Bloggers suing the Huffington Post – the outcome for UGC?

You may have seen a few reports about the class-action suit brought against the Huffington Post after it was acquired by AOL for $315 million. It was filed by Jonathan Tasini, who calculated the content created by volunteers should be valued at a third of the sale value, $105 million. There’s been a fair bit of commentary on the case, which seems to hinge on a moral obligation rather than a legal one for the Huffington Post (here, here, and  here), as it concentrates on ‘Unjust Enrichment‘ , and it will probably hinge on whether the payment in exposure etc is a fair trade for the work involved in creating articles.

Personally I have no problem with sites soliciting, accepting and publishing content supplied for free by volunteers who know the terms of the deal upfront in a clear fashion (i.e. no hiding behind 20 pages of legalese that they no longer have rights to their work – spell it out and then link to the legalese terms!)

The argument that many paid writers make is that this devalues their profession, which is a disruption being felt across various specialisms, whether it’s creative, technical or manufacturers competing in a global market. And as someone who writes for at least part of his living, I agree that the rates for writing have dropped, but it’s down to the writer to decide what will benefit them best, and how to differentiate themselves and maximise what they can earn.

But what will the legal case do?

As someone without a legal education, but with an understanding of the legal departments of large media companies, I can’t imagine the legal case will result in any significant financial reward for Tasini.

But what probably will happen is that most publishers will revisit their terms and conditions for user-generated content and tighten them up even further in any possible way to preclude similar actions. So if you want to submit something for a major site, you’ll spend the first few hours electronically signing your rights away – and it might end up limiting any existing possibilities of rewarding UGC as that could end up muddying the waters between just and unjust enrichment. I suspect the legal view will be that to offer any amount of financial reward would be riskier than none at all.

It might also lead to complications for smaller sites – if they’re accepting content without the ability to offer large amounts of proven exposure, do they then end up falling foul of ‘unjust enrichment’? Do sites need to start publishing their monthly user figures to everything who might send in a guest post?

It seems to that rather than furthering the cause of quality writing (which is more affected by the likes of Google’s Panda search update than by hitting out at the HuffPo), this could just end up limiting the outlets which are interested in accepting user content, and that lack of competition makes it even less likely that rates would rise for those willing to pay.

So have you submitted content for free anywhere? And do you feel like you were rewarded with enough exposure/other benefits?

Not sure how to monetise your eyeballs?

While newspaper and magazine owners are still trying to decide whether or not they should aim for eyeballs or paywalls, there are several other companies who are happy to take up the challenge.

For instance, online social media publisher Mashable has signed a deal to syndicate content to Thursday editions of Metro in the U.S. Mashable founder Pete Cashmore is already a regular on CNN in the U.S, and Mashable and CNN. Plus Mashable has partnered with CNN for the Mashable Media Summit 2010.

It’s interesting to see that mainstream publications and online publications are increasingly merging, but the ‘digital natives’ seem less worried and more sure that they’ve already got the monetisation aspect under control.

One reason is that by the time the likes of Mashable and Techcrunch have reached their current scale, they have already had to answer the questions of how to fund an online business. But as they grew from relatively humble beginnings, they’ve tackled it as they’ve grown without having to worry about legacy systems and overheads.

And by the same token, if you look at the staffing levels – Mashable lists 20 staff, and Techcrunch lists 21.

Compare that to the epic lists of staff at most magazines, for example, and you can see a big contrast.  There are print magazines run by smaller teams, but none that have the scale of the leading blogs (Or at least what started out as blogs).

So how do you produce so much content with a small team across all our properties? Simple, count the guest posts and the open offers to submit work to the likes of Mashable and Techcrunch.

Then consider a quote from the 2010 PPA Conference from the Chief Executive of Future Publishing, Stevie Spring:

“Advertisers are scared of the prospect of seeing their ads next to user-generated content. This won’t change. All it takes is one bad example to put brands off.”

That’s why sites which benefit from user-generated content are filtering and curating that content to get value out of it. There’s a reason why there are successful businesses based around user-generated content, but 4Chan isn’t one of them.

Three web 2.0 sites. Three opinions.

I’ve been playing around with a few sites recently. Here’s some quick off-the-cuff thoughts. : Human powered search engine. It’s a nice concept, to get search results filtered by someone that actually knows the subject. But at the same time it’s just too limited for the things I want to search for. I like going and seeing what’s been logged so far, but when I’m looking for something for work and pleasure, I need to know I’ll get a result quickly. And that won’t happen with most of the search terms I need, as they’re always too niche to have been covered early on. : Social network file sharing. Seems like a good idea, if you have an allergy to ftp sites, or file upload sites. But the real problem is that I now have to get everyone I’d want to share a file with to sign up and download the application. How many people are going to do that? And how many times more likely is it that I want to share files with a general audience, or people who aren’t a connection? : It’s a new take on old fashioned dating sites. Not sure I see the point in dating becoming even more hard work!

‘Famous for 15 people’ – A response

Inspired by a comment on my recent post about the myth of User Generated Content, I figured colleague and fellow digital person David Cushman deserved a fuller response than my reply…And hopefully this might inspire more people to get involved.
David has talked at length on his blog, Faster Future, about his concept of people becoming ‘Famous for 15 people‘, rather than ‘Famous for 15 minutes’. And in some ways, it makes a lot of sense.
After all, if you can reach the people most obsessive about a particular interest, whether you call them early adopters or obsessives, then you’re going to accurately target those most likely to engage and respond.

But this does miss some of the reasons for UGC creation, and some of the reason why certain UGC sites maintain an advantage. it’s also why I believe that there should be a bridge between ‘old’ media and new, rather than discarding the old.

To start with, I’d split UGC into two types. The first is that which comes from small groups of friends chatting, for instance on a forum, with high levels of interaction.
This is the type of UGC which most directly works with the ’15 people’ model, as posts to these key people will have a big effect.

But there is another type of UGC creation, which I’d call ‘formal’ or ‘broadcast’ UGC. This ranges from blogs to live webcam shows, and includes user radio shows, user videos etc. Many of these are not simply created in a desire to interact with users who share an interest, but are an attempt to gain fame and respect from the largest possible audience. It’s the only equivalent of appearing on Big Brother, or sending a story into a newspaper, and is part of human nature for those reared on the cult of celebrity. Those people will actively pick Youtube over a niche site, in order to get the widest possible audience for their video/photo/blog. While they’d be happy with interaction from a small number of people, they’d be happier still with a huge number of people. In the same way, I value the small and growing number of blog readers I have, but I’d be happier if they were part of an audience far larger, if only to gain leverage for getting stories.

There is also another aspect which i think the ’15 people’ concept appears to overlook, and I’ll hope Dave will forgive me if I’ve missed the explanation somewhere.

If I’m looking for content on a subject on which I have no previous interaction, I have a number of ways to find it.

A search will bring up those sites who have the best search ranking, or have paid, and I’m unlikely to go through more than a few pages of results.

I’ll post on a site I already use, and hope that another forum member shares my interest, and can recommend something. But I have no way to guage their knowledge of that particular subject.

I might spot a mention or link to a niche site recommended somewhere else, and go and visit. But even with a passionate niche site, I have no way to verify the information I’m given. Or I can choose a ‘traditional’ site, and hope that their professional journalists have integrity.

Those sites with huge audience figures and a mix of both professional and user news, reviews and opinions will win out, because they will have the highest ranking, the most familiar name, and the biggest implied trust on the first visit. And it’s perfectly possible for them to allow their audience to self-niche into smaller groups of interest.

It might seems paradoxical that a web 2.0 fan is debating such a web 2.0 concept, and coming out on the side of the internet and print monoliths, but I think it’s important to keep stating that there is a middle ground being ‘old’ and ‘new’ media which offers the best of both worlds, without any detriment to the user. Social news sites provide good examples of how a site with little or no editorial judgement can skew the news, with Digg, and Fark offering some strange views on the world on any given day.
For instance, Fark today has a ranking of 37 for a story from the Telegraph regarding Tony Blair’s last day in office, and the same ranking for a story about a man who wanted to see his dead girlfriend topless!

A UGC advocate could argue that it demonstrates both stories have equal appeal for readers, and to some extent that’s true. But if you were simply looking for topical stories of the day, there’s no reason why the site would even be this balanced.

Whereas a mix of a respected news source, such as the BBC, CNN, or whatever flavour news you fancy, combined with the UGC predeliction for the oddball stories you’d have emailed your friends in the old days, would have the best of both worlds.

I realise that some of these issues are perhaps wandering away from the original ‘famous for 15 people’ concept, but I really do feel that user needs are intertwined so much with new media that it’s hard to separate the issue into bie-sized chunks without missing the big picture.

And while I’d welcome comments from a small number of eloquent, intelligent regular readers, I can’t see a day when, as a writer, I wouldn’t want my work to be read by the widest possible audience.