15 Minutes of Fame, Times Infinity

Last week was an interesting one for enthusiasts of user-generated content.

“You” rock

Time Magazine named “you” (as in everyone) the person of the year. Not surprising, but notable in a “cultural signpost” kind of way. Do “you” feel good about yourself yet?

You rock (with a little help from Microsoft)

Microsoft officially launched XNA Studio Express and the Creators Club, then followed with a number of interviews that declared an unambiguous commitment to UGC. Just a few short years ago, most people in this industry thought that users were good for nothing more than their wallets (plus the occasional UG multiplayer map.) Now Microsoft is dedicating real resources to helping regular people make video games from scratch.

You rock, in a capitalist-kind-of-way

A player-created (virtual) corporation in the MMOG Eve Online announced that it would be going public. That’s right: selling shares for what amounts to about $75K — not on NASDAQ, but selling shares all the same. Not a milestone in terms of value (virtual “property” has sold for greater amounts, even in Eve Online), but a conceptual milestone all the same. And how would shareholders in this Eve corporation feel about Raph Koster’s views on virtual property rights?

Chris Rock thinks you rock

Actually, Conan O’Brien thinks you rock, but I couldn’t resist the name game. They’re both comedians. Sorry…

O’Brien (like many other TV personalities) recently discovered what it means to have a “comedy dialogue with the audience“. An off-hand comments about, ummm, masturbatory marine life snowballed into a website featuring thousands of user-generated submissions in the same vein. Like Steven Colbert, Conan has discovered that a well-framed 15-second joke can generate thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars in subsequent eye-ball revenue… all thanks to dedicated fans.

What about pet rocks?

By now it should be pretty clear that the next “pet rock” (and indeed, the next media landmark) will someday be as likely to appear on YouTube (or the equivalent) as it is in a media conglomerate’s back room. So what’s a conglomerate to do? Or, for that matter, a video game console maker, publisher, or developer?

IMO, the answer lies in the twin forces that drive UGC: the desire for self-expression and/or recognition. These seem like such basic things, but we’re barely scratching their surface right now.

Self-expression is limited by the tools and network available to users. We seem to have solved the network problem (though full-3D UG worlds like Second Life are still choking on bandwidth and processing constraints.) However, many UGC tools remain too crude or far too complex for the average person to enjoy. The companies that effectively tackle this problem (within as “limited” a context as a game or as “broad” a context as a platform) will have a real advantage.

Self-expression is also limited by the rights given to users. As long as companies are afraid of “losing control” over their IP and/or brands, they will dampen the creative potential of their fans. Which is OK while everyone is being paranoid, but that won’t last forever. So remember: most consumers appreciate the difference between UGC and corporate content, even if most marketing executives do not. Consumers simply require an effective filtering system in order to find the content they’re looking for (and to avoid the content they dislike.)

Finally, self-expression and recognition are limited by identity platforms. Take Xbox gamertags and gamerscores as an example. These have proven to be remarkable platform innovations, despite their simplicity. Gamers go to incredible lengths to increase their gamerscore, despite the fact that it has little tangible consequence (outside the realm of personal and social satisfaction.) To what lengths would gamers go if their identity was more than just a name, static picture, reputation rank, and score? More to the point, how could their enthusiasm be channeled into applications that enrich the community as a whole? To some extent, we already know the answer to those questions: just take one look at MySpace, Second Life, etc…

I suspect that, like Microsoft, Nintendo has begun to recognize the possibilities, as the Wii now facilitates self-expression of a sort via “mii” avatars. But again, both Nintendo and Microsoft are still just scratching the surface. There’s room for so much more….

PS. If this hasn’t bored you to tears, see my post on Viva Piñata. It’s all related.

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