Friday, September 08, 2006

The perils of user-generated content

'Keep an eye out for fashion and capture it on your Nokia camera phone. From clothes to accessories and personal style statements. Click anything you think is in vogue.'

That's an invitation from Nokia 'Eye on Fashion', which was one of the official sponsors of the Wills India Fashion Week. As brand-linked consumer promotions go, it's a good idea. But here's the problem:

1) Are the people getting clicked giving their consent?

I would think the answer is no, in many cases. And this applies especially to girls - like this one featured on page 1 of She appears to be simply walking down the road when one Gopal Raghuwansi clicked her on his camera phone and susequently uploaded her pic on the site.

I know this is very common. Ask any young and decent looking woman and she will tell you there are innumerable occassions when she wonders :"Is he sending a message or trying to take my picture?"

Believe me, it can creep you out, especially when the person taking the picture has *that* kind of studied casual look. The same which guys who brush past you in the bus usually have.

Of course the guy taking the pic may not have evil intentions. One young man once showed me a bunch of pics he had clicked of women, sitting in coffee shops. It was just a kind of 'timepass' - a thumb sport of sorts.

On the other hand, he could have been telling his friends 'this is my latest girlfriend' but one loser can usually smell another. I'm sure they'd know.

I don't know what the law says about this kind of photography in India, but as a company Nokia should not be encouraging it. At the very least, they should advise people who will participate in the promo on the need to get permission from the subject being clicked. It might be hidden away somewhere in the 'terms and conditions' but I could not see it.

In any case, something so important should not be hidden away in the fine print.

Also, I wonder whether the same rules apply to the 'citizen journalism' variety of photography and this kind of promo linked photography.

Today, when any kind of major news event such as the London bombings or the Mumbai train blasts occurs, some of the best pictures and videos are taken by ordinary people who happen to be there and possess camera phones. These images are often widely distributed - I'm not sure how many individuals get paid for rights. But you could argue - even if they get paid - it's a visual slice of history.

In case of a promo like 'Eye on Fashion' - that's not the case. The guy clicking the pic hopes to gain commercially - there are prizes to be won including designer clothing, Nokia 7360 or 7370 fashion phones. One lucky bum will even get a luxury handset - the 'Sirocco'.

2) The second worry is the Quality of the photos featured.

They are absolutely pathetic! Flip through the 11 pages online currently and at least 33% of the pics are self-portraits of guys wearing sunglasses. One even described himself as 'Googgles clothing'.

Other 'style statements' include a little girl in a shiny 'I want to be on Boogie Woogie' dress and a lady working in a tea garden. Frankly, the tea picker has more attitude than most of the jignes and bhaves types on the same page... All in all, not what Nokia probably had in mind when it conceived of this contest!

The other not-so-surprising fact is that the pic of the girl in pink has received 5263 views and 4946 votes. Whereas the boys on the same page mostly have votes and views in double digits. This says something about the profile of :
a) netsurfers
b) people who click camera phone pics and submit the same

Both are still predominantly male... and so lacking in style they wouldn't recognise a 'style statement' if it planted a slobbery wet kiss on their forehead!

Wheat vs chaff
The idea of 'user generated' content is a great one. And it works when you have millions and millions of people contributing such content - like at From a mountain of boring / mediocre trash you find a few gems and the system is designed such that users push these gems up to the top of the pile.

But when the number of users you attract is fairly low... you don't have enough gems. And the trash attracts more trash and repels people who actually have quality content. Because you haven't created an environment where the ego-driven creative types would like to showcase their work.

The problem is compounded when the site has a commercial angle. Take Sunsilk Gang of Girls. Extensively advertised, beautifully designed. But the blogs on the site? A couple are barely okay, the rest are simply not happening!

I say this not out of the haughty attitude that all blogs must be deep and meaningful. Teenage girls will write about crushes, cruel parents and pimples. But there are trendsetters and influencers who can write and express themselves well - and hook readers. Those girls are not patronising the site. And that cannot be a good thing for the brand!

So what does one do? I think you cheat a bit. Employ a few good writers to set the right tone for 'user generated' sites. Of course, what they write should not be all stiff but if you can get that 'amateurly professional' vibe you will attract more content along the same lines.

In fact I am even more convinced of the need for such a strategy, after recently covering a bunch of entrepreneurs setting up 'Web 2.0' companies in India for Businessworld magazine . These include soon to be launched social networking site, consumer search engine and review site

The Mumbai edition of Burrp has been up and running for 3 weeks now but generating those user generated reviews and reccos appears to be a very slow process! At the very least, if I were running Burrp I would hire a trainee, give him/ her a digital camera and go shoot all the restaurants being written about!

Not to undermine the importance of user participation and contribution... but from long experience with JAM I've learnt you have to tweak it and channel this raw energy to get the best possible results. In short, even user-generated sites need great editors...

I could write a lot more on this subject, and I will one day. But right now, it's time for some lunch!


  1. "The same which guys who brush past you in the bus usually have."

    A very sexist and one sided comment. If I count the number of women who have stuck to me in the buses and brushed past me without any provocation from my side, I could fill up an entire diary.

  2. The basic problem is that the Indian media only covers internet companies who spend a lot of PR, they never bother to do any research. I think Google knows far more about the useful and popular websites in India, who earn through Adsense than any Indian internet experts.

  3. Very nice insights, and Tips. Like the gems from junks.. and Users sorting that out too....

  4. I totally agree with the content of the post..

    What I feel very strongly about is that the level of maturity amongst cellphone users these days is almost close to nil.. people randomly click photos of strangers without permission (there is even a new chewing gum ad which features something like this) and what they can do with the pics is anybody's guess, given the technology which is accessible to almost anyone these days (and doesn't require a degree in rocket science).. many people, celebrities or common persons, are victims of this, especially women.. recetly a bunch of us went to Goa and on the beach we encountered many guys who were taking our snaps and even filming our videos, pretending that they were focussing the camera on their friends.. it was very offensive and creepy... so when companies announce such competitions and encourage people to make profits out of this nuisance, they must write in bold letters that consent of subject is necessary! I had read somewhere before that photography without consent was prohibited in India, but I doubt if anyone takes it seriously...

  5. Rashmi, some quick thoughts from me since you and I have already discussed this over email.

    We have 136 reviews written to date - that's an average of 45/week...not horrible, right? The breadth of our content spreads the reviews accross a larger number as opposed to a greater number of reviews spread accross fewer places.

    I think you have some valid points here with respects to bootstrapping a user-generated site - but I think there are more creative ways to incentivize people outside of forking over cash.

    Lastly, help us out! Feel free to write some reviews for us. You're a great writer, and I'm sure our community would benefit from your opinions of the city.

  6. Agree on ur views on pics.

    Read On More:

  7. rude cellphone users, ah! i met some senior managers at workplaces who 'feel important' if they are get a stream of cell phone calls that makes them look busy.
    also cell phones in theatres; AMC, United Artists have some funny ads on this (included in their previews) - a nice n easy way asking you to silence your cellphones.

    read below: lambasting a cellphone user got this actor a standing ovation!

  8. "" But when the number of users you attract is fairly low... you don't have enough gems. And the trash attracts more trash and repels people who actually have quality content. Because you haven't created an environment where the ego-driven creative types would like to showcase their work. "" TRUE.....and we go even further down the gutter.....but still how many ppl care about these kinda sites....

  9. nameste.
    i agree to your post,and its very thoughtful.
    i visited a college recently and saw use of such phone has crossed the limitations of all fun,and we have lost basic respect towards each others.
    we should try not to do things with others which we would not appriciate with our selves.
    i love your blog.

  10. Rashmi,

    With any new technology, there will always be instances of its "misuse" by a lot of people. But gradually it dies down. I am sure in some time the misuse of camera phones will also become near zero. This is of course with an exceptions !!!

    I do not agree with your suggestion of having someone professional give a direction to any blog. This goes against the idea of user generated content and makes it "schemed" content. I am sure blogs like Sunsilk Gang of Girls(have never visited this one) are aimed at fun..and not churn out some lierary masterpiece. So let the girls just get together and do what they are supposed to do there...have fun. Without being pressurised by the quality of what they write there.


  11. A really biased opinion, so lemme give my take on it :-)

    Are the people getting clicked giving their consent?

    I am sure that this blog, for the moment has more hits than the website.So, whenever you post ANY photos on your website,do you keep emailing them asking for permissions....ANd you have the post of a dude wearing sunglasses and a heading above it which says They are absolutely pathetic. This is also pretty offensive , right ?

    What abt defamatory articles on blogs (like IIPM episode)? That is also a user generated content and it can initiate mass-hysteria.That is also a peril, right ?

    Do photojournalists take consent of all people (especially people) while clicking photos ? No! right ?

    And finally the "bharateeya kanya mindset"...Most Indian Women live in a paranoia that ALL guys(especially Indian guys) are OUT to get them/pounce on them! My sympathies to those kind of girls...

    On the other hand, he could have been telling his friends 'this is my latest girlfriend' but one loser can usually smell another. I'm sure they'd know.

    Looks like you can smell losers pretty well!!

    The second worry is the Quality of the photos featured.

    Quality is a perception of an individual or an organization, right ? Quality improves when the site becomes popular....

  12. OMG I did not realize you penned the article on Web2.0 in BW. I must say that it is difficult to say that I am very disappointed to realize it & to tell you that it is not a well written article because it is not well researched. I think this is the first time I am disappointed. You should first understand what web2.0 is.

  13. Yes, I agree that it is getting out of control but it's only going to get worse as the technology improves.

    Pretty soon they will have xray lenses on the cells and then it will really get interesting.

  14. "Are the people getting clicked giving their consent?"

    If I am walking down the street and someone clicks my photo and publishes it, how can I object?

    For people who are essentially in full public view anyway, is such consent even necessary?

    If it is (of if it should be), then we should just say goodbye to pretty much all photojournalism.

  15. "The same which guys who brush past you in the bus usually have."

    Indeed a very sexist and one-sided statement.

    "She appears to be simply walking down the road when one Gopal Raghuwansi clicked her on his camera phone and susequently uploaded her pic on the site."

    You need to get your eyes checked. Take a closer look at the first picture and you'll know why I say that. She is "posing" for the image, which certainly means that she wasn't being "stalked".

  16. Your observations, are once again, absolutely correct. However, there is a certain net-surfing community that would not entirely agree with your sentiments. These netizens derive varying doses of entertainment from the "chaff" that, as you have noted, seem to invade the less successful user-driven sites.

    PS. Ever considered a career in Portal Strategy Consulting? :>

  17. Agree with sudeep.
    Did u happen to seek permission from the Lady in Pink or her Anonymous Stalker who happened to click the foto!!??..

    U cud've just linked to the site!

    And the comment 'Pathetic' on that poor guy's foto is unwanted too!!

    Can he stop u doin this or sue you!??


  18. All those who commented that Rashmi's comments about eve-teasing and leching in streets/buses were sexiest comments - and posed as if this doesnt happen.... you probably live in an utopian world or in self-denial. Have you even heard of Project Blank Noise

    If not - Do visit

    for a reality check.

  19. I am indeed pretty bothered by another aspect of this whole nokia pr campaign. I see that they are encouraging people to utilize and exercise thier talent at camera photography.

    However, it pretty much disturbs me that people are given numerical scores. It indicates a huge perception problem. Can we rated with mere numbers? Aren't humans worth more? I wish nokia and whatever company that wants to launch this kind of "rate me" service adopt a more rational system.

  20. Hi,

    As we grow in tech., we have to keep up with its adversities. No point complaining about it when it has so many useful uses. Mischief is bound to happen and it is user dependent. So many of us are into "lets change the world for better" campaign that its ceased being fun anymore. I believe living our life unobstrusively, not worrying about the neighbours and having our share of pure fun is the key. After all I do not enjoy my statues being used 1) Public Toilets by birds (& some humans); 2)As a landmark for "This is how you get to my place".

  21. Anonymous11:57 AM

    To describe a and summarize in a simple way this behaviour for Indian specific audience:
    Indians lack ethics in day-to-day engagements of life. Everything is generalized and is taken for granted. Where as in west it’s not like that.
    This is a good quality of west, which should be practiced in India as well.

  22. "teenage girls will write on crushes, cruel parents and pimples."

    not so sure about that statement. i have been trying hard to start a geo-targeted, India multi-city user generated content site for teenage girls to post their thoughts anonymously:

    The very limited response after 3 months despite relatively good hit rates meant a change in focus.

    i now have had to widen the mandate to be a "catch-all" site for funny / outrageous adult oriented confessions from all youth (both boys and girls) in India.

    Traffic is up, but lets see what the response is!

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