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A brief history of the future of online content

Does user-generated content spell the end of the digital sub-editor? Alan Coates takes a look at who really controls the content you read.

In 1998, American Stephen Glass was a star journalist for The New Republic. He famously penned ‘scoops’ like Hack Heaven, which told how blue-chip companies were set against each other bidding to recruit the latest young hackers to work for them, instead of against them.

As famous as his articles were, Glass is probably best remembered for the fact that the articles he submitted were entirely fabricated. The process of checking articles against the author’s notes were, it turned out, only as accurate as the notes.

With user-generated content on the rise, the lessons to be learned here are the same. “Who is checking the checker?”

A brief history of digital content ownership

The internet was born in the academic institutes of CERN, where it was developed by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee.

The model of sharing ideas and findings between labs and universities was the crucible in which the World Wide Web was forged. Peer reviewing was a natural part of the sharing process – uploading and sending content to other academics for their feedback.

As websites became more complex, the guardians of the content became the so-called Webmasters. However, Webmasters were far more focused on making sure the content looked good on the page than whether it was factually correct or well-written. The quality of content, therefore, started to become secondary to the flashing advertisements for online poker or eBay.

As the internet grew and grew, sites like Wikipedia soon started to sell themselves as the first port of call for those seeking the facts. However, as users are able to edit articles themselves in real-time, it’s not always easy to tell fact from fiction.

Who needs a digital editor?

Then came the parting of the ways for web editing.

News, e-commerce and professional websites soon realised that digital editors were just as necessary for them as print editors were to newspapers and magazines. Journalists started submitting stories, rather than simply uploading them. The owners of the websites suddenly became aware of the positive impact that good content was having on their sales conversions, SEO and loyalty to their sites.

In other places, however, the web became far less ‘managed’. The rise in message boards, web logs (blogs) and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) were flooding the net with millions and millions of pages of user generated opinion, hearsay and flaming.

User generated content

It used to be that, to avoid the rubbish on the internet, you simply chose not to log on to certain sites. These days, thanks to user generated content, the great is mixed with the terrible.

For video, you have www.youtube.com. For news, why not upload your own to https://witness.theguardian.com/? For gaming, you can live-stream your current run in Grand Theft Auto 5 to www.twitch.tv. And for anything else you’ve got a potential audience of a billion on www.facebook.com.

The future of online content

Every minute, users create 31.25 million Facebook messages, upload 300 hours of YouTube video and post 48,611 photos to Instagram.

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, famously stated that “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003.”

With numbers like this, it means there is – and always will be – far more content being created than could be ever be edited.

The rise and rise of the digital editor

So where does this leave us as communicators? Well, it leaves us caught in the midst of two extremes: huge amounts of user-generated content, and a smaller amount of bespoke, edited content.

Not only should the new wave of digital editors look to include both, but they should also measure the impact of their content on a daily basis. By doing this we can react to what our audiences are telling us so we can use and re-use content for maximum reach.

As Dr. H. James Harrington, CEO of the Harrington Institute says:

“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

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