The Internets are abuzz with some new findings from Forrester Research suggesting that, while the number of people using social media may still be growing, the number of people who are actually creating original content has leveled off in the last few years. In fact, Forrester found that the proportion of "online creators" -- meaning, people who actively maintain a blog, upload videos and music, or write articles -- in the U.S. social media audience dipped from 24% to 23% from 2009-2010. Remembering that the total U.S. Internet population and social media audience both grew over the same period, it seems reasonable to conclude the actual number of people creating content remained about the same (Forrester found similar trends in most other countries on the Internet, with the exception of Japan, where the proportion engaged in content creation continued to increase).
The Forrester finding naturally raises the question "why?" It also throws new light on the evolving structure of the social media universe.
I remember the early days of the first big social media wave, oh so long ago -- well, maybe five years ago -- when certain wild-eyed fanatics issued dramatic predictions, to the effect that user-generated content was going to replace professional content, and advertising too while we're at it. While this is an extreme version, there were some compelling arguments for the notion that user-generated content would take some of the traditional media pie. First of all, there is no production cost because people make it for free. Second, user-generated content would help meet the demand for niche content among fragmenting online audiences, making up for small audience size with higher levels of engagement.
If I had to boil it down to the essence, however, the user-generated content evangelists combined Internet triumphalism (the Web will render all traditional media advertising models obsolete) with traditional American populism, verging on Marxism (the people will overthrow big business, including traditional media, by taking control of the means of production).
And these predictions have come true, to some extent: traditional media, meaning print and broadcast, certainly seem to be feeling the squeeze from Internet competition, where advertising is both cheaper and more measurable. But that's just the first half of the proposition set forth in the previous paragraph. The second half hasn't quite come to pass -- at least, so far.
It's telling, for example, that 15 of the top 20 most-watched videos on YouTube are professionally-produced content, with the top spot going to "Baby" by Justin Bieber and Ludacris, and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" taking second place. Most of the user-generated content features cute babies doing funny things. As for the blogosphere, there's no question it produces an impressive amount of verbiage, but most of the posting and discussion still refers back to professional content, according to Pew, which found that 80% of all links connect to sites maintained by newspapers and broadcast networks. Although I wouldn't want to claim a statistical correlation, these figures do line up surprisingly well with Forrester's finding that only 23% of social media users were engaged in content creation.
So why is the number of online creators leveling off? It's probably impossible to know for sure, but I have some speculative suggestions. First, the number of people who wanted to become online creators of whatever type -- filmmakers, journalists, snarky commentators, etc. -- but found themselves stymied or overlooked in the days before user-generated content, was probably limited to begin with. It's not like the other 77% have never even dabbled in social media, of course; the vast majority of blogs are abandoned after a few updates, while 90% of Twitter users are "lurkers," who just like to read what other people post.
Unfortunately I don't have access to the breakdown of social media habits by age group, which I would expect to show big variations. However, we'll get an even better picture of social media creation habits will emerge in the next decade, as children who grew up with social media their whole lives become teens and then enter adulthood: if the proportion of creators remains steady at 23% in coming years, I think it's safe to assume that we're looking at something fundamental about human nature.