Anyone who's been to karaoke night at a local bar knows that access to a microphone is no guarantee of talent. Or as fans of American Idol might say, "Sanjaya."
This immutable law remains, well, immutable when content distribution is radically democratized by the Internet. We've learned that talent is spread more broadly across populations than was previously understood or exploitable. But just because we all can post our writing and photos and videos to the Web doesn't mean everyone is suddenly an artist.
There remain degrees of quality, ability and skill. Training, experience and editing still matter. To say otherwise is to spin a techno-utopian fantasy. Yet people seem surprised when this reality applies to the user-created content coveted by companies eager to clamber aboard the Web 2.0 bandwagon.
The New York Times, for example, ran an article in May about a campaign by H.J. Heinz, which asked consumers to create video ads for its famous ketchup brand. Among the revelations in the paper of record: Many of the ads weren't very good, vetting the ads for quality cost money even though the clips themselves came to the company free, and some less savory spots ended up on YouTube. Linking to the article from his Rough Type blog, author Nicholas Carr snarked, "Heinz's foray into user-generated advertising is backfiring."
But the condiment king's experience is not unique, nor does it automatically qualify as a failure. Such campaigns require investments in time, people and technology. The appearance of dross and spoofs on YouTube? That's just a fact of life now.
The real payoff from these campaigns comes from generating buy-in among people who are excited about your company's products. Coca-Cola isn't trying to save money by asking consumers to design soda machines that will appear in the virtual world of Second Life; it's building word-of-mouth enthusiasm in a targeted market segment. The 5,450 members of Coke's MySpace fan group are far more valuable to the company than some notional reduction in its huge advertising budget.
Certainly a measure of skepticism and some reality checking are needed. Any reporter who hears new media guru Dan Gillmor's famous line "My readers know more than I do" should think, "Yeah, that's why we've always carried notebooks," and remember that some in the audience are agenda-driven or ignorant. But at the end of the day, Gillmor's dictum reflects the power of the Internet to harness widely dispersed wisdom.
And skepticism shouldn't be allowed to collapse into cynicism. At a conference last month I saw Andrew Keen promoting his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Currency, 2007), a poison pen letter to the Web 2.0 ethic. Listening to Keen speak about the superiority of paid work, I remembered learning that Vincent van Gogh sold but a single painting in his lifetime. That didn't make him a bad painter--not any more than it makes everyone else a genius.