Summary:

The line between content creators and consumers doesn’t exist on the internet anymore. If you want to boost user participation, the key is better design.

benhuh

One of the more persistent topics of debate for content sites is how we define creators versus consumers. But that argument is no longer relevant and completely misses the point of today’s reality. The line between creators and consumers simply doesn’t exist online anymore.

Consider a few physical world examples: Kickstarter broke down the barrier between designers and customers. eBay long ago broke the barrier between sellers and buyers. Lyft? Chauffeurs and riders. Think that only simple tasks can be blurred? The open-source movement tore down the wall between developers and users. Local Motors is a car company that’s blurring the line between carmakers and car buyers.

The list goes on and on, but the point is that the only reason some sites still have a group of people who “create” and some who “consume” is a platform-imposed constraint in system design (and perhaps social norms).

Call it the “sharing economy” or “marketplace creation” but the lesson businesses have to grasp is that the artificial barriers between customers, suppliers, and even employees are there to be broken. The key is to understand that every user wants to participate in their own way, if the social norms and system dynamics are right. Change that system and the expectations, and sites can watch user-creation and participation go through the roof.

This is the new world of participatory culture – an Inclusive Community.

Breaking down the power rule

In the Wikipedia community, it is estimated that only 0.02-0.03% of users actually contribute content (http://www.quora.com/Wikipedia/What-percentage-of-Wikipedia-users-actively-contribute-How-many-contributors-does-Wikipedia-have). And at my company, Cheezburger, we rely almost exclusively on user-generated content (UGC) to power our business. In fact, we receive more than 15,000 submissions each day thanks to our meme-building and remixing tools, and it’s easy to find a picture that’s been remixed hundreds of times. Yet a relatively small percentage of our users account for the vast majority of this activity. So when discussing users there’s a natural tendency to segment them into two neat and opposed groups: creators or consumers.

But I’ve come to realize that framing it that way is completely wrong (and possibly dangerous).

Facebook. Snapchat. Foursquare. Instagram. Path. These networks are great examples of “participation required” networks. While it’s certainly possible to use these platforms without adding your own content, there’s no doubt that they utterly blow away the accepted wisdom of the 1 percent creator rule that guides the assumptions behind most sites. (I make no judgment on the quality or value of the content that’s created by these users. Often, when it comes to shareable and mass popular content, the power law still firmly applies.)

Redefining what it means to create

At Cheezburger, and with startups I’ve encountered, we’ve come to a new understanding of how users perceive their “creatorship.” It can be separated into three separate behaviors, which I call the Creation Triptych.

  1. I made it, therefore I created it.
  2. I remixed/modified it, therefore I created it.
  3. I collected/curated it, therefore I created it.

The first example is the one that we usually associate with creation, but communities on Cheezburger, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other content and community-driven sites have helped legitimize the value of curation and remixing as a part of the creation spectrum. In the open-source community, you don’t have to check in code to be a part.

Someone who write up bugs has a valuable role, just as the user who installed the software and helps spread the word does, too. And on a platform like YouTube, which focuses tremendous attention on original content, searching for compilation videos turns up more than 1.2 million results (and one couldn’t even count the millions of users who create playlists). Ironically, the most potentially inclusive system of creation in YouTube may be the comments, though for a very long time, it was a cesspool of hate and spam.

Inclusion and a level playing field

I firmly believe that a culture based on participation and inclusion is superior to one that is based on consumption. The value of an Inclusive Community then isn’t just access to content, but also the promise of a level playing field for users – one, which in turn, attracts more participants.

The Creation Triptych is simply a recognition of the value of collaboration for users – that the person who tweaks or remixes or curates or discovers is a vital part of “the creation.” Crucially, all the behaviors in the Creation Triptych add value to the Inclusive Community, and the needs of all three “creation” activities must be met for user-generated communities to thrive.

The usual debates over who is a creator and who is a consumer should no longer center around a static idea of a person in the form of a caricature, but on crafting a system design and unlocking the different facets of a multi-faceted person. Thinking about people as complex individuals who sometimes create and often consume is a more realistic and holistic approach to understanding them. It helps us focus on designing features that impact a user’s behavior, unlocking their expressive and creative desire.

The reason we have a separation between creators and consumers on our platforms and communities is because of us, not them.

Ben Huh is founder and CEO of Cheezburger, a network of 50 user-generated content sites that garner 375 million views per month. Follow him on Twitter @benhuh.

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