‘UGC’ and the great replacement of traditional news media

Data provided to the Herald from two major telecommunications companies show that Kiwis used a...
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Is how you use social media contributing to a problem having negative impacts on society? Tyler Mitchell has a look.

User-generated media is crowding out traditional news media at an accelerating pace.

The notion of breakfast enjoyed with light reading of current events in the morning newspaper is a ritual confined to the annals of history and the screens of Hollywood.

Once, suburban mothers and fathers crammed their heads with information on current affairs, ready to engage in opinionated discourse with colleagues and friends, all the while juggling the demands of morning-phobic children. Now, digital devices have colonised the realm of news media.

The advent of the internet promised efficient dissemination of correct information, a shrinking of the once prohibitive barriers of space and time, and the ability to engage in real-time with anyone, anywhere, over the ’net.

This promise was too good to be true — digital devices serve as little more than cyber pulpits exposing anyone to the ramblings of individuals and groups who, without journalistic accreditation, have achieved a status once reserved for the most respected journalists attached to traditional publications with decades of journalistic expertise.

About 70% of "Generation Z" report they prefer to consume this often-untethered freedom of expression, known as User Generated Content (UGC). In comparison, a mere 16% of "Boomers" consume UGC.

While UGC offers unprecedented freedom in news reporting, the lack of institutional guidelines and general journalistic etiquette renders this development troublesome.

Why concern yourself with something as mundane as the truth when an algorithm will consistently deliver curated entertainment direct to your devices?

Social media was the first of a succession of deadly blows directed at traditional news media. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provided an unprecedented voice and reach to the common person.

But in the first wave of social media, accredited journalists and organisations kept their monopoly over information through, for example, Twitter’s verification system for identifying authenticated accounts.

While the platforms comprising the first wave of social media continue to innovate in an attempt to compete with newer platforms such as TikTok and Telegram, the decision made in November 2022 by X (formerly Twitter) to extend the verification programme to accounts holding an active paid subscription is symptomatic of a digital space wherein entertainment, clout, and status are the Holy Trinity — and all else is background noise.

Like the colonial empires of the past, digital media giants have seemingly internalised the capitalistic imperative to expand. Always innovating and developing unique methods for collecting and disseminating information, digital media platforms have developed algorithms that paradoxically render the user as both a consumer and a producer of the content they consume.

Take YouTube, for example. From 2005 until 2012, the consumer was responsible for the labour of utilising the search function to find content relevant to their interests or needs.

From 2012 onward, YouTube began collecting information on individual user preferences, including favourite genres and time spent viewing videos.

In recent years, the algorithm’s mandate has extended to the collection of personal information, including back-end communication between YouTube and other social media applications installed on a user’s device, to curate a "menu" of content targeted at each individual user.

Social media giants are not solely interested in scraping information from users’ devices for content curation. What was once "street-level" discourse — discussions, debates, and arguments between two or more private individuals — has also been digitised and is ripe for harvest in the view of the inorganic, unfeeling algorithm.

While it may be prudent for humanists and more generally optimists to avoid social media comments sections — for the sake of their own sanity — the algorithm acknowledges no such advice.

Everything from the political parties and representatives you "react" to, to the demographics of users you most frequently engage in heated debate with, is collected and processed to create a digital profile of you.

Unlike a bank form, where an individual is consciously aware of the information they are supplying on the form, the social media user unconsciously builds their own digital identity through viewing patterns that include: what content you consume, how long you consume that content, how much time you spend on a given platform, who you interact with, and in what manner you interact with other users.

Your digital identity may represent you, but is it yours?

It is now time to stop and consider what benefits modern social media offers that traditional news media does not.

Yes, social media provides curated content for users who are time-poor and, in their little free time, desire only to sit back and consume an unending targeted feed of information direct to their devices.

Yet, in a post-truth environment, correct information provided by respected and accredited sources is paramount to the health of our democracy, optimism for the future ahead, and a healing of the rifts at least partly created by user generated media.

 - Tyler Mitchell is a masters student in international studies at the University of Otago.