An alternative term for "User-generated content"

For a long time I have not liked the phrase User-generated content to describe what Wikimedia is doing. There are just three problems with this phrase: the words “user”, “generated” and “content”.


“Treat me as a person, not some user, consumer, addict, shallow person defined by your brand or some other form of low life.” (— Rishad Tobaccowala)

The problem is that the discourse on trends in online media still clings to the language of “us” [publishers] and “them,” [users] when it is all about the breakdown of that distinction.

Death of the User

“User” is software-speak from a block diagram. I’m not just someone who you let create an account on your website.


I understand crowdsourcing as kind of an industrial age, corporatist framing of a cultural phenomenon. There’s human energy being expended here. A company can look at that as either a threat — to their copyrights and intellectual property or as some unwanted form of competition — or, if they see it positively, then they see it as almost this new affinity group population to be exploited as a resource. (— Douglas Rushkoff)

In other words, to look at what we’re doing and only see that we’re “generating” “content” for you — generate, an only slightly less mechanical synonym for ‘create’ than manufacture — is to almost entirely miss the point.


[U]sing [‘content’] as a noun to describe written and other works of authorship is worth avoiding. That usage adopts a specific attitude towards those works: that they are an interchangeable commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money. In effect, it treats the works themselves with disrespect. (— Richard Stallman)

Actually, there’s only one problem at root: the attitude which leads one to choose these words. That attitude is one from the corporate world. That the best term they could come up with was “user-generated content” shows what a limited understanding the business world has of what it is we’re doing. And why should we settle for the best term THEY can come up with?

Clay Shirky suggests “Indigeneous Content”, which is fairly problematic all on its own.
The best alternative I know of is Participatory culture. But beyond that, I think it’s also worth distinguishing between the works that wikis produce vs other “user-generated content”.

Community-curated works is the best term I’ve come up with so far, to describe what the Wikimedia movement is creating, and what most other wiki communities are creating too. The individual contribution is not what’s important, it’s not what makes everything work — it’s the fact that we have a community of contributors who implicitly agree to work together, to collaborate, to try and constantly improve the content.

There seems to be intentional collaboration and incidental collaboration. Wikis are almost entirely intentional collaboration. With intentional collaboration you can directly affect other people’s contributions. With incidental collaboration, the derived value is due to some software intervention in the middle, e.g. Amazon’s recommendations.

Look at the use of tags/categories. On Flickr and, everyone just uses whatever tags they want in whatever manner, and there is no attempt to (or even an idea they should) try to standardise their usage. On wikis it’s a very active notion: only one label for one concept. (LibraryThing has an interesting hybrid thing happening, because individuals put their own tags as they like, but it’s then possible that they can be grouped with other tags to be considered synonymous.)

I also put Freebase as a hybrid beast because I’m not sure how much interaction and influence there is, or will be, between people. I know if you want you can use Freebase as your own personal database and not worry about trying to make your data useful to others, but I suspect it’s going to slide more and more towards the wiki-like “community-curated” side of things.

So that’s it, really — I’m happy because I figured out a decent replacement for “user-generated content”, and I can now consign it with “crowdsourcing” in the ‘bad biz-speak’ bin.

02 August, 2008 •



I like that...
I'm using community-curated works from now on.

Witty lama · 3. August 2008, 11:51


One convert down, then :)

pfctdayelise · 3. August 2008, 17:13


Another convert here. Community curated works is a much better description of what we do. Nice post.

Jack Herrick · 27. August 2008, 06:35


Quite right. I think the term “user generated content” is something which excites corporate web market analyst type people, because it sounds like a new opportunity to grow money on trees. But wikipedia didn’t get built by those kinds of people, and if money making opportunities had been a driving factor… it never would have been built.

Harry Wood · 2. September 2008, 01:39

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