Commoditizing User-Generated-Content

This new digital age of communications like the Wild West of media. The mostly uncharted terrain of social media allows individuals and organizations to take advantage of information put out on the internet. Still, we do not know whom to blame when users are victimized for their words. Everyone is at risk for exploitation and degradation if they are not careful online. There is an undefined line between what is illegal and plain unethical in the media world. Commoditizing User-generated-content is an unethical business practice.

It is unethical to allow social media companies to commoditize the ideas on their service that users create. Media platforms such as Instagram, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and many more benefit from the content created by their users. These users are voluntarily uploading their ideas while companies are making millions from it. According to Petersen (2008), “the architecture of participation [in social media] turns into an architecture of exploitation and enclosure, transforming users into commodities that can be sold on the market.” The companies may also sell top-of-the-list spots to other big companies thus leaving smaller voices at a disadvantage. Ciolli wrote, “the Internet lacks any true town squares or other public forums, with virtually all websites, message boards, blogs, and other online media owned by private individuals and organizations” (2008). We are fighting for the right to a free market place of ideas online but how can we call it a free market of ideas on a platform that is owned by a company who is profiting from other’s content? We do not tolerate taking credit for other’s work. However, in this situation, media platforms indirectly take the ownership of user-generated-content and make money from it. Users do not realize their exploitation because they are too busy being participants. These organizations exploit users and we allow it because we have not discovered the full capability and consequence of the internet.

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Photo Credit: Mohamed Amin Embi

Despite what I say, commodification of user-generated-content is legal. We cannot hold these organizations accountable for a crime they did not legally commit. This is because users are agreeing the organization’s terms of service policies. These policies often allow their service to take information that the users post, and sell it to third parties. Media organizations including many of “America’s economic and political elites—including elected officials as well as wealthy individuals, corporations, and law firms” experience a broad immunity due to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (Ciolli, 2008). This act does protect users from companies claiming ownership over a user’s content but it also allows companies to use the content in whatever way they want with the content without having consequences. According to Johnson (2014) it is easy for us to “accept current data practices and outcomes as natural or inevitable, and to make data use the only moral question of interest” (263-274). Use of user-generated-content as well as commodification of data are both practiced unethically by many companies and cannot be isolated from each other in the grand scheme of the issue. In order to take control of user-generated-content, users will have to realize that their words and content are more valuable then they may seem online. A marketplace where everyone wins is something that is going to have to be demanded and cannot be owned or censored by anyone.

One of the case studies I examined involves a public domain issue between BuzzFeed, Instagram and an Instagram user. The situation was a woman had posted a picture of her two daughters aged seven and nine. To this user, their Instagram account is meant for friends and family but the account was not on private. Within a couple of days, the user was notified that the picture was published on a BuzzFeed article called “21 Questions You’re Afraid to Ask Your Friends with Kids.” It is stated in Instagram’s privacy policy that the photo is public domain once it is posted. So one, she agreed to Instagram’s privacy policy when she opened the account and two, She took no heed to available privacy blocks to her account. Legally, there was nothing she could do. In the end, the user was able to contact the Vice President of BuzzFeed and get the photo removed. This does not mean that we should ignore the situation because it was resolved in a favorable manor. We should not ignore the ethical responsibilities of social media. BuzzFeed, along with the photo, gave access to the user’s Instagram account information, her name, her daughters’ names, their geographic location and favorite places to frequent (Galanty, 2014). There are real people as risk for harm if the wrong person found this information. A group of journalists in Belgium discussed the morality of taking content from social media because it is public domain on the internet. They agreed that that reasoning does not mean that they should use user-generated-content especially when “that content posted on social media or personal websites is only intended for a small group of relatives and friends, not for the general public (Joye, 2014). This case not only deals with the safety of an individual but also that of her children. Ethics is not always something we have to follow because it is a law but something we should adhere to for the better of the community.

Social-Media-ClusterAs of now there are not many rules regulating the ways of the internet and social media. Mainly because we are still arguing over what is fair and what the people want. Nevertheless, I still believe there is a least an unspoken common sense law that businesses and users alike should follow. Social media is a great way to connect us all but it can also be what destroys and divides us. It will be up to social media corporations to find a way to give back to the community not just for business purposes. I think the main solution for users is to educate themselves on how social media corporations work other than just advertising. There are smart ways to use social media and safe ways to socialize online. The ethics of the internet will be a communal experiment for a while. The first step to a solution is to understand and accept our mistakes.


Anthony M. Ciolli. 2008. Chilling Effects: The Communications Decency Act and the Online Marketplace of Ideas. ExpressO. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from

Carney, David First Appellate District. (2001). Court Appeal of the State of California (A086349). Retrieved January 31, 2015, from Law Tech Journal, website:

Cooper, G., Cottle, S., Doucet, L., Duncan, S., Gormley, B., Joye, S., Klein, A., Newton, J., Scarff, L., Thorsen, E., Wardle, C., Watkins, R. & Wynne-Jones, R. (2014). The Future of Humanitarian Reporting. London: City University London. Retrieved from

Galanty, Nancy (2014, September 3). BuzzFeed Content Practice: Illegal or Simply Unethical? [Web log post]. Retrieved January 31, 2015, from–Nancy-Galanty-MyersBizNet.html.

Johnson, Alan Johnson (2014). From Open Data To Information Justice. Ethics and Information Technology, 16(4), 263-274. Retrieved from

Peterson, Soren Mork (2008). Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation. First Monday, 13(3). Retrieved from


Feature photo [user generated content on a price scale] retrieved from:

[User generated content cloud] retrieved from:

[Social media puzzle] retrieved from:


Published by: kendylhardy

A truly receptive and responsive professional with experience in compassion campaigns, public involvement, event planning and office support. Comfortable communicating and collaborating with coworkers to create proactive solutions and increase efficiently. Capable of conducting quality work in high-stress situations and always up to a challenge. Striving to accomplish every goal as a person of ambition with a focus on people.

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