May 15, 2008
From Production to Produsage: Interview with Axel Bruns (III of IV)

Earlier today, I ran the first two installments of this interview with Queensland University of Technology's Axel Bruns, who discussed his core thesis about the blurring of the role of consumer and producer in the new cultural economy. In the final two posts, he extends this concept of "produsage" to explore its implications for knowledge production, citizenship, and learning, as well as provides us a glimpse into the innovative academic community which has informed his work. This interview originally ran in two parts over on my blog.

What are the implications of the produsage model for understanding how knowledge gets produced and circulated? You clearly are interested in this book in Wikipedia. What core insights can we take from Wikipedia that might be applied to other collaborative enterprises?

In the first place, perhaps, I think it would be great if Wikipedians themselves could draw some further insights from the way Wikipedia has developed so far, and better understand the drivers of its success. Its very success is a threat to its future survival, if it means that there is a growing disconnect between middle and upper levels of Wikipedia's administration and everyday users and contributors. The project has been remarkably resilient to internal and external threats, of course, but that doesn't mean that it will continue to weather any storm that comes its way. In particular, I would argue that Wikipedia should work to enshrine the prerequisites for produsage as absolutely fundamental, inalienable principles of the project, and protect them even against well-meaning suggestions for change. (That doesn't mean locking down its present modus operandi for all eternity, of course - but whatever changes are made must be made very carefully and with due consultation.)

The crucial question for Wikipedia and other produsage projects concerned with building and growing repositories of community knowledge is that of how to engage with those who are regarded as experts in their field, of course. Both sides of this debate have valid arguments in their favour, of course - people like Wikipedia dissident and Citizendium founder Larry Sanger point to the fact that clearly, different people do have different levels of knowledge about any given topic, while others believe that any a priori elevation of the contributor level of such experts (or ultimately, exclusion of non-experts) is unnecessary: if these people have superior knowledge and the sources to back it up, that knowledge should come through collective evaluation processes unscathed.

Ultimately, I think that a compromise will be needed. Perhaps established expertise in a field should be highlighted to other contributors to produsage processes - this is something which happens over time in longer-term collaborative communities anyway, as through both their collaborative and their social interactions in the community individuals get to know one another a little better. Those who are more than just purely random contributors, dropping in and out of the community, could be encouraged more directly and immediately to create a profile and identify who they are (and the community could sanction more strongly those contributors who falsify their profiles in order to claim expertise that they don't have).

At the same time, however, as both addition and alternative to such external markers of expertise it would also be important to trace more explicitly the quality of contributions made to the produsage project, as an internal marker of demonstrated expertise. Citizen journalism communities like Slashdot and many others already provide a model for this, which could be translated relatively easily to Wikipedia and other more recent projects - while the model isn't completely tamper-proof, there, internal 'karma' scores mark the accumulated social status of contributors as judged by their peers, and post signatures and personal profiles enable contributors to provide some pointers to external information about who they are.

Slashdot's own model isn't ideal, but what its and other models of combining internal karma and external accreditation point towards is essentially an attempt to embed ongoing internal processes of peer-to-peer evaluation in the community within the broader landscape of knowledge and expertise that exists around it. What's crucial in this is to strike a fine balance between admitting and recognising, and even encouraging, the contribution of such external expertise, and allowing for the discovery and ascendance of experts who arise as entirely indigenous to the produsage community. Such latter trends can be observed for example in open source software development, where there are plenty of stories of initially amateur programmers who showcased their growing skills through contribution to software projects and eventually gained paid employment in the software industry (which today no longer means leaving open source produsage behind, incidentally).

Zooming out from Wikipedia or any one produsage project, what this could point to is the potential for a fruitful combination of knowledge produsage (which is obviously based on the logic of Chris Anderson's 'long tail' and aims to harness the distributed knowledge of a large and diverse community) and conventional knowledge production (built around a more industrial closed model centred around the sharp spike from which the long tail extends). From that perspective, experts and their expertise cover no more than the tips of the iceberg of human knowledge, and the hierarchies of expertise which exist in conventional disciplinary frameworks are revealed to be themselves no more than the peaks of the wider heterarchical structures of the knowledge space. Through Leadbeater & Miller's boundary-crossing 'Pro-Ams', we are able to join together these spaces of knowledge regardless of their very different internal logics.

(No judgment of quality is implied in this description - the less visible bulk of this iceberg of knowledge that sits below the waterline of professionalism is no more or less important to the whole than the visible tip above it. At the risk of belabouring the metaphor: it's the bulk of the iceberg that makes the whole thing float and keeps the tip above water.)

What's just as important as a willingness of produsage communities to engage established experts with respect (but without undue deference), though, is a recognition by the other side that this arrangement can only be sustainable if produsage communities, too, are respected - and not simply exploited as cheap labour, or a convenient incubator of new ideas. Especially where knowledge generated through produsage has direct value for industry, there is a clear danger of commercial exploitation - your own work on Fanlib's ham-fisted attempt to commercialise fan fiction makes for a great case in point here.

There's a continuum of potential commercial approaches here, from what JC Herz has called "harnessing the hive" (for example by building legitimate business models around free and open source software) through to harvesting the hive (no longer necessarily so benign in nature), and through to hijacking the hive (where strong produsage communities are lured into commercial spaces, in order to monetise their work - recent controversies around Facebook's approach to user-generated content and data might serve as examples here). This latter strategy may generate good short-term profit, but is likely to poison relationships with the community for the longer term; I think industry still has much to learn about how to engage with produsage communities in a sustainable and respectful fashion, and ignores these questions at its own risk.

Dr Axel Bruns ( is the author of Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). He is a Senior Lecturer in the ,a href="">Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and has also authored Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production (New York: Peter Lang, 2005) and edited Uses of Blogs with Joanne Jacobs (New York: Peter Lang, 2006). In 1997, Bruns was a co-founder of the online academic publisher M/C - Media and Culture which publishes M/C Journal, M/C Reviews, M/C Dialogue, and the M/Cyclopedia of New Media, and he continues to serve as M/C's General Editor. His general research and commentary blog is located at , and he also contributes to a research blog on citizen journalism, with Jason Wilson and Barry Saunders.