In today's WSJ, Lee Gomes has a witty and most appropriate cultural critique of the Web 2.0 fetish with user generated content. What he doesn't explain, however, is what is at the bottom of this madness.
There are two explanations. The first is ideological. Silicon Valley is currently infatuated with the democratizing aspects of the Web 2.0 revolution. In the eyes of the democratization ideologues, user generated content is anti elitist, it is citizen media. To utopians like Larry Lessig and Kevin Kelly, the emergence of a media in which the artist and the audience merge is a progressive milestone in world history.
The second explanation is economic. It isn't coincidental that the companies most benefiting from the explosion of user generated content -- the search engines, the content aggregators (once known as portals), the advertising syndication engines, the rich media authoring services -- will be the "media companies" of the future. Google, for example, the most illustrious of the Web 2.0 wave of companies, should be seen as the next Time Warner rather than the next Microsoft. Nor is it any coincidence that Terry Semel came from Hollywood to transform Yahoo from a portal into an entertainment company.
User generated content is free content. We (the people) are making it for them (the new media companies). Lee Gomes got paid by the Dow Jones company to write his column. I haven't been paid to write this -- in fact, I am paying both Six Apart for my blogging software and Comcast for my broadband connectivity. The only way that I can turn this content into cash is by selling advertisements. Enter Google and its turn-key ad service for want-to-be publishers like myself.
That's the simple economic truth behind the user generated content obsession. And it's why Silicon Valley is so exhilarated with the user generated content craze now sweeping America.