Who owns creativity? The creator or the audience?

ShareRank, a product recently launched by Unruly Media, purports to ‘predict the shareability of a video before it launches’. Through this system advertisers can seek to discern what type of video content is likely to prove successful – from a sharing perspective at least.

ShareRank purports to understand the relationship between viewer responses and actual share data and enables the identification and contribution of factors that impact on shareability. It’s claimed that this can correctly predict shareability 80% of the time, a figure that could go up as more data is added and the algorithm improves. 

I think this concept raises an interesting question – What is the best model for idea generation and creating engaging content in the digital age; and a supplementary question – How is ‘good’ content now defined  – what is the balance between a sense of integral quality and the need to reach a mass market audience quickly?

With these questions in mind I have a few thoughts about ShareRank. Firstly, does it really work? – and if we think it does, how are we defining this success? If it creates more shareable content then that meets a brief –at least in the short term. But there are a number of problems with this:

1. It may help create content that people will want to share  – but does this mean that it is good content (well written, well researched) or even have the required benefits for a brand?

2. If an audience want to share a piece content, then it would seem that it is what they want now – but there is no guarantee it will be what they want in the future. This tool may be able to monitor past and current behavior – but what about future needs and desires?

3. Perhaps most importantly, this looks like content designed by (a very big) committee and derides the importance of traditional individual creativity.

For the above reasons there has been a fair amount of negative press regarding ShareRank and it’s potential impact on the traditional ‘man made’ creative process.

But the of use research and analysis in the creative process is not a new thing and certainly not limited to the world of video.

One parallel is the world of Newspapers. I worked at News International for 5 years at the end of the noughties. At this time the company was (and perhaps still is) struggling with the impact of digital on its business – in particular the impact of search on the accessibility and production of it’s content.

At NI, and across the world of journalism, writers were being re-taught how to write specifically for a digital world. The technical ,even scientific, importance of using certain words, how often to repeat words or phrases and including links – as opposed to the more natural and artistic skills of wordplay and phrase construction.

Naturally, this did not go down very well with the more traditional types on the journalistic staff. Historically, they hadn’t needed to bother with this type of tinkering to boost exposure, because they already had their newspaper platform to distribute their stories. Obviously declining circulations and the rise of the web has called for a new way or creating and disseminating ‘good’ content.

This from www.journalism.co.uk:  ‘SEO practitioners have sucked the life out of much online content – for whatever reason many writers have ended up having to concentrate on what is popular in search engines rather than what is interesting or important. Many writers have also got the idea that SEO involves stuffing keywords into their articles at the expense of great writing’ .

How else does research and analysis play a part in other areas of content creation? -

Film – test screenings are used to assess audience reaction to different types of storylines and film endings

Music  - love it or loathe it, the X Factor style system of producing manufactured but popular music.

Idea development in business – the process of brainstorming new ideas is always firmly anchored by rigorous consumer research.

So, in the case of viral video, the content is good if it is shared quickly and widely. In this instance this is the key criterion for defining ‘good content’.

But to my second question, above, has the digital era changed the criteria for defining successful content? The fact that it is easier and quicker to get to a mass market audience than before, means that we have more content, but less editing.

Whilst we lack the big water cooler TV moments, when 40% of the population and more used to watch Coronation St, the global connectedness of the interweb means that good viral ideas spread quicker than ever before. The audience increasingly are defining what they want to see and whilst this is undoubtedly democratic, there is less organized competent curration in play.

Of course, the mass market audience for content is not a new thing and it all began with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, in the Electorate of Mainz in the 15th Century.

One of the most significant outputs of the subsequent printing revolution was the wider distribution of what has become the best selling book of all time. In the UK this manifested itself as the first Bible produced in comparatively large quantities and translated into English – The King James’ Bible. This in turn had a massive effect on the accessibility and popularization of religion in Great Britain. In this instance good content was almost waiting for the opportunity to achieve wider distribution.

I think ShareRank raises interesting points around the best way to approach creativity – how much should be analytical analysis and how much should be serendipitous musing? It also highlights the question about how good content is defined in the digital space and across different digital channels. It’s a worry if this is purely based on volume of sharing, or consumption, alone.

Nick Hammond is founder at The Digital Filter @digital_filter