User-Generated Crap

The tech and media press that breathlessly cover the mobile space might try something daring and novel--open their damn phones. Deals between big media and carriers get cut and announced daily, and press releases are rehashed at lightning pace, but too few people actively discuss the actual mobile content that results.

Months after we first heard of YouTube coming to Verizon's VCast, I was astonished to discover just how boring and half-baked the final product proved to be. There was a lot of talk at the time about how the YouTube model for content discovery would translate to a handset. After all, the Web site allows you to parse the data according to your own favorite providers or a multitude of categories, and then lets you sample clips quickly.

The YouTube Mobile interface offers no such flexibility. The categories are unhelpful and nondescript (news, entertainment, sports, and "more videos") but I had trouble finding any real distinction among the channels. The clips I found over the course of a few days were poorly headlined and staggeringly banal. I saw way too many people goofing in front of Webcams or performing antics that were barely visible at this scale. In some videos I couldn't even figure out the source of the humor except to sense that something hit someone or shocked someone or fell off of something--and it must have been funnier online.

Before we rush into a new year of gushing over user-generated media, we might remind ourselves just how bad so much of it really is. I know that every TV executive is scrambling for ways to ride this wave, but let's get real. On any given day at YouTube you are much more likely to see user-generated crap than anything else. But that is okay, because the connection is fast, it's all free anyway, and hunting for that one gem is something of a sport. There is nothing sporting about hunting for fun on a cell phone. Hit-or-miss is a tolerable content consumption model online, but carriers, publishers and any ad sponsors are going to find it a harder sell on mobile.

And before we start pouring more of it onto phones, let's consider how our tolerance for badness plummets radically when we have to wait for the badness to buffer on a wireless network so we can squint at a postage stamp screen. Maybe I am being just too demanding... or cranky... or old. But unless very carefully edited, UGC does not port naturally or easily to this platform. Online, UGC produces a massive trough of possibilities we can filter and sample with ease, but when pushed through the much narrower funnel of mobile it can become tedious very quickly.

For one, there is a basic issue of visual scale. The typical long shots we find in amateur video are tough enough on the Web, but on a phone they are downright indecipherable. And then there is length. Homegrown Spielbergs are notoriously long-winded, and too many YouTube clips run on for four minutes or more, which taxes my attention span on a handheld.

Which is not to say that UGC cannot work on phones. Oddly, the less-hyped VCast partnership with Revver.com produced a much more polished and watchable mobile channel, because a deft editorial hand is visible here. Revver is the user-submitted videos site that shares ad revenues with the makers. In the case of the VCast deal, there are no ads, but half of Verizon's payment to the media hub gets splits 50/50 with the clip's maker. As a result, Revver tends to attract more pro-am videographers, yet the product still bears that garage band feel. On VCast, the videos are siloed into "Viral Video Classics" (greatest hits), "Animation," "Editor's Picks," "Laughs" and "Cute Overdoes" (yeah, a lot of cat antics). These are more helpfully named buckets than YouTube's, and they are populated more modestly with genuinely good and blessedly short clips. Most of the Revver items were under a minute, and someone was wise enough to choose video with more close-ups and brisker editing. Unlike YouTube Mobile, I could sense an intelligence behind the design and the selection in Revver on VCast. Not only did I appreciate that there was a guiding hand to this, but it makes me more likely to trust their judgment and return more often for more clips.

I think we are about to learn the same lesson with UGC content on mobile that mobile search and WAP developers have begun to grasp. On the Web, more is more, and we tolerate the chaos and the irrelevant content because we can still pick out the good stuff easily. On mobile, the dire need for a dense, very smart filter is becoming more apparent to me with every Web brand that tries to migrate to mobile. From print, to Web, to an ever-expanding universe of devices, traditional content has gone through the wringer in the last decade. Readers have a new authority; articles fragment away from their context into smaller pieces that go anywhere. How ironic that content's last, smallest platform, the phone, is where the presence of the old-fashioned editor is most sorely needed.