There is no doubt that a number of ethical issues have arisen as the prominence of user-generated content has increased.
From the role social networks may have played in suicides to the issues that have arisen as the line between bloggers and journalists blur, it's clear that society is now faced with new moral dilemmas that didn't exist before the internet enabled every person to, in theory, become a publisher.
An article in the New York Times today discusses the role insults posted in a blog may have played in the suicide of Paul Tilley, the creative director of DDB Chicago.
Tilley was the subject of ridicule by two advertising industry blogs and the possibility that the harsh criticisms posted about him could have influenced his decision to take his life cannot be ruled out.
While there are quite a few interesting issues to consider when discussing user-generated content, perhaps one of the most interesting is the role advertisers play in the ethics of user-generated content.
Advertisers often demonstrated a love-hate relationship with user-generated content. They typically feel uncomfortable having their brands associated with content that they can't control but at the same time are interested in leveraging the massive audiences that many online user-generated content properties have amassed.
One of the blogs that had been highly critical of Tilley is AgencySpy, which is owned by Mediabistro.com. Mediabistro.com was acquired by Jupitermedia, a publicly-traded company, in July 2007.
According to the New York Times, AgencySpy has benefited financially from the news about Tilley's death:
"AgencySpy’s writer said that traffic had “obviously grown” and that advertisers on the site — which last week included IAC/InterActiveCorp and The Wall Street Journal — had not complained."
While I'm not necessarily a fan of the quality of reporting that takes place at many mainstream news outlets, I've never, for instance, opened up an issue of Advertising Age and found articles containing scathing personal attacks on individuals in the advertising industry.
That such scathing personal attacks are a boon to business for online properties highlights the fact that, in the world of user-generated content, it's often more profitable to lower standards than to raise them.
Nasty attacks attract eyeballs which in turn attract advertisers.
Should advertisers be cognisant of this? Clearly, executives at IAC and The Wall Street Journal would never condone activity that could have directly led to a suicide, yet the fact that their brands were pulled into the New York Times' discussion of this tragic incident highlights the fact that user-generated content can be a risky proposition for advertisers.
The challenge advertisers face with advertising on properties containing user-generated content is that the editorial and ethical standards implemented vary greatly from property to property.
While newspapers, for instance, tend to have policies that are quite similar, blog properties, on the other hand, show no such consistency.
I would suggest that serious online properties need to change this.
Even if scathing personal attacks about Paul Tilley didn't contribute to his suicide, the fact that questions have been raised should be a wake-up call to a new media industry that likes to position itself as a viable contender to old media.
Advertisers should be demanding that the properties they choose to do business with provide some sort of information about their editorial and ethical policies.
At the end of the day, advertisers would be wise to ask for more than a large audience and online properties shouldn't be gathering their audiences by dropping their standards.
When advertisers and new media properties raise their standards, the outcome should be better quality, better results and less risk.
How can new media complain about that?