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Produsage: Key Principles


In the online, networked, information economy, participants are not simply passive consumers, but active users, with some of them participating more strongly with a focus only on their own personal use, some of them participating more strongly in ways which are inherently constructive and productive of social networks and communal content. These latter users occupy a hybrid position of being both users and what in traditional terms would have to be described loosely as producers: they are productive users, or produsers, engaged in the act of produsage. In addition, we also see an increasing trend to make productive (overtly or covertly) even those forms of participation which we may traditionally have considered to be strictly private 'consumptive' uses: the very acts of using Google to search for information, of traversing the Amazon online catalog, or indeed of browsing the Web itself, now create data trails which when analyzed and fed back into the algorithms of search engines and content directories contribute to subtly alter the browsing experience of the next user. Not only are we all users, then - the more such tools for all of us to affect one another's experience of the shared online knowledge space become commonplace, the more do we all become produsers of that knowledge space itself (whether we know it or not).

It is possible to identify key principles of produsage, principles which apply across all of its environments regardless of the specific object of their produsage efforts. These principles have emerged from some of the earliest environments of produsage in the online world, and especially the open source software development community; they also trace their roots to the peer-based research and innovation communities which inspired open source itself, and have evolved to cover more than collaborative software - or more broadly, knowledge - development and today also apply to practices as diverse as citizen journalism and multi-user online gaming. The four principles of produsage build directly on four preconditions for produsage: in much the same way that the industrial model addressed the material and intellectual conditions of the time of its emergence by developing the production system most likely to succeed under such conditions, so is the produsage model which adheres to the four principles best able to operate under conditions of probabilistic and equipotential contribution, and granular and shared content.

1. Open Participation, Communal Evaluation

A produsage approach assumes that quality control and improvement are probabilistic rather than linear: the assumption within the produsage community is that the more participants are able to examine, evaluate, and add to the contributions of their predecessors, the more likely an outcome of strong and increasing quality will be (an exten-sion of open source's motto "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow"). Such contributions may be major or minor, substantial or insubstantial, take the form of useful content or the form of social engagement in or administrative services to the community, but they are nonetheless all valuable to the overall project. Participation in produsage, therefore, must be invited from as wide a range of potential contributors as possible, and produsage environments are generally open to all comers. Produsage, in other words, is based on a principle of inclusivity, not exclusivity.

Produsage therefore draws on as broad a range of available knowledge, skills, talents, and ideas as is available, and encourages its participants to apply these diverse capacities to the project at hand. The applicability, relevance, and quality of their contributions is in turn evaluated by other participants as they make their own contributions to the shared effort: those contributions deemed useful and relevant will be further improved upon, while those leading to dead ends of development or introducing irrelevant ideas, concepts, and suggestions to the shared project will remain unused. Participants who consistently make such unusable contributions will also themselves drift to the outside of the community, although those found to be usually worthy contributors gradually rise to greater prominence among their peers. The organisational structure of produsage communities, therefore, is non-hierarchical and network-centric.

This holoptic model of communal evaluation in produsage, in which each con-tributor is able to see and evaluate everyone else's contributions, also acts as a driver for a continuing process of socialisation of participants into the community ethos: being able to view all of their peers' contributions provides individual members with a clear understanding of the forms and formats their own contributions may take, and the quality and quantity of input required of them if they wish to become a more central member of the community; being subject to evaluation by potentially any one of their fellow participants encourages them to be particularly careful and diligent in their contributions if they wish to retain their status in the community. This process of socialisation does not militate against honest mistakes, prevent community disputes, or address the problem of pathological disruptors (also known as 'trolls'), but it does help to maintain community cohesion and content consistency, and over time is even likely to improve the odds of the probabilistic content development approach.

2. Fluid Heterarchy, Ad Hoc Meritocracy

Produsage necessarily proceeds from a principle of what Michel Bauwens describes as equipotentiality: the assumption that while the skills and abilities of all participants in the produsage project are not equal, they have an equal ability to make a worthy contribution to the project. This approach, which allows project leaders to emerge from the community based on the quality of their contributions, necessarily departs from traditional, hierarchical organisational models. Further, basing the standing of contributors in the community on the quality of their contributions also implies that such standing can decline again as their contributions diminish (for example once a specific problem encountered in the produsage process has been solved to general satisfaction); the structure of the produsage community is therefore not only organised along networked, non-hierarchical lines, but also remains in constant flux. Finally, in line with the granularity of problems on which produsage depends, the community's ability to organise its content creation and problem-solving activities along such fluid, flexible lines also relies on its ability to make progress working as individuals or in small teams of produsers, rather than requiring whole-of-community decisions at every step of the process.

Where this condition is met, produsage communities organise their processes through ad hoc forms of governance: as Toffler predicted in the 1970s, what emerges is an 'Ad-hocracy'. Such produsage adhocracies are no anarchies, however: they do have their leaders both for the overall project and for specific aspects of it, but the power of those leaders is much diminished. Rather than forming a strict hierarchy of command and control, they operate in a much looser heterarchy which even allows for the existence of multiple teams of participants working simultaneously in a variety of possibly opposing directions. Leadership is determined through the continuous communal evaluation of participants and their ideas, and through the degree of community merit they are able to build in the process; in this sense, then, produsage heterarchies constitute not simply adhocracies, but ad hoc meritocracies.

What directions of development will ultimately be accepted as the overarching project aims, then, depends once again on their take-up by the communal and ongoing processes of evaluation within the community itself - and where multiple frontrunners emerge, the temporary or permanent division of communities into separate groups is also possible.

3. Unfinished Artefacts, Continuing Process

As content development embraces a probabilistic model, as participant involvement becomes equipotential and fluid, as projects are deconstructed to form granular, modular tasks inviting and harnessing even small contributions from casual members of the produsage community, and as the collaboratively prodused content is shared in an openly accessible information commons, the process of produsage must necessarily remain continually unfinished, and infinitely continuing. Produsage does not work towards the completion of products (for distribution to end users or consumers); instead, it is engaged in an iterative, evolutionary process aimed at the gradual improvement of the community's shared content. Such gradual, probabilistic processes do not ensure against temporary reductions in quality as poor-quality contributions are made by individual produsers, but over time the shared community resource is expected to improve in quality as long as such negative contributions are outweighed by the impact of a larger number of positive contributions.

To ensure that this overall positive development does indeed take place, and that negative contributions are identified and neutralised, produsage communities rely on a combination of community- and technology-based processes. On the one hand, the principle of community evaluation means that there is a good likelihood for negative contributions to be discovered speedily; a further implication of the fluid, heterarchical, ad hoc meritocracy structure of produsage communities is that contributors found to have made such contributions will diminish in social status within the community, thus both ensuring that their future contributions will be regarded more critically by the community from the outset, and providing an incentive for users to improve the quality of their future contributions in order to avoid further marginalisation.

Finally, the technologies of coordinating produsage processes now also frequently offer advanced tools for examining the development history of specific content elements within the overall information commons, and the contribution history of individual participants, as well as means of rolling back development to a point preceding negative contributions. Combined with the communicative tools used to manage the process of produsage, this turns the collaboratively prodused texts which are at the heart of produsage projects into communal property not unlike the medieval palimpsest: such projects take the form of texts authored collaboratively both by conducting a continuing discussion through comments and annotations 'in the margins,' and by the repeated overwriting of existing passages in a shared effort to arrive at a better representation of communally held values and ideas.

Such outcomes, produced through social processes, take on some of the aspects of those processes themselves; they resemble cultural artefacts more than commercial products. Artist Brian Eno suggests that we "think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished." A description of produsage outcomes as 'artefacts' rather than products is therefore highly appropriate: as the process of content development within the produsage community is always necessarily incomplete, the content to be found in the information commons within which the produsage community exists always represents only a temporary artefact of the ongoing process, a snapshot in time which is likely to be different again the next minute, the next hour, or the next day. Any attempt to describe such content as a product once again overlooks the fact that produsage is not production, that users acting as produsers are not producers, and that the community does not operate under hierarchical, corporate frameworks aimed at generating a saleable product to consumers.

However, by extending Eno's category of 'cultural products' to include a wider range of information products we might also ask whether much of the information sold as product today - from Windows to Britannica and beyond - is not similarly, necessarily, permanently unfinished, and whether the sale of such information as product does not claim a completeness which such 'products' cannot possibly provide. That such information is sold in the (physical) form of products has more to do with the legacy of information distribution models from the industrial, pre-network age than it has with the inherent qualities of those 'products'. If - owing to its changing and changeable nature - information is ill-suited for packaging as a product, however, then it is important to ask whether the conventional production model is appropriate for the creation of such informational 'products' at all; informational produsage may well represent a more suitable model.

4. Common Property, Individual Rewards

The communal produsage of content in an information commons necessarily builds on the assumption that content created in this process will continue to be available to all future participants just as it was available to those participants who have already made contributions. Although on a smaller scale such collaborative content produsage had long been possible within individual enthusiast and specialist communities, only the advent of network technologies enabled larger projects, while simultaneously also further reducing the possibility of providing direct rewards for contributors.

Instead, then, participation in produsage projects is generally motivated mainly by the ability of produsers to contribute to a shared, communal purpose. This purpose is embodied in the first place in the content gathered in the information commons itself, and the ability of produsage projects to generate such motivation in their participants therefore relies also on the project's ability to ensure that the commons is managed and protected effectively from abuse or exploitation, and remains openly accessible. Any attempt by individuals within or beyond the community, by community leaders, or by commercial entities outside of the community to capitalise on the content of the information commons beyond what is seen to be legitimate under the rules of the community must therefore be avoided; such rules (as enshrined in a variety of moral and legal documents including the GNU General Public License and Free Documentation License, the Open Source License, and the Creative Commons licence framework) commonly stipulate, for example, that community-held content must remain freely available, that modifications of such content must be made available once again under similar conditions, and that the contributions of individual produsers to the shared project must be recognised and (where appropriate) rewarded. Although content is held communally, therefore, produsers are able to gain personal merit from their individual contributions, and such individual rewards finally are a further strong motivation for participation in produsage communities and projects. Such personal merit (whether gained through contributions at the level of content development, community coordination, or administrative service) rewards the individual by adding to their social capital within and - in some cases - beyond the community; increasingly, where emerging from prominent produsage communities, it has also proven able to be converted into tangible rewards including professional accreditation and employment outcomes for produsers with a proven positive track record within their communities.

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