Is UGC ready to retire? Hardly.
User-generated content is here to stay.
That said, Helen Edwards recently used Trip Advisor as an example of how user-generated content on the whole is faced by a looming decline. While I absolutely acknowledge the user-generated media issues she brings up, these developments can hardly be seen as the harbinger of doom. Allow me to go through them point by point:
Edwards asserts that UGC sites will “begin to sag under the weight of their own banality” as offhand comments overwhelm what was once useful information. Thankfully, this quality issue facing UGC has already been solved thanks to comment ratings and moderation (for an example, see how YouTube, which is famous for profoundly idiotic comments, floats the highest rated comments to the top based on user ratings)
Edwards also points out that dated content may continue to stick around, making readers less likely to trust it and brands doomed to endure outdated and unfair reviews. Again, many sites have resolved this issue, giving precedence to new content.
Referring to a 2012 academic study indicating that people making purchase decisions look for advice from people they have some reason to value, Edwards suggests that UGC sites lack value because the content is from complete strangers. While Facebook’s social graph and Google+ have actually ameliorated this issue, enabling us to see which of our friends have endorsed something or written a review, I also feel the need to point out that we now live in an age in which we are learning to trust the collective intelligence of the crowd. If you disagree, please say hello to my pal Wikipedia and let me know if you want to stick to your guns.
Edwards sees hotels’ embrace of travel sites like Trip Advisor as a bad thing, suggesting that instead of pandering customers and asking for five star ratings, “smart managers see the looming crisis and disengage with the site, preferring to focus energies on nurturing guest loyalty.”
I see the opposite. Smart managers always have nurtured guest loyalty- by asking for reviews as well, they’re only making themselves accountable and purposefully engaging in a dialogue with content creators instead of burying their heads in the sand and hoping that some day, miraculously, people will stop searching for and posting reviews. It would be a very bad strategic decision to ignore travel ratings sites entirely, especially considering that a visit to TripAdvisor was associated with longer stays, more activities, and bookings worth £1.7 billion in tourism spending in the UK- that’s 2.2% of total tourism spending in 2011.
I agree with Edwards that expertise and editing shall come to be valued more, but to suggest that that takes UGC out of the picture is both elitist and preposterous. We are all experts at something (and does not staying in a hotel make one an expert at… staying at that hotel?). What’s more, the inherent design of UGC sites is moving toward one that encourages peer review and editing. As it happens, you can have your cake and eat it, too. UGC can have incredibly high quality, and in countless cases, it already does.
In short, asserting that these issues indicate that user-generated content is on its way out is like saying in the midst of the Industrial Revolution that trains are never going to catch on because they are fast and dangerous and there are too many different rail gauges, or like saying in the early ‘90s that the Internet is never going to work because there will eventually be too many websites and nobody will be able to separate the good sites from the bad.
Yes, UGC has some issues to overcome. All new developments do. It’s simply a process of evolution. I just want to make sure that we don’t mistake evolution for obliteration.