Ian Bogost has an interesting essay up comparing the flowering of user generated content to the Kodak Brownie camera — in comparison to the unwieldy early cameras, the Brownie brought snapshots to the people. Simple and portable, it allowed people to create their own personal snapshots, something that Kodak capitalized on. In much the same way that Brownies allowed non-professionals to photograph personal moments that had a limited audience, so too does user generated content allow people to create digital 'snapshots.' That is, with the introduction of tools that just about anyone can use, people are able to create things that have personal meaning, but probably little meaning to the world at large. But meaning — and quality — aren't the point here:
The outcome of such work isn't important because it's good; it's important because it holds meaning for its creators and their kin. No matter what the VCs and technopundits may say about sharing and aggregation, YouTube and Flickr and the like function as social media because they function first as private media. Our notion of "private" has just expanded somewhat. If you look closely at sites like Sims Carnival, you'll find the snapshot games hidden among the much less interesting DIY attempts at mainstream casual games. Games about crushes, games celebrating birthdays, games poking fun at celebrities. That site even has an "e-card" section for such games, and premade templates to create games about kissing a date, icing a birthday cake, or celebrating the holidays. Sims Carnival's tools make the customization process more like Eastman's "we'll do the rest." It's easy for someone to insert fixed assets like text and images — the things they already learned how to create easily in previous eras.
It's worth a read through; there's been a lot of talk about user generated content, and even universities have gotten into the act when it comes to making it easier for non-pros to make pretty, individualized assets. The comparison to casual photography works really well here, and there's no doubt that 'casual' asset design is ever more important to virtual worlds. Persuasive Games: Video Game Snapshots [Gamasutra]