The exploitation of free user generated content – a critical analysis

Freire (1993) examined how elites oppress disadvantaged groups through educational texts. This post will question how commercial interests exploit the creative talents of thousands of unpaid contributors on news sites and social media.

Daily Echo Comments It is clear (Hermida et al, 2008) that news websites based on participation generate more usage than those that do not include such features.  A series of stories were analysed on the website of Newsquest’s  Southern Daily Echo – a regional newspaper based in the city of Southampton, UK. Stories regarding football, particularly about the local team Southampton FC, were the most commented on in online forums. These sports stories often had up to 300 user comments.

However, one must consider for how long users will continue to  post comments in forums on news sites when, apparently, little is gained in terms of personal reward. A potential area of research exists in examining whether firstly, contributors are becoming more selective in the sites they post comments to and, secondly, whether they are are reducing the length of time they spend writing comments if they feel they are being ignored.

Why contribute to news sites?

Media publishers stand to gain commercially from soliciting user comments. One could conclude that the Echo, with such as large number of contributors, is clearly connecting with audiences. Bowman (2003) points to a potential empowerment felt by contributors to these sites when they express opinions online.  A community of contributors can develop  around news. However, Shutlz (2000) notes that readers’ concerns raised in online forums of news sites were, rarely, if ever, paid attention to by professional journalists.

Contributing to news sites can therefore be viewed as a thankless task. One must question who, if anyone, reads through 300 posts beneath a news story, apart from a researcher who is mad enough to study this area?  News site publishers encourage users to comment, only for these comments to be apparently ignored.

In other words newspapers, fulfill a role in encouraging an online discourse, but for a healthy public sphere to exist citizens, experts and policy makers must each engage in the discussion. On the Echo site there were no examples of journalists or local politicians engaging with users. The Echo does not pre-moderate comments or highlight (bring to the users attention) useful comments. So each of those 300 comments has equal value (or perhaps no value).

Users with non-monitory motivations

Tim Berners-Lee (1989) said that for the web to be successful ‘many people would have to post information.’ Benkler (2006) states that the collaborative nature of the web is based on ‘non-monitory’ motivations. On a similar theme, Kelly (2009) in Wired magazine relates the ‘sharing nature’ of participatory media to ideology, he states: ‘it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism’.Typical Echo Comment

Freedom of expression, combined with relatively cheap technology, can benefit disadvantaged groups. But a contradiction emerges when news and social media sites are owned by commercial media operators. In the commercial world,  online content is there to be exploited, monetised and sold as a commodity. Yet still media companies get it wrong. ITV paid £120m for Friends Reunited, the once highly-popular British social networking site. More recently it was valued at a more modest £15m. Friends Reunites consists almost entirely of free UGC, yet ITVs failure to exploit the free labour and creativity of millions of UK citizens is truly staggering.

A dividing line is emerging between those who feel that comment boxes provide the possibility for citizens to impact the news agenda and those theorists who only see exploitation.

On the one hand, researchers must take into account the joy, sense of empowerment and belonging to a community that large numbers of  people feel. On the other hand, radical thinkers such as Petersen (2008) ask for ‘a theory of labour that is able to map both exploitation and free labour, along with considering the value using these sites creates for their users.’

It could be argued, as Petersen suggests, that time spent at a PC uploading creative content to sites shares many of the characteristics of conventional labour. Some unpaid contributions are even referred to as being ‘citizen journalism’ in some circles, almost replicating the output of a paid professional journalist.

A  civic duty

Kovach (2001) reminds us that a civic duty is placed on journalists to serve their readers. If this is the case, this duty could entail being transparent about how UGC will be exploited by commercial publishers. If not, news sites are in danger of simply offering an ‘illusion of participation’ where comments are solicited from users, yet are given little prominence or value.


Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks : How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven, Conn. ; London: Yale University Press.
Berners-Lee, T. (1989). Information management: A proposal. CERN, March,
Bowman, S., & Willis, C. (2004). We media: How audiences are shaping the future of news and information. At Http://, Accessed, 1
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed (New rev. 20th-Anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.
Hermida, A., & Thurman, N. (2008). A Clash of Cultures. Journalism Practice, 2(3), 343-356.
Kelly, K. (2009). The new socialism: Global collectivist society is coming online. Retrieved 15 August, 2009, from
Kovach, B. (2003), The elements of journalism : Bill kovach & tom rosenstiel. London: Atlantic Books.
Petersen, S. M. (2008). Loser generated content: From participation to exploitation. First Monday, 13(3)
Schultz, T. (2000). Mass media and the concept of interactivity: An exploratory study of online forums and reader email. Media, Culture & Society, 22(2), 205.

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