It’s about context not content

The Havas Media Lab just put out a paper on user-generated context — a significant tweak of the new media mantra about user-generated content (meaning all those videos, blogs, and podcasts that the people formally known as the audience are now making for themselves). The authors argue that most of this new content is really not new information but rather commentary upon professionally-developed content. All those enterprises that are trying to capitalize on the explosion of new user-generated content are in danger because they mistake context for content. And more importantly they don’t see the value that people are providing by their context making. “We discuss the mistaken strategic assumptions behind the idea of user-generated content, and why it’s preventing the media industry from exploring new paths to business model reinvention.”

Most user-generated content, is, in fact, context. The bulk of what connected consumers create isn’t content: its context—information about the value of goods and services. Context, in turn, lets connected consumers search and navigate the exploding universe of media more effectively, and massively amplifies incentives for quality.

The report is a bit thin and not very clear about what it means by context. But I’m happy to leap in and provide some ideas and put their work in a wholly different context. Let someone else worry about business models (but please someone do so) — let’s think about political models.

If we replace the report’s economic language with political language, it gets pretty powerful. Instead of consumers and users, think of citizens, people, political agents, and the public. Then the report becomes good for understanding the political and democratic dimensions of new media.

* citizen media and professional media can complement each other; they needn’t be seen as competitors

* individual citizens don’t and can’t create context; communities do and that’s why new media is so powerful; it let’s the public interconnect:

A naked rating, ranking, or review on its own has little value or meaning—but millions of them, in the aggregate, weave complex and multilayered webs of meaning. Put another way, context is the result of the complex, multilevel, network effects that happen when millions of [people] connect.

* context isn’t really “generated” but is that is “deeply culturally specific and socially bound”

The report gives a nice language for understanding something that’s been apparent for a long time. Professional players feel under siege, but not because the audience has morphed into producers but because the public finally has a way of articulating the sense it has and can make about “all the news that’s fit to print.” No longer are the old, big players the arbiter of what’s news and what’s entertaining; the people themselves can loudly say whether what’s on the news or in other media is actually meaningful and useful for their lives.

If this kind of phenomenon had been going so strong back in the 1990s, the public journalism movement would have been on a whole new footing. But that’s a thought for another post.