User-generated content, also known as UGC, refers to content that is created and shared by users of platforms and products, including social media and news websites. UGC may come in an array of forms and formats, such as text, photos, videos, audio, and memes.
The proliferation of networked devices and interactive platforms has led to an explosion of user-generated content. Many of today’s most popular service-oriented websites are based in whole or in part on user-generated content. For example, TikTok’s content base is largely comprised of user-submitted videos; Yelp revolves around citizen reviews of businesses; and Rotten Tomatoes features movie ratings from regular people alongside reviews by professional film critics. Even major platforms like Facebook and Twitter could not exist without user-generated content.
The explosion of user-generated content has led some scholars to argue for an in-between category of individuals called produsers, who readily interchange from being the users of a product to producers of product-related content. For example, highly motivated fans of the TV show My Little Pony can create a wiki-based community around the show that details each pony’s backstory and offers original analyses of the show’s main themes. As such, scholars have argued, the distinction between producers and audiences has been further blurred in recent decades.
Although user-generated content is common across all digital domains, it plays a unique role in the context of online journalism. Journalists utilize user-generated content to complement, augment, inform, and even provide the basis for their own journalism. Meanwhile, audiences use it to make their own voices heard and to engage in the process of reporting and sharing information.
To illustrate the evolution of user-generated content within the context of journalism, consider the letter to the editor. Before the internet, such letters were the most common means for audiences to get in touch with news producers. People wrote letters to the editor reflecting on the news, sharing their own stories, complaining about specific types or topics of coverage, asking questions for clarification, and sharing news tips with journalists. Some of those letters would then go on to appear in the newspaper — typically in a designated area within the Opinion section — making them an early form of user-generated content. However, those letters were limited to text as a medium, depended on the publisher’s schedule for publishing letters (and willingness to publish a letter), were generally subject to an editor’s alterations (they would often abridge the letters), and were frequently in competition with other letters about the same topic. In short, space constraints meant that only a tiny fraction of letters were ever published and rarely on the letter-writer’s terms.
In contrast, today’s news websites, apps, and social media pages regularly solicit and share user-generated content alongside journalist-produced news. Journalistic slideshows of sporting events (e.g., a local high school football game) frequently feature fan-taken photos. Comments sections at the bottom of articles invite readers to share their thoughts about (or responses to) news. Journalistic outlets’ Facebook accounts ask readers for their worst weather-related disaster stories. Hashtags allow Twitter and Instagram users to connect their own stories and images to coverage of a topic appearing on news websites through different widgets on the page. Some news websites even allow community members to upload events to be included in the outlet’s online calendar page. And, some news aggregation websites focus largely on user-generated content, as with sports news portals that source from popular fan blogs.
As such, some journalistic outlets have turned to user-generated content as a way to advance their objective of providing the public a forum for engaging with civic information and to make journalism more participatory. Others have turned to UGC primarily as a cheap source of content or to increase the time users spend on the website. In short, the extent of the use of user-generated content, and the ways in which UGC are incorporated into news products, does vary widely across outlets, but the industry as a whole makes use of a lot more user-generated content today than in prior decades.
There are many reasons why user-generated content is valuable for journalistic outlets. At an ideological level, it can be a way to give news audiences a voice in the coverage and dissemination of information, and engage them with the news and the process of reporting it. For example, CNN’s iReport was an early attempt by a journalistic outlet to create a digital platform designed to help audiences easily share their own video-based citizen journalism.
At an economic level, research suggests that creators of user-generated content tend to become more active and loyal members of the spaces they contribute to (e.g., an online community or news website). That engagement and loyalty can help generate positive financial outcomes as well, since such users may visit more frequently and feel even more motivated to pay a subscription fee or make a donation. Moreover, user-generated content can be a free alternative to professionally produced content (e.g., fan photos from a game that replace a photojournalist’s work) or inexpensive filler (e.g., free opinion columns or a replacement for person-on-the-street interviews).
However, user-generated content also presents journalistic outlets with some challenges. It has the potential to blur the traditional boundaries of journalism by elevating the work of non-professional actors who aren’t trained in the professional norms and ethical standards of journalism. For example, user-generated photos or embedded social media posts are usually clearly distinguished as such by credit lines and other signals that make clear that the author of the work is not a journalist. However, research has shown that audiences often do not meaningfully distinguish messages produced by different authors (who may employ different standards). That is, while audiences can accurately identify that a news story and a tweet embedded within it were produced by different people, they often muddle the messages together.
This can become especially problematic when it comes to forum-style user-generated content appearing alongside news products (e.g., comments under an online news story). Such content may feature personal opinions and stories, many of which are much more overtly biased than journalistic standards allow. They may also include misinformation and disinformation, as well as deeply unprofessional elements, such as insults or curse words. Journalistic outlets therefore have an ethical duty to engage in some form of content policing. This can be both morally problematic (e.g., determining what kind and amount of moderation is appropriate) and economically challenging (e.g., having to hire a team of moderators). It can also be legally problematic if a journalist excerpts user-generated content that is defamatory without engaging in basic fact-checking measures.
Finally, journalistic outlets must increasingly cope with the fact that user-generated content and online discussions about news are increasingly being produced or taking place on platforms outside their own. Put another way, while letters to the editor were previously sent to the journalistic outlet (giving them control over if and how to use that content) more of today’s engagement is occurring on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (not only resulting in less journalistic control over the content but increasing their dependency on third-party platforms). Thus, in a way, professional journalistic work is becoming a content subsidy of its own for discourses that largely take place on forums outside the outlet’s own.
User-generated content refers to content that is created and shared by users of platforms and products. It can include text, photos, videos, audio files, memes, and other types of content.
Journalistic outlets are not just destinations for consuming news. They have become platforms for user engagement and interaction with news. However, that engagement is increasingly occurring on other platforms.
Creators of user-generated content tend to become more active members of the online communities they contribute to and become more engaged with those sites. There is thus an economic incentive for creating opportunities for users to engage and produce content.
User-generated content has blurred some of the boundaries of journalism and creates challenges for professional journalistic outlets.