March 21, 2008
The Moral Economy of Web 2.0 (Part Two)

See the first part of this series here. I have been running this over on my blog. This series is co-authored between myself and Dr. Joshua Green, C3's Research Manager.

Convergence Culture

"The historic role of the consumer has been nothing more than a giant maw at the end of the mass media's long conveyer belt, the all-absorbing Yin to the mass media's all-producing Yang....In the age of the internet, no one is a passive consumer anymore because everyone is a media outlet." -- Clay Shirkey (2000)

Push-button publishing, citizen journalism, and pro-amateur creative activities dominated early conceptions of the ways digitization would change media production. Newer, so-called "Web 2.0" companies integrate participatory components into their business plans. These activities run from feedback forums and beta-tests to inviting audiences to produce, tag, or remix content. Online services regularly collected under the banner of 'Web 2.0' such as photo sharing site flickr, social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, and video uploading sites such as YouTube and Veoh, have built entire business plans on the back of user-generated content. Software companies engage users as beta-testers and co-creators of content (Banks 2002). Marketing departments build puzzles, scavenger hunts, and interactive components into websites and mixed-media campaigns to generate buzz around branded entertainment properties. Technological, cultural, and marketplace changes make such tactics a necessity.

Henry Jenkins (2006a) describes many of these changes in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The book's argument might be reduced to the following core claims - that convergence is a cultural, rather than technological, process; that networking computing encourages collective intelligence; that a new form of participatory culture is emerging; and that skills acquired through 'leisure' activities are increasingly being applied in more "serious" contexts.

1. Convergence is a cultural rather than a technological process. We now live in a world where every story, image, sound, idea, brand, and relationship will play itself out across all possible media platforms.

Convergence is understood here not as the bringing together of all media functions within a single device but rather as a cultural logic involving an ever more complex interplay across multiple channels of distribution. A decade ago, people predicted the digital revolution would displace older one-to-many broadcast media systems with newer many-to-many modes of communication. Today, the major changes emerge from the interactions between old and new media, sometimes working in concert (as in transmedia storytelling or branding efforts) and sometimes in opposition (as when consumers use new media channels to talk back to media conglomerates.). This convergence is being shaped both by media conglomerates' desires to exploit "synergies" between different divisions and consumer demands for media content where, when, and in what form they want it.

2. In a networked society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems they could not confront individually. We call that collective intelligence.

This capacity of consumers to work together across geographic and social distances has been at the heart of Web 2.0 discourse. Networked communities, as Pierre Levy (1997) has suggested, represent an alternative source of knowledge and power which intersect, but remain autonomous from, the transnational reach of consumer capitalism and the sovereignty of nation-states over their citizens. Web 2.0 companies incorporate and embrace (in Tim O'Reilly's (2005) terms, "harness") this collective intelligence rather than allowing it to exist as an independent source of consumer power and critique.

3. We are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media in their own hands, reworking its content to serve their personal and collective interests.

Patterns of media consumption have been profoundly altered by new media technologies that enable us to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content. An increasingly more digitally enabled and media literate population has taken tools once the reserve of professional media producers and made reworking photographs, video, and music a routine practice. The "remixability" of media content, shared platforms for the distribution of grassroots media, and the social networks that have grown up around media properties are reshaping audience expectations about the entertainment experience.

4. We are acquiring skills now through our play and recreational lives which we will later apply towards more serious ends.

This logic of participation is extending from consumer relations within the entertainment industry towards a broader range of interactions, including the interface of political candidates and government agencies with consumers, ministers with congregations, corporations with their employees, and educators with students. Indeed, as Yochai Benkler (2006) argues in his book, The Wealth of Networks, the emergence of new media technologies, platforms, and practices results in a hybrid media ecology, where commercial, amateur, nonprofit, governmental, and educational media producers interact in ever more complex ways, often deploying the same media channels towards very different ends. These groups come together at YouTube, which has provided a distribution channel, or Second Life, which has provided a meeting ground for diverse companies, institutions, and subcultural communities. A model based purely on amateur consumers and commercial producers can't adequately account for the diverse points of intersection between these various stakeholders. Far from the frictionless economy envisioned by some corporate gurus, there seems to be rather a lot of friction when one looks closely at any point of contact between these groups.

Produsers and Other Participatory Audiences

"The term multiplier may help marketers acknowledge more forthrightly that whether our work is a success is in fact out of our control. All we can do is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the brand by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. When we called them "consumers" we could think of our creations as an end game and their responses as an end state. The term "multiplier" or something like it makes it clear that we depend on them to complete the work." -- Grant McCracken (2005)

How audiences are imagined is crucial to the organization of media industries (Ang 1991; Hartley 1987), which rely on such mental models to shape their interface with their public. Convergence culture brings with it a re-conceptualization of the audience - how it is comprised, how it is courted, what it wants, and how to generate value from it. Increasingly, audiences are valued not simply based on what they consume but also on what they produce. The audience is no longer the end point along an industrial chain, and as Bruns (2007a n.p.) argues, they no longer need to "resort to auxiliary media forms."

There are many new labels for "those people formerly known as the audience" (Rosen, 2006). Some call them (us, really) "loyals," (Jenkins 2006a) stressing the value of consumer commitment in an era of channel zapping. Some are calling them "media-actives," (Frank 2004) stressing a generational shift with young people expecting greater opportunities to reshape media content than their parents did. Some are calling them "prosumers," (Toffler, 1980) suggesting that as consumers produce and circulate media, they are blurring the line between amateur and professional. Some are calling them "inspirational consumers" (Roberts 2004), "connectors" or "influencers," suggesting that some people play a more active role than others in shaping media flows. Grant McCracken (2005) calls them "multipliers," stressing their role in proliferating the values and meanings that get attached to particular brands. Each label describes audience practices related to, but significantly different from, the construction of the active audience within media and cultural studies' discussions in the 1970s and 1980s. To talk about participatory audiences now is to talk about how differently-abled, differently resourced, and differently motivated media producers work in the same space. Consumption in a networked culture is a social rather than individualized practice.

Describing the productive consumption within collaborative projects such as the Wikipedia and online news sites, Axel Bruns (2007 a, b) introduces the concept of the 'produser', a "hybrid user/producer" (2007a n.p.) involved in "the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in the pursuit of further improvement" (2007b n.p.). Produsers contribute to the iterative improvement of goods and services, whether explicitly, in the form of online news sites (Slashdot, Digg) or knowledge projects (Wikipedia), or perhaps without their conscious knowledge, as happens when user purchase decisions contribute to Amazon's recommendation services.

Bruns (2007b) outlines four characteristics of produsage, describing a system built on community logics of re-use and permission rather than commercial logics of ownership and restriction. Produsage relies on the belief that with enough size and diversity, the community can achieve "more than a closed team of professionals" (ibid.). This community is flexibly organized and affords fluid participation. Not only do users move between status as producers and consumers, they participate as much as they are able to, depending on their skill, time, desire, interest, and knowledge. This fluidity reflects the 'ad-hoc' basis of collective intelligence and the ways participatory audiences self-organize to achieve complex tasks. It also means the community is invested in the re-use and continued development of the "unfinished artifacts" it produces. Rather than commercial products, the fruits of produsage are open to iterative development and re development. As such, produsage privileges what Bruns describes as "permissive regimes of engagement," where artifacts are licensed under copyright schemes that allow community re-development but prohibit the commercial uses, especially those that in close off these development rights.

Just as Bruns' category of the produser suggests a blurring of the role of producer and user, these trends also suggest a blurring of the historic distinction between fan and "average" consumer. As the web has made fan culture more accessible to a larger public and as digital tools have made it easier to perform such activities, a growing portion of the population now engages in what might once have been described as fannish modes of consumption. Describing pyramids of participation, some commentators note that the most labor intensive activities are still performed by a self-selected few, while more casual modes of participation extend to a larger population (Horowitz 2006; Koster 2006). It matters that these more casual consumers have the option of a more intensified engagement even if they choose not to participate at that level. But research needs to extend beyond the most visible members of fan communities to encompass more mundane and casual modes of consumption.

While Bruns links produsage to collaborative news gathering, citizen journalism, and the Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement, these core characteristics also describe fan behaviors around branded entertainment. Robert Kozinets (2007) uses the term "wikimedia" production to describe the behavior of Star Trek fan filmmakers, who, in backyards, basements, and home-made studios, have been creating and distributing unofficial "episodes" using high quality equipment and state of the art special effects. Star Trek: New Voyages, for example, hopes to complete the original Enterprise's intended five-year mission (cut short after three seasons) while others raise questions not addressed on the air (including, for example, satisfying a long standing but never fulfilled promise of explicitly queer characters). Kozinets compares this production process, where fans add not only to the original text but also correct, comment on and contribute to other fan productions, to the collaborative process that is generating Wikipedia, a user-built online encyclopedia. Wikimedia is the application of an open source model to branded entertainment - often operating outside but in dialogue with the processes that generate commercial culture (Kozinets 2007, p. 198).

These "collaborative media creators," like produsers, are motivated by a desire to enrich the community of fellow fans. In doing so, Kozinets argues they are also promoting the Star Trek brand, strengthening and prolonging its market value. Looking towards the future, these amateur productions are also providing a training ground from which writers, directors, and producers of any future Star Trek series might be recruited. Something similar occurred around the British television series, Doctor Who, which was off the air for more than a decade but rebounded, in part, based on talent recruited from the fan community (Perryman 2008; Jenkins 2006e). Several of these fan media productions have involved active collaboration with the original creators (actors, writers, and technical crew) from the official Star Trek franchise. Kozinets' description of Star Trek fan cinema challenges the ways that fans have been depicted both within the political economy tradition (as passive consumers of mass generated content rather than as active participants in cultural production and circulation) and within the cultural studies tradition (as autonomous or resistant subcultures rather than as collaborators with commercial shareholders).

The roles of producer and consumer are being blurred further within the new media landscape. Mark Deuze's Media Work (2007) traces these shifts in the relations between media producers and consumers across the advertising, film and television, news, and games industries as part of a larger pattern of changes in the ways creative work is organized and monetized. Deuze notes, however, that companies often feel threatened by the ways this shift of power and responsibility towards consumers disrupts older practices; many companies limit participation, even as they recognize its potential for generating revenue.