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article imageThe Age of User-Generated Everything

By David Silverberg     Apr 16, 2007 in Technology
User-powered content is not just impacting journalism and sites like YouTube. Now art galleries and museums are giving everyday amateurs a chance to shine in the spotlight by marrying the digital revolution and the rising trend of crowdsourcing.
Digital Journal — We all know how the public is contributing to mass culture by lending their talent to old-line businesses. Young filmmakers send their clips to programs like Bravo’s Outrageous and Contagious: Viral Videos; lets anyone customize a 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit for an 18-second joyride video; and more and more companies are asking customers to suggest new enhancements to their products. But what was popular in the domain of retail and viral videos is now bleeding into the art world, leading us to believe it can happen anywhere.
The Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland started an interactive exhibit called We Are All Photographers Now!, which solicits photo submissions from people all over the world. Anyone can submit a photo online and each week a computer will randomly choose 100 images to display in the museum for one week before being replaced by another selection.
The museum’s site explains: “This is the first major museum project to undertake a comprehensive overview of the digital revolution as it impacts on everyone.” The exhibit hopes to answer some questions that the site says are more important today than ever: “Has the digital revolution tilted the field of battle irrevocably in the amateur’s favour? Or has it swept this traditional rivalry into the dustbin? Can anyone say?”
Running until May 20, this unique exhibit has so far received images from more than 7,500 photographers from 128 countries. Cellphone or digi-cam pics are accepted, as long as the files are 6MB or less.
The Swiss museum is not the only gallery looking to harness the power of the everyman. Last month, artist Mariana Tres gave out 33 disposable cameras to various people for an exhibit at the Newspace Centre for Photography in Portland, Oregon. She asked those three dozen folks — ranging from an Israeli soldier to an Argentine journalist — to snap pics within 24 hours of receiving the camera. She then created an installation of assorted images at Newspace.
What Tres and the Swiss exhibit are doing, whether they know it or not, is taking advantage of crowdsourcing, a term to describe the hobbyists who voluntarily share their talents to companies or, in this case, arts groups. Forget paying employees; now the public wants to share their work with the world, and they’re willing to do it free.
This rise in user-powered content is encouraging citizens to get noticed, but it’s also scaring mainstream media. In an annual survey of senior execs in media and entertainment, Accenture found more than half (57 per cent) of the respondents identified the growth of user-generated content — which includes amateur digital videos, podcasts, mobile phone photography, and social-media blogs — as one of the top three challenges they face today. And two-thirds of respondents believe social media will continue to grow. One media exec said: “The winners will be those who can probe and analyze the changes and manage and merge online and the off-line most successfully.”
When old-school museums are considered avant-garde winners, how will the rest of the world respond to the popularity of user-generated content? The Guardian editor wasn’t being glib when he said, “The smart journalists are working out ways of using user generated content.” He knew the media landscape is changing to accept citizen journalists and talented bloggers. Now other corners of society are looking to cash in on a sector that hasn’t reached its tipping point yet.
It’s plain to see how crowdsourcing is tipping the scales. Where once mass media told us what to see and hear, now the public is demanding to get their photos and music into the hands of other people. And the companies are listening. But they won’t be the only ones embracing social media.
It’s only a matter of time until city councils solicit design suggestions from amateur architects for new condo proposals. Music festivals will soon corral a fan’s opinion on a band’s set list, on stage design, on what food to serve at kiosks. User-powered content could soon leak its way into sport matches, where newbie filmmakers could broadcast short videos during timeouts. And would it be so far-fetched to picture improv theatre acting out scenes as suggested by text messages from webcam owners hundreds of miles away?
We’re embarking on a wild ride in a year where user-powered content is gaining respect as a viable contribution to mainstream media. It might’ve started with video sites but it’s not ending with any predictability. That’s the beauty of this new trend: It’s throwing us new surprises — and sparking the public’s imagination — with every passing day.
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