User-Generated Content Is Here to Stay
by Azeem Khan
The way media are transmitted has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. User-generated content (UGC) has completely changed the landscape of social interaction, media outreach, consumer understanding, and everything in between. Today, UGC is media generated by the consumer instead of the traditional journalists and reporters. This is a movement defying and redefining traditional norms at the same time. Current events are largely publicized on Twitter and Facebook by the average person, and not by a photojournalist hired by a news organization. In the past, these large news corporations dominated the headlines — literally — and owned the monopoly on public media. Yet with the advent of smartphones and spread of social media, everything has changed. The entire industry has been replaced; smartphones have supplanted how information is collected, packaged, edited, and conveyed for mass distribution. UGC allows for raw and unfiltered movement of content at lightening speed. With the way that the world works today, it is the most reliable way to get information out. One thing that is for certain is that UGC is here to stay whether we like it or not, and it is driving much more of modern journalistic content than the average person realizes.
Think about recent natural disasters where images are captured by citizen journalists using their iPhones. During Hurricane Sandy, 800,000 photos uploaded onto Instagram with “#Sandy.” Time magazine even hired five iPhoneographers to photograph the wreckage for its Instagram page. During the May 2013 Oklahoma City tornadoes, the first photo released was actually captured by a smartphone. This real-time footage brings environmental chaos to your doorstep in a chillingly personal way, especially considering the photographer of the first tornado photos ultimately died because of the tornado. UGC has been monumental for criminal investigations and man-made catastrophes. Most notably, the Boston Marathon bombing was covered by UGC in the most unforgettable way. Dozens of images poured in identifying possible Boston bombers, to both the detriment and benefit of public officials and investigators. Though these images inflicted considerable damage to innocent bystanders sporting suspicious backpacks, ultimately it was also smartphone images that highlighted the presence of the Tsarnaev brothers. This phenomenon isn’t limited to America. Would the so-called Arab Spring have happened without social media and UGC? Syrians, Egyptians, and citizens from numerous nations facing protests can easily publicize controversial images and statements to be shared worldwide.
The news uses UGC to its full advantages, from photos plastered on front pages of local newspapers to videos being replayed on every channel. In addition to media outlets, UGC has direct impact on the individual. Facebook feeds are dominated with pictures from friends or shared through thousands of people. Often individuals hear about these events over Facebook or Twitter before having the time to flip on a news channel. These interactive platforms also introduce an avenue for social journalism — anyone can comment, anyone can share an opinion, or introduce new facts. No longer is journalism an institutionalized endeavor — UGC has opened to the door to a new wave of consumer media.
This trend is not temporary but will only expand. The first iPhone launched in 2007, and the world has never been the same. New smartphones are released each month with better cameras and faster processors than computers had even just a few years ago. Gone are the days when news companies hired staff for the sole purpose of photographing news. TheChicago Sun Times fired its entire photography staff this past summer and decided to train the remaining journalists in the basics of iPhone photography. News and media has become instantaneous — no longer can a news organization afford to wait for a staff photojournalist to appear on site. Media organizations are investing in people, average people, with access to the simplest of journalistic devices — a smartphone, and the user generated content it creates.
Azeem graduated with a B.A in Biology(2010) and M.A in Medical Sciences(2012) from Boston University. After working at Pathogenica, a biotech startup, for a year here in Boston but left to pursue his own startup and take his company to the next level. He’s now working full-time on Supshot, an app that allows people to get paid for the photos and videos they take on their smartphones.