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What IS the value of UGC?

The past few weeks, I’ve been participating in a series of live twitter chats between a diversity of public media makers and thinkers. These chats have been happening on Monday nights at 8 pm ET using the hashtag #pubmedia. (Join us!).

Twitter probably isn’t the best way to have a group discussion of this sort, given the 140 character word limit. But there are positives: it is egalitarian, spotaneous, public and attributed. Plus, the “conversations” have been interesting. We’ve tweeted about investments in social media, asked who in public media is “getting it right,” how we might better collaborate with “like-minded” journalists and non-profits, etc.

This week’s Twitterbash about impact measurement was led by Jessica Clark, co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber. She is helping assess and evaluate the impact of MQ2 projects. During the chat, I raised this question:

I didn’t mean to sound harsh, I actually love user-generated content (UCG). Farting dogs and talking cats on YouTube aside, I believe that great stuff sprouts up from the grassroots. But I’m also a producer, committed to excellence, and it seems that UGC gets better with intervention, curation, informed news judgment. That’s why the best radio talk shows use call screeners and newsmagazine programs edit their commentaries. It’s about quality control. How many comments or videos do you have to digest before you find one that made the journey worth it?

For example, I love StoryCorps. It’s an inspirational project that reminds people that listening is an act of love, and brings families together to reflect on the quintessential moments of life. StoryCorps is a national treasure, a model of engagement that crosses boundaries of race, class, sexuality and geography. Over 50,000 people have participated in the powerfully uplifting experience of an intimate, meaningful conversation. All of the stories recorded are archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, creating a “People’s Oral History of the United States,” a tremendous gift to the generations. But very few of the interviews actually make it to the air. Technically, the StoryCorps broadcasts are user-generated content. But a producer listens, selects and edits them for broadcast, and that’s what guarantees they will be the tear-jerking, heart-warming, cathartic, viral-sharing driveway moments they are.

UGC is a big umbrella.

The easiest threshold for user participation has been photography, probably because so many people have cell phones with camera functions. MQ2 projects such as Mapping Main Street invited users to contribute content about the Main Streets in their communities. So far, only 6 people (producers included) have uploaded a total of 42 videos to their Vimeo group page, but 359 random people have shared 6207 photos on MMS’s flickr pool. That’s a lot of pictures.

Audio is a little tougher. Open Sound New Orleans is a mapping project that celebrates, preserves and echoes the culture of the Crescent City by inviting residents to upload snippets of sound (voices, ambience, music) to their interactive online map. Most of the audio isn’t broadcast quality, but it’s a work in progress, an ever-expanding sound portrait of the city in this moment in time.

UGC can be a lifesaver, two. The award-winning Ushahidi is a site where people can find critical information about conditions on the ground in the middle of a crisis. It’s a platform that blends crowd-sourcing and mapping, first used during political unrest in Kenya and most recently following the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

Here’s an example of UGC I’m excited about.Masterpiece Classic on PBS is airing The Diary of Anne Frank on April 11, 2010. As part of this special broadcast event, WGBH Labs has issued an Open Call, inviting viewers ages 13 and older to contribute their own 3-minute video or audio diaries about overcoming adversity or discrimination.

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“By writing in her diary, Anne Frank was empowered to express her thoughts and feelings about what was happening all around her. We’re challenging you to do the same,” reads the Open Call. WGBH isn’t promising to air what they catch in the UGC net, but some “portions of diaries in by March 8th may be selected for broadcast.”

Why is UGC important?

In a speech this week at the Transformation 2010 conference, Huffington Post creator Arianna Huffington said that “more video was uploaded to YouTube in the last two months than if the major networks had created original content every minute of every day since 1948.” According to Advertising Age, “she urged advertisers and media outlets to recognize that the abundance of user-generated content means content organizations need to step out of the center of the news universe and invite users into the news-gathering process.”

It’s a humbling reality in the Here Comes Everybody new world order. Despite the amount of dreck out there in cyberspace, I think the ultimate value of UGC is the engagement itself and the sense of community and connection that comes from the act of participation.

Following this week’s birthday of Dr. Seuss, I am reminded of the scene from Horton Hears a Who, in which the tiniest speck inhabits a universe of beings shouting, “We are here! We are here!” Not only are we here, but we have a voice, and something to say, something to add, something that might make a difference.

What are your favorite examples of meaningful, memorable UGC? Please share.