March 19, 2008
The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part One)

I wrote the following essay on the cultural politics around web 2.0 with Joshua Green, a post-doc in the CMS program, who is speerheading the Convergence Culture Consortium and who is my partner in crime in organizing the Futures of Entertainment conferences. Green came to us from the Creative Industries program at Queensland University of Technology. This paper blends work out of Queensland on creative industries with work out of MIT on convergence culture. Green is currently completing a book manuscript about YouTube with Jean Burgess, who was interviewed over at my blog earlier this year. I am running this series on my blog but also wanted to cross-post it here, considering its relationship to the work we do here in the Consortium.

The Moral Economy of Web 2.0:
Audience Research and Convergence Culture
Joshua Green and Henry Jenkins

"The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence....The lesson: Network effects from user contributions are the key to market dominance in the Web 2.0 era." -- Kevin O'Reilly (2005)

" please describe web 2.0 to me in 2 sentences or less.
you make all the content. they keep all the revenue." --

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fans were emblematic of audience resistance (Jenkins,1992; Fiske, 1989), understood as actively appropriating and transforming mass media content as raw materials for their own cultural productions. Mass media depicted fans as living in the shadows of mass culture (if not the basements of their parent's suburban split-level houses), and media companies saw their tastes and concerns as "unrepresentative" of the general population. By the early 21st century, fans have been redefined as the drivers of wealth production within the new digital economy: their engagement and participation is actively being pursued, if still imperfectly understood, by media companies interested in adopting Web 2.0 strategies of user-generated content, social networks, and "harness[ing] collective intelligence." (O'Reilly 2005)

This new talk about "putting the We in the Web" (Levy and Stone 2006) was initially embraced as granting consumers greater influence over the decisions that impacted the production and distribution of culture. By 2007, contradictions, conflicts, and schisms have started to appear within the Web 2.0 paradigm around the imperfectly aligned interests of media producers and consumers.

Consider, for example,, a start-up company founded by such established media players as Titanic producer Jon Landau, entertainment lawyer Jon Moonves, and former Yahoo CMO Anil Singh (Jenkins 2007a). FanLib began by hosting officially sponsored fan fiction competitions around The L Word and The Ghost Whisperer. Soon, the company sought to become a general interest portal for all fan fiction, actively soliciting material from leading fan writers, deciding not to solicit prior approval from the studios and production companies. The company's executives told fans they wanted to promote and protect fan fiction writing and informed initial corporate investors that they would teach fans how to "color within the lines." When fans stumbled onto the corporate pitch online, there was an intense backlash which spread across blogs, LiveJournals, and various social networking sites.

Fans raised a number of objections. The company wanted to profit from content fans had historically circulated for free (and adding insult, they refused to share the generated revenues with the fan authors). This debate revealed a rift between the "gift economy" of fan culture and the commodity logic of "user-generated content." At the same time, the company promised to increase the visibility of once cloaked fan activities, thus heightening the legal risk that media producers would put the entire community under closer legal scrutiny. (Previously, there had been an unofficial truce between fans and producers: most producers weren't going after fan fiction sites as long as they didn't intend to make money off of what they created.) Yet, denied that it bore any legal responsibility to defend fan writers against cease and desist letters from studios and networks. All of this fit within a growing debate about whether corporate distribution of user-generated content constitutes a form of unpaid outsourcing of creative labor, contributing to the downsizing of internal production teams (Scholtz 2007). These fans refused to be the victims of corporate exploitation, quickly and effectively rallying in opposition to FanLib and using their own channels of communication to inflect damage on its nascent brand. At the same time, did attract more than 10,000 participants, including both those new to the world of fan fiction and thus not part of existing communities and those who, for whatever reason, felt disenfranchised from the existing fan fiction groups (personal interview with Chris Williams, September 2007).

This example shows how media companies are being forced to reassess the nature of consumer engagement and the value of audience participation in response to a shifting media environment characterized by digitization and the flow of media across multiple platforms, the further fragmentation and diversification of the media market, and the increased power and capacity of consumers to shape the flow and reception of media content. The result has been a constant pull and tug between top-down corporate and bottom-up consumer power with the process of media convergence shaped by decisions made in teenager's bedrooms and in corporate boardrooms.

Mass media are increasingly operating in a context of participatory culture, but there is considerable anxiety about the terms of participation. Some media producers adopt what we are calling a collaborative approach, embracing audience participation, mobilizing fans as grassroots advocates, and capitalizing on user-generated content. Others adopt a prohibitionist posture. Frightened by a loss of control over the channels of media production and distribution and threatened by increasingly visible and vocal audience behavior, some companies tighten control over intellectual property, trying to reign in the disruptive and destabilizing impact of technological and cultural change. Most companies are torn between the two extremes, seeking a new relationship with their audiences which gives only as much ground as needed to maintain consumer loyalty.

This essay focuses on the resulting reworking of the "moral economy" that shapes the relations between producers and consumers. "Moral economy" refers to the social expectations, emotional investments, and cultural transactions which create a shared understanding between all participants within an economic exchange. The moral economy which governed old media companies has broken down and there are conflicting expectations about what new relationships should look like. The risks for companies are high, since alienated consumers have other options for accessing media content. The risks for consumers are equally high, since legal sanctions can stifle the emerging participatory culture.

To understand this debate, we must bridge between the historically separate spheres of audience studies and industry research. Industry research - at least within academic circles - has taken a top-down approach, emphasizing the power of media companies and the impact of the decisions they make upon the culture; audience research has historically taken a bottom-up approach, emphasizing audience interpretation and cultural production read in cultural rather than economic terms. The result has been two conflicting claims about the current state of our culture: one emphasizing media concentration and the narrowing of options; the other emphasizing the expansion of grassroots participation. This essay proposes to read these two trends against each other and in doing so, provoke a conversation between two sets of literatures - one derived from business research, the other derived from cultural and media studies. This conversation, in our case, is a literal one, since many of the ideas here emerged from work done through the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, which facilitates regular dialogues between academics and industry insiders. This conversation also reflects the increased focus on social and cultural factors, even among tech industries, as people come to grips with the implications of "Web 2.0." This conversation might also be understood in global terms as this article combines work done by American researchers interested in "convergence culture" with that done by Australian researchers focused on "creative industries" and "produsage." Historically, both audience research and industry studies have concentrated on single media industries rather than examining trends which cut across different media sectors and platforms. Our contention is that this research increasingly needs to adopt a comparative or transmedia approach because of the increased flow of media content and audiences across every available platform and the speed with which developments in one media sector impact thinking in every other corner of the entertainment industry.