Latest essay from our book, this one by Jon Sharpe the former Chief Digital Officer at M&C Saatchi Group. If you’re wondering about his opening comment, hopefully you realised that his chapter in the book is preceded by a blank page:

Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead?

Scary, isn’t it – the tyranny of the blank page? So what did you do with it? Doodle? Make copious notes on the eloquent musings of my co-contributors? Finally make a start on that novel? Redesign the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Get hold of some animal faeces and plaster them all over it in a deeply ironic pastiche of Chris Ofili?

Nothing?! What do you mean you did nothing? But you’re “The User,” aren’t you? You’re that guy that everyone, and I mean everyone, keeps talking about. You even scooped Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006, didn’t you? You’re a creative genius, a maverick, a rebel without a cause, the future of the internet – aren’t you? You’re amazing! You’re like Rupert Murdoch, Samuel Pepys, Johann Sebastian Bach, Mario Testino, and Banksy all rolled into one, right? Oh, and didn’t I hear you were obscenely good-looking and great in the sack to boot?

Well, whilst you’re deliberating which aspect of your multifaceted genius to lay down, let me take you on a little trip down memory lane. In the UK in the 1970s, we had three television channels, two of which were firmly occupied by our much-lauded public sector broadcaster, the BBC.

On weekday mornings during the school holidays, BBC1 ran a show called Why Don’t You? that in some senses could be viewed as an early precursor to the contemporary BBC’s wholehearted embrace of user-generated content (UGC). The show featured groups of pallid schoolchildren chorusing the refrain “Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?” in largely unintelligible regional accents.

They would then implore us to experience such thrills as, er, cutting some paper into shapes or learning a rudimentary magic trick. We didn’t bother, of course. We couldn’t be arsed. We did nothing, beyond watching yet more TV, as was our wont.

But somehow that was the point. If we had actually gone off and “done something less boring instead,” then the show wouldn’t have had an audience. And audiences were what TV producers got paid for.

In his speech “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus,” Clay Shirky argues that the critical technology of the twentieth century was TV. It was TV that allowed us to absorb the shock of the huge postwar growth in free time, in much the same way that gin was the critical technology that enabled us to manage the shock of transition from rural life to urban life during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century.

Shirky goes on to suggest that it’s only recently that we’ve begun to see the resulting “cognitive surplus” – created by rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy, and a rising number of people working five-day work weeks – as an asset rather than a crisis. Consequently, we’ve started to deploy it in ways more interesting than simply staring at the TV.

Fascinating though Shirky’s argument is, endemic to it is a presumption that that there was a time BC (before creativity) when we were mindless automata that consumed but didn’t create, and a time AC (after creativity) when our collective muse suddenly hit and we were all simultaneously overcome by an egalitarian desire to share.

But that simply isn’t the case. People creating stuff is nothing new. It’s just that back in the day when we weren’t watching Why Don’t You? blogs were called diaries, playlists were called mix tapes, and photostreams were called photo albums.

Performance Artist Laurie Anderson once said that “technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories,” suggesting that, although technology may be the enabler, the fundamental need both to create and share is as old as humankind itself.

Furthermore, brands (in particular media brands) have always solicited content. From the righteous (newspaper Letters to the Editor) to the reactionary (Points of View–style feedback shows on TV and radio), to the comedic (home video bloopers) and the illicit (graffiti and remixing), UGC has been a feature of the media landscape for decades.

Until recently, though, it was predominantly the province of the outraged, the disenfranchised, the politicized, or those prone to exhibitionism. The rest of us just went back to our diaries, mix tapes, and photographs. Or, if we were really stuck for something to do, we went back to watching Why Don’t You?

So what changed? From YouTube to the blogosphere, from Facebook to peer reviews, there has been a veritable Cambrian explosion of UGC of late. But what’s been the catalyst behind the deluge? As far as I can tell, it’s due to two key factors.

1. The Means Of Distribution

The first factor lies in the means of distribution – that is, in the days of Why Don’t You? we didn’t really have one. Our audience was either extremely limited – a bored sibling, a distracted parent, or even a slightly bemused pet – or was nonexistent. But the internet has dealt with that little problem, as it has with so many others, and The Long Tail means that, at least potentially, all of us now have an audience.

This is key, for as much as we may respect the artist who solipsistically toils to no avail towards a lonely end, most of us harbour a prejudice that a comedian is truly a comedian only if people laugh, a writer if people read, a musician if people listen, a photographer if people look. We feel that audiences can exist without content but that content isn’t really content without an audience. Audiences motivate us to create, and their feedback motivates us to continue to do so.

Our innate desire to exploit these potential audiences has been further fuelled by the rapidly dwindling price of technology. Software such as GarageBand or iMovie, which are now bundled free with any purchase of an Apple Mac, would have cost tens of thousands of pounds to purchase only ten years ago. This shift has allowed us to create media of a standard that hitherto has been firmly the preserve of professionals.

Of course, the means to create quality and the ability to actually do so are two very different things, but however deviant our stuff may be, we can bet that there will be someone, somewhere who will dig it. The instantaneous and economical means of distribution that the internet provides gives us all the opportunity to find or, more likely, be discovered by, a likeminded and appreciative audience.

Humans need positive reinforcement, whether that’s around the campfire or anywhere else. We seek praise with pitiful certainty, and the anonymity that the internet provides gives us a useful hedge against public humiliation. The combination is beguiling, and together with the ease of publication, it is the first factor to have informed the recent unabated surge in UGC.

2. The Absence of Authority

As discussed previously, brands (in particular media brands) soliciting stuff is nothing new. The problem was that what these brands wanted us to create and what we wanted to create were, more often than not, two different things. These brands would solicit and display content only on their own terms, according to their own agendas, and within their own strict protocols. In order to be published, we had to kowtow.

But that has changed, and the BBC’s metamorphosis since the days of three television channels and Why Don’t You? is instructive. For the world’s oldest public sector broadcaster, steeped in the culture of devolving content created by the privileged few to the many, to allow anyone to edit, co-create, and demand content represents a massive cultural shift and is one that many other brands would do well to heed.

Witnessing the steady conversion of its viewers, readers, and listeners into users, authors, and contributors, the BBC was faced with little choice and to stem a dwindling audience share, rapidly applied the age-old principle of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

It is this usurping of the authoritative editor by the masses and the emergence of The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki’s concept that groups, through the aggregation of information, often make better decisions than could have been made by any single member of the group, that is the second factor that has informed the exponential rise of UGC. This one has firmly underpinned some of its most notorious success stories, such as Wikipedia.

So, presented with this new paradigm, what should brands do? And what should agencies do? And, perhaps most importantly, what the hell should you, “The User,” do?

Well, if you’re a brand, the answer is surprisingly simple: ask not what your consumers can do for you, but what you can do for your consumers. Treat your consumers as collaborators. Facilitate, don’t legislate. And be honest, truthful, and sincere. The rise of the peer review means that anything disingenuous will be found out and then amplified. You can find many instructive examples of this new mode of brand behaviour to seek inspiration from.

Nike, for instance, behaves like an events company (RunLondon) one minute, a bespoke tailor the next (Nike ID), and a software developer the next (Nike+), providing different points of access for different consumers but always allowing those consumers to play the role of protagonist. But this approach isn’t limited to so-called “cool brands.”

Brands such as Boeing, Lego and Doritos are all getting in on the act by variously inviting their consumers to collaborate on the design of new aeroplanes, create and sell their own toys, and even create content for some of the most expensive advertising spots in history.

The user-generated ads featured in the Doritos 2010 “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign not only delighted its vast TV audience but also resulted in an astonishing 18 million online views in the week immediately following the big game – a testament to the merits of harnessing UGC if ever there was one.

And what of agencies? Jay Chiat, the founder of Chiat\Day, once famously said that “creative is not a department.” And he was right. But neither is creative an advertising agency. So aside from breaking the monopoly that traditional art director–copywriter creative teams typically exercise over the creative process, agencies also need to look beyond their environs and, like brands, begin to treat consumers as collaborators.

We live in a beta culture where consumers actively want to liaise with you as you develop content and will happily bear with you as you seek to improve it. Your audience is no longer captive, and their relationship with media is evolving faster than ever. So it’s vital that you involve them, consult with them, and listen to them – well before the focus group.

So finally back to you, “The User.” Have you actually created anything yet? Or are you still just consuming this? Don’t you know that consuming is just soooooooo 2005? Well, whilst you’re thinking about what to do with those blank pages in between filming yourself singing in the shower, updating your social networking status, doing your citizen journalist bit, editing that scurrilous entry about you on Wikipedia, and perfecting your Dolly Parton-meets-Megadeth mash-up, can I make a suggestion? Your name stinks. It’s awful.

“The User” is a derogatory and divisive term, more redolent of drug addicts and confidence tricksters than of a valued creative voice. It also infers a nonsensical distinction between them and us, the haves and the have-nots, the mass media publisher and the individual publisher, which is wholly erroneous when it comes to matters of quality and integrity. So why not stop being “The User”?

Change your name, but not your deeds, for with UGC comes a noble purpose: democracy. It levels the media playing field and offers opportunity to those who really want it, rather than simply those who inherited it. So embrace it. Be a Publisher, an Artist, a Journalist, a Developer, a Musician, a Photographer, an Agitator, a Prosumer, or an Agent Provocateur. Be all of the above. Just don’t be “The User.” “The User” is what they define you as, whoever they may be. Elude definition.

About Jon Sharpe

Previously Jon founded two of the UK’s leading digital advertising agencies, Itraffic and Play, and was managing director, digital marketing at Prior to advertising, Jon studied English at King’s College London and Cambridge University. His passions include food, funk, and football. Jon has released obscure records that the music press said nice things about but not very many people bought. Follow him @jonsharpe73.

This represents a revisited version of the essay in Digital Advertising: Past, Present and Future