Your Web, Your Profit?

Time magazine's Person of the Year should get paid for providing the content.
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Congratulations, you -- you Person of the Year, you.

Yes,

Time

magazine's

Person of the Year is getting to be a bigger joke each year (I'm always impressed by the award's agility in scaling new heights of silliness).

Yes, you apparently only count if you are publishing blogs, podcasts or homemade videos on the Web. And yes, people may be right by saying this could signal a market top in the mania for so-called user-generated content.

But there's something else that all this brings up: You are getting ripped off. You are not "using" the Internet. The Internet is using you.

"User-generated content." That new buzzphrase is annoying not simply because it rolls off the tongue as easily as miso paste but also because it's misleading. You generate the content. People watch it. But you don't get a cent for it.

That would normally be fine, since there are so many things you normally do for free -- tell stories, make people laugh, send write interesting emails -- without getting a cent. But if you do the same on the Internet, people are making money from it. It's just not you. It's the sites hosting your blog posts, photos, podcasts, etc.

And that brings us to the investment angle of this new trend -- this "you-ness" -- now called user-generated content: It's just a matter of time before a company figures out that you

should

be paid for your content -- at least, if it's any good at all -- and starts sharing the money it makes with you.

I know, this sounds like a silly idea in itself. But hear me out. It's no secret that the Internet has been shifting the balance of power away from companies and in favor of consumers. Lots of things you used to pay for are now free. And if the power shift continues, then consumers who can create compelling content will start to be paid for it.

Here's how it might work. Let's say

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

, which hasn't had much luck getting traction on its social-network endeavors, starts rewarding its most popular bloggers with micropayments pegged according to the number of unique and return visitors they rack up.

Or maybe it's a payment in the form of a discount. Maybe

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Report

will reward its highest-ranked reviewers (ranked, that is, according to the number of useful-review votes) by offering them a discount on merchandise or a free year of Amazon Prime. Whatever the form, people who have valuable information to offer will receive real value for it.

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

, of course, is already doing something like this with the sponsored ads links that are on the more trafficked blogs. But this is a crude, primitive version of what could be. To lure the more gifted creators to its neglected sites like Google Base or Orkut, Google could dip into its billions in cash or offer options without even putting a dent in its financial success.

I'm not talking about a search company that will pay you to use its engine -- that's been tried, and it hasn't worked very well. What I'm talking about is an elite group of creative people who are leveraging new technology like

YouTube

and digital cameras to turn their creativity into a sort of second job.

That's where the phrase I snuck in above ("at least, if it's any good at all") comes in. Most people will find little, if no, interest in their offerings. Consider what happened 40 or 50 years ago, when people could afford Super 8 movie cameras or electric guitars: Legions of songs were recorded and films directed, and, yes, we've forgotten about all but a few today.

But the few who were truly talented not only made out well themselves, they helped reinvigorate music and movie studios for decades to come. Paramount went from the ninth-largest studio to Hollywood's most successful by banking on movies such as

The Godfather

.

Now we've come full circle, and movie and music studios are starved for fresh ideas that can draw in audiences. Online media giants won't simply be satisfied with hosting all content for free -- instead, they'll find it more profitable to offer financial incentives with the new generation of bloggers, podcasters and video and music makers who can draw a crowd.

For now, though, users are getting, well, used. And since the idea of companies paying consumers for content strikes many people as crazy, few of them are going to want to experiment with it.

That's where you come in, dear user. You need to stand up and demand some money for the pictures, podcasts, photos and blog posts that people are lining up to devour. Only then will you get your due. Or maybe there's a catchier way to rally the creative troops, like:

Users unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!