Digital Essays: The social space

With more people than ever producing and sharing content through online social networks, the line between content creator and consumer is fading.

The Infinite Monkey Theorem states that, given infinite time (and bananas), a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard will almost surely, eventually, type every book in France's Bibliotheque Nationale de France. In the restatement of the theorem most popular among English speakers, the monkeys eventually type out the collected works of William Shakespeare.

As few of us have got until infinity to prove the theory, maybe we should give the monkeys a helping hand.

Let us switch all those typewriters with brand-spanking new Macbook Pros, replace monkeys with people and connect them to each other via the internet.

Obviously, there will still be a lot of dross created, but every now and again a work of genius will emerge. As groups collaborate with one another across social networks, leave signposts through bookmarks or tags, and distribute their work efficiently through peer-to-peer software, they might even start to get quite a lot done.

The remarkable success of YouTube is an excellent example of user-generated entertainment that (while not Shakespeare) is reportedly streaming 30 million videos a day. Of course, critics of user-generated content say the majority of videos on YouTube are of particularly low quality (those pesky monkeys). Aside from the fact that much of the lower-quality footage is no worse than the space-filling programming of non-primetime cable TV, there are signs the quality of this online content may be about to rise.

Newer competitors to YouTube are incorporating revenue-share business models, to incentivise the volume and (more importantly) the creative quality of video uploads. For example, Revver gives the person who submits the video a 50 per cent share in the revenue generated by advertising.

Each video has an ad tagged to the end of it. If a viewer clicks on it, the video generates ad revenue. This works even if you e-mail it to someone else, or put it up on another site such as YouTube or del.icio.us. In fact, a site that posts or links to your video will get 20 per cent of the income and the rest is split equally between you and Revver.

These new revenue models hint at a future where creative artists aspire to make money from advertising. In effect, revenue-sharing video sites could become the end and not the means, with opportunities for a music artist to make as much money from advertising as from being signed to a label. Now the monkeys are getting paid!

People are also making money from citizen journalism, another form of user-generated content. With an average of 700,000 visitors per day, the popularity of OhMyNews in Korea is rising. The entirely user-generated news service has a "tip jar", so readers can pledge money to the best stories. One particular story netted £20,000 in just under a week for one contributing citizen journalist. Is it any wonder the quality of writing on such sites keeps rising and correspondingly attracting more readers (and contributors)?

It would seem "media" by its own definition is slowly disappearing. There is becoming less need for an intermediary between the content providers and the content consumers.

In fact, they are quickly becoming one and the same thing, with content being distributed among social networks seamlessly and collaboratively.

People are now doing much more than simply spreading word of mouth or passing on a viral e-mail. Now, collaborative peer-to-peer software has proven beyond doubt to be the most efficient way of distributing file-based content such as music and films. BitTorrent software (which, amazingly, is now responsible for 35 per cent of all internet traffic) is an excellent example - it actually works faster the more people use it.

While the music and film industries have, by and large, tried to ignore the technology, there are signs of change. In the past month, Warner Brothers announced it will make hundreds of movies and TV shows available for purchase over the internet using BitTorrent software. Kevin Tsujihara, the president of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Group, says: "If we can convert 5, 10 or 15 per cent of the illegal downloaders into consumers of our product, that is significant."

So, if people are becoming the new media, what is the opportunity for brands? In last year's Campaign Digital Essays, I talked about co-creation and the need for brands to embrace participation from consumers. Much has since been written on the subject in the past 12 months. There have also been several good examples of brands putting it into action. However, what is really interesting is the extent to which this creativity is happening outside of traditional media channels. In fact, many co-created experiences are not even taking place within branded environments.

Unfortunately, to take advantage of people as content creators, media owners, distributors and brands need to learn to let their assets go.

Social networks provide a fertile breeding ground for collaborative creativity.

However, you cannot just wade in there and ask: "Who wants to have fun?" MySpace users are looking for content to place in their pages to make them look good and to attract visitors (and friends). Most of these users are now quite adept at turning their hand to a bit of HTML to make their sites look frighteningly garish. They are even adding videos, music and animation to their pages. Another case of people expressing themselves through the media they consume. What would it take to get them to put your brand on their MySpace page?

Perhaps one answer lies with companies such as MSN, which is encouraging brands to break up its websites into discrete chunks of content that can be moved to other places online. It is not hard to see where this is going.

MSN calls them gadgets or (as Apple users would say) widgets. It makes sense for brands and for the people that love these brands, too. Imagine if you could grab a small interactive experience from a brand you love and put it in your MySpace pages? It might not be too dissimilar in experience to the recent Google tie-up with The Da Vinci Code. MSN believes brands will be excited by being able to share these gadgets within a social space or within the functionality of Instant Messenger (so your buddy list can experience the gadget without needing to "sign in").

Think of these gadgets like the free toy you get with a McDonald's Happy Meal. I predict brands will be making lots of these mini-interactive experiences, each with varying shelf lives. Of course, where traditional brands and media go, users will already be there (or close behind). With e-mail already beginning to feel tired (compared with newer communication technologies), what odds for user-generated gadgets received via social networks replacing viral content via e-mails in five years?

Pass me a banana ... I'm going to see how far the monkeys have got.

- Matt Dyke is the planning director of Tribal DDB.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).