You Are the Content

In her annual presentation on the state of the internet, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers' analyst Mary Meeker teased out a single theme that will challenge content providers for another generation. The proliferation of devices in the last 5 or 6 years has created a massive new flow of data. But this time that data is coming more from the users than from traditional content providers. The amount of data being created and shared increased nine times in just 5 years to almost 2 zettabytes (or 2 trillion gigabytes) in 2011. That will increase to 5 zettabytes by 2015. The number of photos uploaded and shared each day has gone up from about 200 million in 2010 to more than 500 million (projected) per day this year. And we are quickly moving beyond the garden-variety uploads of user-generated content, as people embrace the creative tools social networks provide. Since its introduction at the beginning of the year, Twitter's 6-second video app, Vine, has been embraced by almost 10% of iPhone users in the U.S. (as of April), while the short-term sharing app Snapchat has been more than doubling the amount of content posted each month in its first year.

The underlying dynamic in this dramatic increase in user-generated data is that the polarity of media is shifting from broadcasters of the last century to the user media makers of the 21st century. This transformation was a long time coming, and it certainly does not mean that we will lose the traditional role of content providers to distribute and make polished professional content. But it means that users are now generating massive amounts of content and data that is precious to them, and media companies that act as if this is not the dominant force driving the next wave of the web simply do not understand their own customers.

The first wave of media to understand this trend were apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine. They help people become better media makers by providing challenging formats and interesting filters that maximize creativity and shareability. Take, for instance, Disney's new Story app. Understanding that users generate huge amounts of images on their cellphones, this app uses the devices' inherent geolocation and timestamping tools to organize your camera roll into more attractive albums that can be shared immediately.

research2guidance (a market research consultancy focused on the mobile market) says that by 2015 there will be more than 14 million parents in the U.S. with children 3 years or younger who own smartphones or tablets. This market is hungry for tools that help them record their child's development, track growth, and provide advice. The opportunity here is for media companies to stop just broadcasting and to start collaborating with their users to improve and organize the content that matters most to them.

But it is the next wave of content in the form of user-generated data that could be most promising. As Meeker and Wu also pointed out in their presentation, the next wave of computing will be driven by wearable devices that will generate a new class of data about behaviors, movements, and everyday interactions that could be shaped into marvelous new products. Take, for instance, the traffic and navigation app Waze, in which people allow the app to track their movements through traffic to help generate a massive shared database of real-time traffic information. 

Sensor-based devices, such as fitness monitors, cast off data that can improve people's lives when it is shaped and presented in meaningful ways. Nike has already endeared itself to my wife, who was otherwise averse to mobile apps, because the Nike+ Running app on her iPhone is helping her become a more self-aware and rigorous runner. The app helps quantify an activity that she did simply for the joy of it. Now, she maximizes its fitness benefit and has ambitions of running a marathon. Having an app that is tracking your every move and even recording your level of activity stops being creepy the minute a company turns it into a personal service.

We are on the upside of a massive growth curve in user-generated data that is just begging for creative application. Media companies that deploy the last century's models of simply distributing their own content across every available new platform are missing the point. If you are still thinking of your customer merely as a consumer, you are already wrong. Companies that help people become better organizers, makers, and users of their own data are the ones that will have the deepest and most important relationships with a new generation of creators.