You think the idea of user-generated content as a business model was invented in the Aughts? No way. Media outlets have been drawing on material created by amateurs, consumers and customers for generations and repackaging it for your entertainment.
Folksy as it may sound, our history is driven not strictly by the polished content produced by a class of citizens with a slew of degrees and many years of training - a surprisingly amount has been generated in a largely unfiltered form by the masses.
Necessity meant that user-generated content was packaged and presented through very structured channels. That's not that different from today, where the stuff that we produce is presented through some slick content management system on websites like Blogger or Square Space or through podcatching software like iTunes.
Click and Clack (Tom and Ray) are two brothers from the very funny and very informative nationally syndicated NPR call-in show, "Car Talk." Since the 1980s, these guys have done nothing but take calls from real life people who are having trouble with their cars, and then attempt to give good advice and be funny at the same time. It works. While the actual talking is done by these two grease monkeys the fodder is all provided by real people who call in with real automotive woes.
Think that newspapers are being killed by user-generated content? Well it's about time we returned the favor since so many advice columnists made a name for themselves using our pitiful problems to advance their fame, dispense advice, sell a few newspapers and make some dough to boot.
One of the most famous and recognizable names in the advice column game was started in 1956 by one Pauline Phillips using the pen name Abigail van Buren or Dear Abby to dispense her "uncommon common sense". Without the contribution of hundreds of thousands of users over the years, Dear Abby and her twin sister, Eppie Lederer (a.k.a Anne Landers), would never been able to produce such a voluminous supply of folksy advice.
America's Funniest Home Videos
With the invention of the hand-held Super8 film camera and the video tape recorder, average people could tape themselves doing all sorts of silly, stupid, dangerous, profound or mundane things. Sometime in the late 1980s, television producers saw a goldmine in the stockpile of footage the average American had been recording for more than two decades.
In closest precursor to YouTube that anyone can probably point to, AFV consisted of the serendipitous slapstick of the average American man and beast. From sledding into the side of a house to a cake in the face, American viewers are still not tired of this shows format even though much more of the same can be found on YouTube every day.
Of course, the geeks rule in this very early form of user-generated content. In the 1930s, amateur magazines were produced by science fiction fans as a way to connect with other like-minded people. This became a massive network of people who produced, collected, commented and held conversations about science fiction. Some of the early fanzine publications even consisted entirely of letters sent in by subscribers - a publication with a cool sort of self-generating content paradox!
The preeminent SciFi convention, Worldcon, even instituted a best Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist category in the mid fifties to recognize the best of fan made content. Technological innovations like mimeograph and photocopy machines allowed for faster, quicker reproduction of fanzines to a global audience but unfortunately it wasn't until bulletin board newsgroups and blogging technologies came about until that information could be transmitted faster than the postal system allowed.
Along with fellow comedy writer, Merrill Markoe, Letterman hit on success with these two segments that invited the public to showcase their talents (and the talents of their furry friends) on national television. There were others who followed the David Letterman model of plumbing regular people for content to display on big media outlets.