User-generated content, the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006. It’s a term that must appeal to the technocratic instincts of investors. I prefer something a little more old-fashioned: self-expression. Terminology aside, this will be remembered as the year that the old-line media mogul, the online media titan and millions of individual Web users agreed: It demands attention.

It’s on Web sites like YouTube, MySpace, Dailymotion, PureVolume, GarageBand and Metacafe. It’s homemade art independently distributed and inventively promoted. It’s borrowed art that has been warped, wrecked, mocked and sometimes improved. It’s blogs and open-source software and collaborative wikis and personal Web pages. It’s word of mouth that can reach the entire world.

It’s often inept, but every so often it’s inspired, or at least worth a mouse click. It has made stars, at least momentarily, of characters like the video diarist Lonelygirl (who turned out to be a fictional creation) and the power-pop band OK Go (whose treadmill choreography earned far more plays than its albums). And now that Web entrepreneurs have recognized the potential for profit, it’s also a sweet deal: amateurs, and some calculating professionals, supply the raw material free. Private individuals aren’t private anymore; everyone wants to preen.

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