Author Archives: Harriet Bird

The y2p panel judges “Readers’ Tips” at The Sun

You might not think The Sun, with all its reliance on puns and tits, is the right kind of place for UGC. But hidden away in the dark corners of the website is the Readers’ Tips page, a brilliant example of all that UGC can be – good, bad, ugly and funny.

So the y2p team chose tips to explain what works and what doesn’t – you can click on the images to see an expanded view.

This perfectly exemplifies the Sun’s attitude – a bit cheeky and thoroughly down-to-earth. This is something that journalists would never have the inventiveness to come up with, and it’s a nice insight into the slightly peculiar lives that the readers lead. But I don’t think I’ll be taking their advice on this one…

This made me literally laugh out loud because 1) it sounds ridiculous 2) it’s the type of thing I would do and think is perfectly sensible and 3) I’m kicking myself I didn’t  think of it first. Don’t worry though, I’ll be doing it from now on. What I like about this page is that the postees aren’t afraid of sounding silly and the readers obviously like picking up the tips. Just remember to turn the straighteners off.

This is such a practical suggestion, the kind of which you’d only get from another punter who’s not trying to sell you anything. I can’t imagine DIY websites suggesting it. This UGC works for me, freely sharing information and not expecting anything in return.

This UGC is pants! These white-knickered buttocks could only appear on a website for the toosh-loving Sun. They’d be considered too bad taste for a more sober news platform, and they’re right. Secondly the suggestion is utterly useless – why would you stick your post-it note somewhere you can’t even see it, why not post on the fridge? I’ve got a feeling we’re witnessing the more exhibitionist UGC here – Karen seems confident enough about her bottom to want to show it off.

This typifies the best and worst of UGC. While there can be no doubt of the deterrent effect of a snake in one’s flowerbed, Roy’s effort lacks the key details which a professional journalist would give. For example, to say nothing of potential ethical conundrums, is the breed of snake a determining factor? Ought the snake to be on duty full time, or would the aroma of a part time snake be sufficient? Oughtn’t Roy to include a more expansive discussion of the necessary fencing arrangements round the flowerbed? In short, this tip is a clear indication of UGC’s questionable reliability.

UGC is about making your readers feel like they are a part of your publication and share in a community of readers. The value of the tips is not in the suggestions themselves, but the sharing process. I think it’s important that we see pictures of the readers and their families on the page. You might not bake your flapjacks in a bun tin, but it’s hard not to be touched by darling little Katie.


Does the Huffington Post exploit its bloggers?

HuffPo and “quality” journalism

image: Mike Licht

Hacks have long feared being replaced by upstart citizen journalists. Back in 2007 Darren Rowse of ProBlogger, described how journalists he met at a tech conference felt about UGC. He said a quarter were angry, typically thinking:

“I hate blogs and all forms of new media. They are low quality and have nothing to add of worth”

while another quarter thought:

“I’m worried that my industry is dying, I can’t get freelance work because publications are using free user generated content instead.”

Although Rowse does add that a good half were interested in incorporating UGC into their work, this half felt distinctly embattled.

Those fears must have abated this week following the news that The Huffington Post, under its new ownership by AOL, is only interested in employing professional journalists.

An article in TechCrunch on Wednesday reported that Peter Goodman, HuffPo’s  business and technology editor, only invited freelancers with qualifications and credentials to apply to become staff, not those without. He apparently justified the position saying:

“We can’t replace professional journalism with an ad hoc blogging arrangement….we don’t want to confuse professional journalists with bloggers.”

Yesterday’s interview by Dan Sabbagh in the Guardian with head AOL honcho Tim Armstrong and Arianna Huffington forces the point. Apparently Armstrong just doesn’t believe in UGC:

“I don’t think user-generated content is the way people live their lives.”

A biting irony for a man who has just bought a site built from the ground-up by bloggers, citizen journalists and user-generated content. AOL paid $315million for the Huffington Post, which at the time of sale employed only 183 paid journalists yet attracted nearly 25 million unique monthly visitors. Indeed, Sabbagh writes:

“Her [Huffington’s] success has contributed to something of a backlash from the small army of unpaid bloggers who contributed to HuffPost before the AOL deal and were rewarded with nothing.”

That small army ranks at around 6,000 unpaid bloggers. One of them, Mayhill Fowler, anticipated this move in September 2010 when she stopped writing for the site. She wrote to Roy Sekoff, HuffPo founding editor:

“I have this last year gone out and done actual reportage. I’m no longer going to do that for free. I’ve paid my dues in the citizen journalism department; I’m a journalist now… So if you can’t find a place for me doing some kind of paid reporting, it’s goodbye”

And goodbye it was. Fowler adds on her blog that Huffington “was milking me for everything she could get before letting me go”. And now her resentment is being felt by many more. Last Thursday the Newspaper Guild, a journalist union, called for HuffPo bloggers to go on strike over “the company’s practice of using unpaid labor” which they called “unprofessional and unethical”. The strike has won much support.

You're still going to need one of these image: nuklr.dave

For all the talk of citizen journalists stealing jobs, it looks like the tables are facing the other way. In an industry saturated by wannabes, media organisations are being strict about who they let in. Now it seems if you want a payslip, you’ll need a certificate first.


Opinion, experience and expertise: readers as agony aunts

The bossy yet benevolent agony aunt has been a regular feature on our pages since the early 1930s. It’s been a long time since Leonora Eyles suggested to jilted readers of Woman’s Own

‘… have you tried to find out if there was anything in you that caused him to be unfaithful? Forgive him – but be honest with yourself and see if you were at all to blame.’  Woman’s Own, 27 Oct 1944

Perhaps not what you’d call good advice, but then what qualifies an agony aunt to answer readers’ questions? Could anyone do it? The Times, The Independent and The Guardian let their readers respond. Here’s how.

The Times

Image: FaceMePLS

In a feature called Too Male to Talk reticent men pose their dilemmas to (mostly) female readers.

Here’s one example:
My wife keeps going out for walks with her mobile phone. I am worried she might be embarking on an affair. What should I do?

‘I take my mobile phone with me every afternoon when I am walking the dog. I am listening to live horse racing commentaries… Perhaps she is a gambling addict.’

‘Has your wife changed her image recently? Begun losing weight? Cut or coloured her hair?… If the answer to these questions is “yes” then yup, your wife is embarking on an affair.’

‘The fact that you are even asking the question suggests that perhaps there is more to this than just your wife going out with her phone for a walk… You might want to think about getting some counselling so that you can examine your feelings. Think carefully before you react — once you’ve accused her the trust is broken.’

The three responses suggest wildly different approaches. While the third is reasonably objective, the second seems jaded by a personal sob story. This lack of direction makes the column initially confusing, but I think we do get a sense of which answer we should trust.

The Independent

In Quandry questions about schooling are answered by Hilary Wilce, an educational journalist and by readers. Here’s an example:

We are worried that our teenagers watch a lot of violent and vulgar TV programmes. Will it harm them? What’s the evidence?

Wilce: In debating the recent Jonathan Ross debacle with my children and their friends I was struck by how little they seemed to feel the cruelty of what he and Russell Brand had done… Then, chillingly, came new research from King’s College, London, showing today’s 14-year-olds seem less clever and less able to think deeply about new ideas than their predecessors, and may have a diminishing capacity for empathy. Researchers hypothesised that screen culture must be partly to blame.

Readers’ advice:

Looking at the lines of ecstatic faces in the crowd in Chicago when Barack Obama was elected, I realised how few uplifting and hopeful messages these young people have ever been given. Their faces showed they were hungry for something different.

People should have more faith in teenagers – we’re not so easily led astray.

Wilce’s expertise is validated by the research she points us to, though it’s still propped up by personal experience. And I would like to see the evidence supporting the claim that 14 year olds “seem less clever”. The first reader gives un-evidenced conjecture but the second, as a teenager, speaks from a slight position of authority. We glimpse UGC’s potential to be informative, but don’t see it fully realised.

The Guardian

Image: wolfiewolf

In the Money blog readers’ questions are answered in the comments boxes, with little editorial control. Here’s a particularly effective case:

I am a widow in my seventies, living on a small income and with £6,000 savings. Should I buy a funeral plan with the money, or invest it in some other way?

Don’t worry about that; spend the money and enjoy yourself

If you haven’t had to organise a funeral then you will not understand what a relief it is to have had decisions… made for you by the person who has died. My mother was killed in an accident coming back from visiting my father in hospital; he died two weeks later. They had chosen and paid for their funerals in advance … amid all the grief and trauma of their deaths not having to decide how much we should spend on things like coffins and cars… was such a relief.

We both sell these plans (rarely) and help with probate… I believe Funeral Plans will (soon) not be counted as assets for the assessment of Care Fees whereas savings will – so £3000 in a funeral plan is worth £3000 to the family, whereas £3000 in a deposit account could well be worth £3000 to the local council.

Here we have all shades of the rainbow. The first response is quickly ignored but the second – heartfelt, moving and relevant – is compelling. The third offers knowledge and insight and even comes with a disclaimer. And both trustworthy responses suggest the same course of action. Not all questions on the blog are answered this well, but this shows how good UGC can be.


The three camps of opinion, personal experience and expertise are incrementally both more desirable and harder to achieve. And we can assess UGC on how many of these it has. The worst respondent has only opinion (e.g. the second respondent in The Times and the first in The Guardian) and the best has all three (e.g. Hilary Wilce and the third respondent in The Guardian). Professional agony aunts should have all three.

Anyone contributing UGC has an opinion to share; some of those have personal experience; some of those are experts. Not all experts have personal experience.

What is perhaps surprising is how easy it is to separate the good advice from the bad.  We are able to quickly ascertain which of these characteristics the response has and judge it accordingly. The problem is, you never know which advice the questioner will take.


A SXSW panel on UGC and censorship, via twitter

We couldn’t make it to SXSW in Texas because we’re stuck in rainy old Blighty but when  we heard about a panel debate called The User Generated Revolution, Social Media Overcoming Censorship we followed the tweets compulsively. And we thought we should make it easy for you to do the same. Below are some hand-picked reactions from Josh Halliday of The Guardian, Joanna Geary of the Times, Jonathan Cohen, founder of Support Local Grow Together in Austin and panellist Sanam Dolatshahi.

Lots of comments of the importance of verifying the accuracy of UGC news

So it seems that

Those priorities winning support!/JRCohen/status/46956290173440000

But it’s not all that easy…

Especially given that

And important because

And finally, a perhaps unexpected insight that…

Here’s the background:

The panel featured 4 BBC journos, Abi Sawyer from BBC World Service Future Media, Julian Siddle, creator of the tech programme Digital Lifestyles, Raymond Li, head of BBC Chinese and Sanam Dolatshahi, presenter and producer on BBC Persia’s Interactive program Nowbat-e Shoma (Your Turn). Here’s the blurb for the event:

Social media is becoming an essential tool for activists in repressive societies. In 2009 the Iranian government expelled foreign media and jammed international broadcasts. For the BBC’s Persian TV emails, video, Twitter and Facebook postings from Iran became the main source of news. Groundbreaking stories were complied using material from viewers and listeners – often sent in with great personal risk to themselves. In the Xingjian province of China government censors were defeated by a tweet – news of a popular uprising amongst the regions Uighurs in this remote province leaked out to the world’s media. A military clampdown ensued, but not before foreign media got to the region and heard the Uighurs grievances. Conversely the oppressors use the same social media tools, partly to spread disinformation about their activities, but also in the cases of groups such as the Taliban, to push their beliefs. The panel will discuss how censorship and suppression is made more and more difficult to hide by the social media revolution, and the impact of this for traditional media organisations.


User-generated photo-journalism and how to build a lasting network

Tackable is the latest UGC smart phone app straight out of Silicon valley and the team behind it are being very smart about how they build their network. Your2pence spoke to its Chief Marketing Officer Luke Stangel, to learn a thing or two about growing UGC communities.

Luke Stangel

Tackable aims to be an essential journalistic tool and a fun destination. Journalists and publications have profiles from where they create photo “assignments” requesting images of news events. Users respond by uploading those images, but they can also post random photos of interesting things they’ve come across. They get to see their pictures in print and earn points as they collate photos on their profile. Users and journalists subscribe to each other’s feeds to keep on top of it all.

1.) Start small

Tackable’s main app is still in beta but will be ready in the next few weeks, in time for them to launch across  newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In the meantime they’ve made a dedicated app for The Spartan Daily, a student publication at San Jose StateUniversity, as a testing ground.

The Spartan Daily app launched on the 24th January and now has 441 downloads and 111 active users. Although its not a huge number, Luke’s happy because ‘engagement in the name of the game’ and they’ve ‘developed a base of students who come back and check in day after day’. Spartan Daily has taught them a lot about how to engage with users and its an exercise worth studying.

2.) Give people reasons to join

Luke says this success is because people are encouraged to participate in 2 different ways. Although ‘everything you do on Tackable earns you points’ completing an official assignment gets you more than uploading a random picture. And when points add up, they turn into vouchers for things like tacos around campus.

"Snow Day" assignment asked students to "Check out this amazing event"

For some the drive to participate is reward-driven and the assignments are like ‘a real-world scavenger hunt’. These users make up the body of Tackable’s network so far. But there are others who are ‘motivated by social rewards’ – ‘when they witness something happening in front of them’ they think ‘”This is really cool. I want to share this right now”‘. Luke reckons the number of social users will increase as the platform develops.

3.) Know who, and how many

These motivations work well enough for the students, but will they stick in the real world where users have less free time, are less tech-savvy and live in a less defined community? Luke says that while the target audience is under-35, smartphone-owners used to social media, they want it to appeal to all ages. But it’s probably that core of young users that will get the ball rolling and create the framework for others to develop.

And he’s also being very careful with numbers. ‘Most user-generated content platforms operate on some variation of the 90/8/2 principle’ he says. ‘90% of your user base will consume media and do nothing else, 8% will get lightly involved with that media, either by commenting on it or sharing it elsewhere, and 2% will create the bulk of your content’.

He says a city of a million would be ‘well-served’ by a Tackable base of 1,000 active participants. But of course ‘at some point, you have to let go and let the community take over’.

4.) Make it relevant

It’s this hyperlocal approach that they reckon will win through. Tackable distinguishes itself from other UGC news sites like MaYoMo and iReport by being ‘bottom up’ – catching the smallest stories first and building up from there. Much of the pull for the user is the sense of ownership and belonging that comes with the “take photos for your local newspaper” impetus.

And that’s evidenced on the  Spartan Daily “tackboard” where you can see photos of sports events, protests and just kids around campus. Most of the material is ‘totally uninteresting to anyone living outside Silicon Valley, but intensely interesting to the students on the platform’.

Responses to the Snow Assignment

This is the appeal for publications too. As well as helping reporters gather information about what’s going on in their patch, Tackable will help publications directly relate to their readership. Users might not create the news agenda, but they do facilitate it, helping reporters on their ‘first draft’ of a story.

5.) Expand when you’re ready

In Tackable’s pitch video, Luke says they aim to eventually have global reach. But can a hyperlocal model such as this stretch that far? For the moment Luke is trying to create a ‘sustainable model that works on a small scale’ but is confident that if they can get that right, it can ‘go viral’ in good time.

We’ve got our eye on Tackable; you should do too.


Mods and what journalism can learn from videogames

It’s the internet that really makes UGC happen. But the pace of change in the online world is so fast that it leaves most of us wondering what on earth will happen next. One place we can look for answers is the path taken by that nerdiest of pastimes, videogames.


Image: ehud42

Gamers have been doing UGC for years. The heyday of the ‘bedroom coder’ was in the 1980’s providing seminal experiences for a generation of gamers whose interest lay not just in consuming but creating. Modifications, or ‘mods’ are archetypal UGC. They’re user-created extensions to already existing games which use the game ‘engine’ (the underlying code). They range from unofficial patches and bug-fixes through to additional content or even entirely new games, known as total conversions.

By allowing people to make their own experiences and speak to an audience at times frustrated by the mass market approach of commercial developers, mods have developed into a vibrant niche. It’s an examplary UGC network and a big one, with more than 10,000 mods in existence.

Developers soon realised that mods are a good thing and provided access to their game engines and tools. Today, a casually interested gamer can easily play

Usercreated is a popular mod site

around, download new maps (game environments) or check out any other mods through dedicated websites. Almost anyone who buys a game (at least on the PC) can extend their enjoyment through UGC.

Difference and art

Without the restrictions of commercialisation, mods allow for real experimentation. Dear Esther, originally released as a mod for Half-Life, was created as a research project at the University of Portsmouth to explore storytelling beyond the traditional conflicts of shooting aliens. It’s now being released as a commercial indie.

Commercialisation and the future

Valve (makers of Half-Life, Counter Strike, Left 4 Dead and Portal) are the

Team Fortress Image: Bryan Sutter

masters at making the most of UGC. In 2001 they brought in the makers of an old mod called Team Fortress and released it for free. That might seem like a good way to lose money fast, but a community soon developed and it quickly garnered a host of UGC maps. Interest grew and the buzz for the free mod sustained sales of Valve’s other games.

Valve now incorporate user generated additions to such an extent that they’ve made a marketplace where players buy them. Valve approves and controls the sale of all the items and keeps 75% of the money. They profit from opening to door to user-participation.


Clearly ideas like Creative Commons and Open Source sites are a step in this direction in the wider online world. But there are concrete reasons why mods have been so successful.

  • a reasonably niche and defined area
  • die-hard fans
  • easy to use tools and distribution channels
  • an active community where members talk to each-other

There are plenty of journalistic areas that would be  fertile ground for this kind of UGC. Trade publications with narrow specialisms, or fan-based journalism like celebrity or political blogging, are just a few.


Significantly, there is a steady flow of modders into full-time employment with game developers. But should this be be the route bloggers take into paid journalism? The idea is attractive, but the problem is money. Gaming is a bigger industry than films these days, and there’s cash to spend, unlike in journalism. With editors tightening their belts, it’s unlikely we’ll see much hiring any time soon.