If You Love Someone, Let Them Go

UGC is very ugly term, isn’t it? User Generated Content. Corporate-speak for “things our customers do with the facilities we so generously provide for them”. I exaggerate, but only in the service of my point. UGC is a term for the site-owners way of looking at what users produce on a website – as a resource to improve their site – either in terms of traffic, google ranking or profitability.

Clay Shirky, the internet consultant and all-round clever chap is attempting to popularise another term for it that provides the other, rather more important side of the picture. He calls it Indigenous Content, meaning “Content created by users for themselves”. I think it’s probably worth using his term, because it’ll help avoid one of the pitfalls of UGC – thinking about it as just another resource. It isn’t. Users create content because it has value to them and their peers, and a given website is simply the means by which they harness that value.

So what can a site owner do to maximise their return on investment in this area? How does a site owner make sure that they’re getting some benefit from the resources that they’ve put into allowing users to generate content on their site?

The answer sounds almost paradoxical: make it easy for users to leave.

User will generate content when they derive value from it. One of the things people value is ownership. So a site should make it clear that the users own their own data, and that if they want to take it and go, the site won’t stand in their way.

Yes, a site may need to grant the site a license to use it while it’s on there, or even longer depending on what the site owner intends to do with it, but the agreement should be as minimal as possible. The user should retain all rights to edit the content, republish it elsewhere or even remove it – ideally, the site should provide some kind of tool that would allow the user to export all their contributions into another format, that they could save as they please – a basic download in XML or .csv format would do but offering an API is better still, as it can allow the user much more flexibility in what they do with the data while it’s still on the site, and the more a site can do to allow its users to repurpose and republish the content that they generate on that site, the more they’ll do with the site, and the more value the site will derive from it’s investment.