The Downside of User-generated Content

It may not be the nicest-sounding phrase, but “user-generated content” has come to be the term we use for everything from Flickr photos and YouTube videos to blog comments, Twitter posts and reviews on Yelp or Amazon. Building a business that relies on content from your users sounds like a great idea, and in many cases has turned out to be exactly that — it’s usually cheaper than professionally produced content, for one thing (depending on what costs you include, of course). And many users care more deeply about the content they generate themselves than they do about the stuff that comes from the pros, which means deeper levels of engagement.

The problem with user-generated content, however, is the loss of control it involves. We’ve seen it play out in a hundred different ways, virtually everywhere that digital content appears, from the fight many news outlets are having over blog comments (which I wrote about on my personal blog this past weekend) to the issues that YouTube has had with repeated uploading of copyright-infringing videos. How do you get your users to generate the kind of content you want them to produce instead of the kind they want to produce?

Two recent examples of the downside of user-generated content come from Amazon and Yelp. The latter has been hit by repeated lawsuits from businesses alleging that negative reviews of their companies or retail outlets appeared after they turned down an offer from Yelp to advertise with the service. Yelp’s response, in part, has been that users post negative reviews for their own reasons, and that this is simply a function of how the service works (the Yelp blog has an official response to the lawsuits).

Likewise, Amazon has come under criticism recently for reviews of books that appear to have been posted by users who didn’t even read the book in question. As prominent investment writer and market strategist Barry Ritholtz described in a recent blog post, negative reviews of Michael Lewis’s latest book appeared before the book was even available on the market. “Considering the 1 star ratings/complaints about the Kindle edition were posted BEFORE THE BOOK was even released, they are utterly absurd,” he wrote. “Amazon needs to step up and delete these non-reviews of books. At the very least, they should not count in the book’s star ratings.”

In the Lewis case, the negative reviews appeared to be aimed at the publisher of the book, as retaliation for the fact that the book wasn’t released in digital format for the Kindle at the same time as the hardcover version. Ritholtz and other observers say these types of reviews routinely occur. They don’t seem to have any real purpose apart from simply registering a protest, since (as Ritholz points out) the behavior they’re criticizing is that of the publisher, not the author (though it’s the author who is harmed by a negative review).

The loss of control involved with user-generated content has its humorous side as well, of course, something that is best illustrated by another popular Amazon phenomenon: namely, the bizarrely hilarious comments that seem to spring to life on the most prosaic product reviews, including a cheesy T-shirt with a picture of three wolves on it (“unfortunately I already had this exact picture tattooed on my chest, but this shirt is very useful in colder weather”) and a jug of Tuscan Whole Milk (“I always find it important to taste milk using high-quality stemware — this is milk deserving of something better than a Flintstones plastic tumbler”).

For companies like Amazon and Yelp (and Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and plenty of others), user-generated content has created the mother of all catch-22s: It causes them untold amounts of misery and headaches on a daily basis, and yet without those users and the content they produce, many of these companies would be severely diminished — and in some cases wouldn’t exist at all. For better or worse, they are married to their users, and divorce is not an option.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user James Cridland

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

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