This essay looks at the way user created content (UCC) has flourished, the problems that have arisen and concludes by looking at how the authors’ personal experience working in political campaigning and activism has been shaped and changed through UCC and social media.
This essay uses Hinton and Hjorth’s (2013) definition of UCC which is content created purposefully by the user for sharing while user generated content (UGC) is the act of sharing along with creation of both content and the data from the interactions, for example the amount of likes on a facebook post or demographic information users give facebook, both of which can be used for commercial purposes. These terms along with collaboration, sharing and participation are often conflated (Hyde et al. 2012) and there is overlap. For simplicity’s sake this essay focuses on UCC.
One of the major examples where UCC has had a significant impact on the status quo is in journalism. The ability for people to create their own content and not rely on the distribution networks of media corporations has given rise to “citizen journalists” on a scale not previously seen. Hinton and Hjorth (2013, p.56) remind readers that despite the reporting of political events having been caused by social media it is often only changing the “context for distribution and participation“. It has also been found that in certain crisis situations social media and content created by users can play an important role. One important example given is the 2011 floods in South-East Queensland (Bruns et al. 2012 quoted in Hinton & Hjorth 2013).
While this essay focuses on the political engagement around social media and UCC it is important to note the other aspects prevalent in the debate around UCC. One major area is copyright (discussed further in Lessig 2012 and Kim 2012), another being open source which, as Vaidhyanathan (2012) discusses was historically the way of working until copyright and intellectual property became prevalent. Finally another aspect, too large to discuss here, is the commercialisation of UCC. Examples of this include social networks using the data and content generated on their platform for monetary gain (which is often their business model) and larger companies using UCC in their own marketing, for example the “Shot on iPhone 6/6s” campaign where Apple found amateur photographers using the iPhone and then paid them, with an undisclosed amount, for their content (Pierini, 2015).
UCC raises a plethora of questions because it gives a platform to amateurs without the necessary conditions of professionals in the same area. This has given rise to larger quantities but not necessarily increased quality of work. This is less problematic if it revolves for example around a photographer who does it as a side hobby but becomes a concern if we return to the example of citizen journalist. The topics and opinions covered by citizen journalists have enabled great examples of work. Hinton and Hjorth (2013) especially mention The Conversation, (https://theconversation.com/au) which gives academics the outlet to discuss their professional work in a digestible format for the public, and ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/news/thedrum/ ) allowing public opinion in a traditional news outlet. The problems can arise when the examples are not from reputable sources such as those above. The reporting of facts can be a difficult job but if the journalists are not ethical or cherry pick the facts or do not disclose their personal interests it can reflect poorly on the whole profession even if they are ‘citizen journalists’. Apart from transparency the people involved also may not have the professional support – such as legal or physical support if they are covering very sensitive topics (Hinton and Hjorth 2013). Despite these facts it is clear citizen journalists are continuing to report and distribute and platforms such as Medium (www.medium.com) are enabling that process. As Gillmore (2006, p.5) claims the reason amateurs are becoming active is that Big Media is focusing on ‘light’ news of celebrities and gossip and citizen journalists are helping redress the lack of “harder”news.
This author’s personal work involves political campaigning and activism. The ability to communicate and generate content has dramatically changed the way campaigning occurs and as Shirky (2011) discusses it is also essential for democracy. He gives the example of Chinese mothers being able to show the corruption of local government officials and developers that caused the collapse of a school during an earthquake. “Authoritarian states are increasingly shutting down their communications grids to deny dissidents the ability to coordinate in real time and broadcast documentation of an event” (Shirky 2011).
Closer to home, my own work has been enabled by the tools of communication in social media. The political party I work for no longer solely relies on the media for communicating its message but each state branch and every elected member has their social media accounts that they use to communicate what they are doing and their opinions on political events and issues.
The prevalence of memes, videos about halal snack packs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5N_yrgdKCk) and other both serious and entertaining aspects of political debate enable communication directly to supporters and the general public. Political staff who would have previously been reliant on trying to get stories in the nightly news or in the local paper are able to create and share their own content. Taking it one step further, they no longer rely on paying professional graphic designers either, with the availability of tools such as Canva (https://www.canva.com).
“Both Habermas’s ideas of public sphere and the concept of the agora as a marketplace of ideas have figured prominently in debates about the role of the internet as a democratising social force“ (Hinton & Hjorth 2013). The ability for both the public and their representatives to create their own content is changing the way politics is communicated and discussed in todays society. Social media enables communities to grow online. Previously the marketplaces were physical locations where politics were discussed and while that still occurs it has been modernised and brought online bringing communities from distant areas together with similar interests. The Labor Party for example has started the Labor Herald (https://www.laborherald.com.au) which mixes citizen journalism, political opinion and communication. This is taking the old pamphlets and newspapers that used to be directly created by the political parties and creating 21st Century versions. There is often historical precedence for these communications; it is just modernising the platforms and locations.
Future predictions: social media platforms are continuously updating and increasing the ways in which people can produce content. The upcoming elections in both Australia and America and the increasing tools available to political campaigns and staff such as Facebook Live and Periscope will increase the user created content for political purposes over the next 6-8 months.
Social media has enabled increasing amounts of people to generate and share their individual work. It has also changed the balance between professional and amateur and has brought up legal, ethical and commercial questions that continued to be debated. In politics it has enabled politicians to directly communicate and personalise that communication to their supporters and the larger public. While it seems all new it also shows how traditional spaces have been translated into modern settings – whether that is the marketplace for discussing ideas or political printed pamphlets it is now done online with larger potential audiences and participation.
Gillmore, D. (2006) We the media: grassroots journalism by the people, for the people O’Reilly Media
Hinton, S. & Hjorth, L. (2013) Participation and User Created Content in Hinton, S. & Hjorth, L.’s Understanding Social Media London: SAGE Publications Ltd pp55-76
Herman, A. (2013) Production, consumption, and labor in the social media mode of communication and production in Hunsinger & Senft’s The Social Media Handbook, Taylor and Francis, Florence pp.30-44
Hyde, A., Linksvayer, M., Kanarinka, Mandiberg, M., Peirano, M., Tarka, S., Taylor, A., Toner, A., Zer-Aviv, M. (2012) “What is collaboration anyway?” in Mandiberg, M.’s The social media reader New York: New York University Press
Kim, J. 2012 The institutionalization of YouTube: From user-generated content to professionally generated content in Media, Culture & Society 34(1) pp.53–67
Lessig, L. (2012) Remix: How Creativity is being strangled by the Law in Mandiberg’s The social media reader New York: New York University Press
Pierini, D. 2015 “Apple surprises ‘iPhone 6’ photographers with coffee table books” Accessed online 17th April 2016 http://www.cultofmac.com/396263/apple-surprises-iphone-6-photographers-with-coffee-table-books/
Shirky, C. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), pp.28-41.
Vaidhyanathan, S. (2012) Open source as culture/culture as open source in Mandiberg’s The social media reader New York: New York University Press