Getting to Know UGC

By Jason Ankeny When Time Magazine named “You” its Person of the Year for 2006, in effect celebrating the emergence of user-generated content (UGC) across the Internet and the mobile web, it was…well, cute—a tribute to new-media community and collaboration paid by a bastion of old-media sensibilities. The reality of UGC’s scope, reach and power did not truly crystallize until April 2007, when a student at Virginia Tech University went on a murderous campus rampage that claimed the lives of 32 classmates: The most potent and vivid images of the tragedy were supplied by VT grad student Jamal Albarghouti, who captured the resulting chaos on his Nokia mobile handset and then submitted the video to CNN’s UGC aggregator website I-Report. Within minutes, the cable news outlet signed Albarghouti to an exclusive contract, broadcasting the footage across its myriad media platforms. Obstacles abound While a growing number of consumers are embracing the full potential of mobile technologies to create, share and experience multimedia content and interpersonal communications regardless of time or place, user-generated content remains in large part a revolution stuck in a holding pattern. Blame the same access and discovery issues hampering mobile content across the board—for example, recent market research studies suggest as much as 98 percent of all photos snapped via camera phones remain stuck on handsets forever, depriving carriers of a potentially enormous revenue opportunity. “User-generated content on mobile is still in the womb—that’s why companies are getting real traction and millions in VC funding for solving problems like getting pictures off the phone,” says Shawn Conahan, founder, chairman and CEO of mobile social networking applications developer Intercasting, whose Anthem platform enables carriers to mobilize web-based social networking and community sites. The problem facing operators: simplifying the experience of video sharing, blogging and other forms of personal expression so popular on the web onto the mobile platform in a context that makes sense given the restrictions of the handset screen and keypad. “We spend half of our resources on user interface issues, the other half on integration,” Conahan says. “Because the mobile versions of sites like Facebook and MySpace are WAP-based products, you have to register on their websites, download software and so on—it makes no sense at all. That kind of complexity retards adoption. The winning formula is simple access—for example, a photo that goes right from the phone to a MySpace page. It’s in the best interest of carriers to create a superior user experience.” According to Conahan, user-generated content is by definition an extension of the social networking platform. “It’s all just content—the prefix ‘user-generated’ implies it’s something other. For the moment, user-generated content and social networking are inextricably related—where else do you distribute your content if not on one of these sites? It’s all distribution via a series of overlapping personal networks.” Revenue potential is great What is unique about UGC from an operator standpoint is that the revenue opportunity is not the content itself so much as it is the premium messaging that inevitably follows as users comment on and share that content, in essence adhering to social networking principles. “Messaging is not monetized on the PC platform—flip the online user-generated content model upside down, and you’ve got the mobile model,” Conahan says. “Every SMS makes money, but views and content don’t make money. Of course, without content there in the first place, there’s nothing for consumers to react to. The nucleus is still the user-generated content, but it’s monetized indirectly.” But Conahan points out additional revenue opportunities beyond messaging. “We view social networking as a communications construct, and we’ve learned that all social networking has 12 things in common: each site has a photo gallery, a user profile, a comments section, a blog, a friends list, and so forth,” he says. “With mobile, you’ve got the tool to not only represent social networking as a construct, but to add functionality on top of it. For example, all of the song links on MySpace could be tagged and replaced with ringtone links that could be integrated with any operator music store. The key is providing the user with more mobile-relevant content.” Conahan will speak more about the challenges of user-generated content during Thursday’s session, “User Generated Content and the Future of Mobile Media.” The session will take place at 2:30 p.m.