Ever since the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, we have had access to mass media. Unlike other printing technologies of the time, the printing press was revolutionary in that it enabled mass production of printed material and the rapid circulation of knowledge across societies. Over years, mediums other than print, like audio recordings, cinema, radio, television and internet have become channels of mass media.
But, no matter how much the faces of mass media have changed over the centuries, there has always been one constant factor: the gatekeepers- those who get to decide what goes in and what stays out. Whether it is your newspaper editor or a recording studio producer, there is always someone in control of the flow of information deciding what information the masses get access to. And whether we know it or not, these gatekeepers have been shaping our tastes, our opinions, our decisions, our life choices.
Another important characteristic of mass media was that it was typically one-directional. They wrote, we read. They spoke, we listened. They showed, we watched. We, the masses, have always been at the receiving end, with not so much as a chance to voice our opinions, ideas, doubts. Yes, we can write angry letters to the editors, or participate in a talk show, or call a radio jockey and rant, but none of this has never been anything other than an illusion of active participation. When it comes to mass media, the masses have strictly been the consumers.
All this changed, the moment it became possible for users like you and me to broadcast our views and opinions on channels of mass media, namely the internet. The internet gave our voices a public platform. Whether it is a comment you post on a discussion forum, or a post that you write on your blog, a video that you upload on Youtube, content that you update on Wikipedia, or a post that you add to a social networking site like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram , etc. you are essentially making use of a broadcast medium to showcase your own thoughts, feelings, views. Just think about how disruptive this has been to traditional mass media.
The most important change has been our ability to bypass the gatekeepers. We are no longer restricted to views and opinions that some unknown others have determined to be fit for public consumption. We can access as well as produce content, be it voicing support or discontent, without the mediation of editors, producers, directors, etc. The other important change is that now we have a chance to participate in the forces that affect our lives. Instead of depending on ads and product features provided by the brand, we can rely on reviews and testimonials provided by thousands on users, just like us.
The biggest impact that user generated content has had on the world is that it has given us a measure of control over our own lives, that goes well beyond the ability or willingness of traditional mass media channels.