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Re-Public: Who Controls the Means of Produsage?

I'm very pleased to see that a new article of mine has just been published in the energetic Greek online journal Re-Public. Editor Pavlos Hatzopoulos invited me a little while ago to respond to a first wave of articles discussing and critiquing the emergent phenomena of the social Web, and the contributor list already includes a number key thinkers in the field, from Michel Bauwens to Trebor Scholz. In fact, I responded specifically to the opening discussion between Trebor and Paul Hartzog, which revisits the industrial-age question of "Who owns the means of production?" for the new, information-age context.

What was missing from this, from my point of view, was a concern not so much with the means of production, but with the next step in the chain - with the means that connect producers and users, the means that facilitate the interaction, collaboration, and ultimately the produsage that takes place when the producer/consumer dichotomy diminishes. This, I feel, should be the main starting-point for critique now - the question should be "Who controls the means of produsage?" In fact, its claim to exclusive ownership and control of the means of produsage within its gated community is one of the reasons why I am so concerned about the rise of Facebook, as I've noted previously.

Anyway - the article is now available on Re-Public, and reprinted below. A special thrill for me (having studied ancient Greek at school) is that Re-Public also published a (modern) Greek translation of the piece: Ποιος ελέγχει τα μέσα παραγωγής/κατανάλωσης; Cool...

Who Controls the Means of Produsage?

By Axel Bruns

The conversation between Paul Hartzog and Trebor Scholz that frames this issue of Re-public begins with a discussion of whether the traditional critical focus on who owns the means of production still means anything in a networked world driven by user-led content creation, or what I would call produsage. What's curiously absent from the debate, though (and of the other authors included here, only Michel Bauwens engages with it in detail) is any consideration of who controls the means of distribution - a question which, I think, is crucial to any understanding of power structures in the social Web.

Perhaps this omission isn't surprising - in the decade or two that many of us have been using the Internet, we've come to internalise the belief that for any piece of content that gets created and posted online, the Net will, without fail, take care of its distribution to anybody who wants it, and even recent debates (in the U.S.) about network neutrality have done little to make us question that belief. AOL's walled garden was the last great bastion withstanding the Net's mighty powers of instantaneous, universal distribution, and ultimately even its walls came tumbling down.

And yes, for a while it did seem that way - for-pay content access models disappeared over time, willingly or with a little help from the peer-to-peer fraternity, and new, ever more sophisticated tools allowed more and more of us to generate and publish our own content to the World Wide Web, to find and respond to that of others, and even to collaborate with large communities of other users in free and open processes of communal content creation. Again, the apparently unencumbered distributive powers of the Internet meant that ownership and control of the means of distribution appeared to be nothing we needed to worry about (unless, of course, we found ourselves in countries where distribution of certain content was restricted for political or other reasons).

Of course 'distribution' in a networked world no longer means what it used to in the industrial age, when we dealt mainly with commodities in physical form. Call it access, call it transaction, call it interaction: as a rigid producer > distributor > consumer model is replaced, especially in the context of the social and collaborative engagement with information, by a model of produsage in which we're all constantly in a position to be act as both users and producers of content (that is, as produsers), ownership of these means of interaction - which enable users to discover others and the content created by them, to access and retrieve that content, and to respond to it by making their own contributions and modifications - becomes the central point of control.

In his contribution here, Michel Bauwens describes this as a question of the platforms which support the social Web, and draws a useful distinction between platforms arising out of a sharing model (where commercial proprietors offers space for users to collaborate) and platforms based on a commons model (where the platform itself is operated by community-oriented non-profit organisations, and commercial interest play only an ancillary role). He's right, of course - if we keep in mind that between these two key models can also exist a number of further, hybrid, variations -, and yet the rather passive term 'platform' may understate just what a crucial role these tools of the interactive, collaborative, social Web are able to play today.

So without disagreeing with Michel, let us consider the role of these tools as the means of interaction. To do so doesn't claim that questions relating to the means of production or the means of usage are no longer relevant: they still apply, especially for communities disadvantaged by their geographical, socioeconomic, or educational location in the world, but production and usage are nothing without interaction as the point of connection between those two practices, so that's where the main game now lies. And the increasing sophistication of the latest Web-based means of interaction - of produsage, of social networking, of other forms of online collaboration and social engagement - and the otherwise unsophisticated nature of basic Web interaction infrastructure is also the reason that we must now return to considering who controls these means interaction.

Let's not limit our definition of these means only to the latest entrants, though - it was Google which had, though not the first, then certainly the first fundamentally transformational impact here: the dominant modern search engine, it enabled a whole new level of discovery and access, without which our interaction with the content of others would not have been able to be as effective and eclectic as it has turned out to be. Google (the search engine, not its latter-day slew of additional tools) does little more than bridge the gap between producers and users of information - it facilitates interaction, without determining what form that interaction may take - and yet it's virtually indispensable to that process of interaction. Our occasional debates about what forms of information (and thus, interaction with information) the PageRank system may privilege, how we might game this means of interaction by googlebombing and linkfarming, and how enforced or self-censorship of Google search results in certain territories affects those who live there, each show that who controls Google as a means of interaction has become an important question of the networked age.

And yet Google as a search engine does little more than work within the existing constraints of Web technology, with its unidirectional, downright brittle form of linking that's only ever a broken URL away from falling over. Google takes care of one part of our interaction with others on the Web - discovering what's, and who's, out there (or what was out there last time the Googlebot came through); it doesn't keep track of where it, where they, went, and what they since may have said about me, my friends, or the people and topics I care about. We've introduced open and proprietary tools and systems to do this, as additional means of interaction - from RSS feeds, permalinks, and the dear departed Trackback protocol to the likes of, Digg, and Google Analytics. Or indeed, we've switched to enhanced Webs-within-the-Web, from Friendster and LinkedIn to their second- and third-generation descendants: sites which still transfer their content to the user in HTML, but whose internal information discovery, interaction, and response processes take place according to proprietary database logics.

From this perspective, it's not difficult to see that the constructive or (depending on your point of view) insidious contribution which social Web sites from Digg to Facebook make is to turbo-charge the Web's interaction process - and the more they do so, many of them lock their users into their own proprietary framework of interactive possibilities, and further undermine the universality of basic Web protocols. For this and other reasons, as I've already stated elsewhere, I'm no fan of Facebook and similar closed sites: I believe that ultimately, they unnecessarily and unduly create a new walled garden apart from the wider Web - an enclosure which to interact in users trade away the ability to distribute their expressions freely and easily to a wider audience outside its gates. Facebook may be a site for social interaction, but from a wider, whole-of-Web perspective beyond its own walls, it's contributing not to the social, but to an antisocial Web.

Committed Facebook converts may not see the problem, but for those of us who still resist the constant poking and prodding, the announcements of yet more closed communities, and the alerts promising us content only available inside the proprietary enclosure, these daily reminders only indicate that more and more information is now only available by utilising means of interaction which we have no ability to control. Access and interoperability for all are sacrificed for the promise of more effective and feature-rich interactions for some, but at the same time, control over the form and extent of those interactions is transferred away from the user and to the proprietor of the means of interaction. (As a polemical aside, what this reminds me of is the rise of that hideous abomination that is HTML email, which by now has made it virtually impossible to conduct intelligent extended email conversations. Here, too, universal interoperability was traded away for a few proprietary bells'n'whistles. But perhaps that's just me.)

Of course it needn't be that way - whether for-profit or non-profit, open-access social networking and produsage projects from Blogger to Wikipedia to Google Maps are able to operate just fine without placing unwarranted conditions on users' interactions, even though these sites, too, have added substantial new features to the Web's standard suite of interactional means. For that reason, I strongly support Michel Bauwens's call for us to "furiously build the commons": a commons not only of information, knowledge, and creative work, collaboratively prodused and curated by all of us, but also of distribution and interaction; a commons in which access to and engagement with content isn't restricted by a maze of walls - defined through incompatible data formats and noninteroperable access protocols - that enclose isolated user communities.

Projects that work towards the development of portable user profiles go some way towards that commons, but let's aim for a further step - let's tear down the barriers to interaction before they do irreversible damage to the social Web as we know it. To do so doesn't make it impossible for MySpace, Facebook, and other sites to retain their own unique feel - but it also introduces the possibility for users to create their own mash-ups of both sites' features: a Spacebook or MyFace. (My thanks to Ann for coining the latter term.)

This is important perhaps especially as we advance further towards a widespread deployment of produsage models for the creation and sharing of information, knowledge, and creative work. Produsage - the user-led collaborative, iterative, and continuing creation and development of content which we're familiar with for example in open source, citizen journalism, or the Wikipedia - can exist on platforms for interaction which are operated by produser communities themselves, by non-profit organisations, even by commercial proprietors (additionally, it can also employ a model that relies, like the blogosphere, on a distributed network of individual sites). It may be able to operate within walled gardens, provided these enclosures are large enough to sustain an active and diverse community of contributors - but it thrives only in open environments which impose no barriers to participation. Only here is the produsage process able to harness the long tail of possible contributors all the way to its furthest reaches; only here is it possible for the most casual of contributors to perform those random acts of collaboration (to paraphrase JD Lasica's famous "random acts of journalism") which have made Wikipedia what it is today.

If a produsage logic of collaborative content creation which always already positions information users also as potential producers of content - in short, as produsers - is to become the guiding principle of the networked age, much as the production logic that separated producers, distributors, and consumers as distinct roles guided the industrial age, then two key transformations must take place. In the first place, obviously, produsage artefacts must come to be regarded as just as useful and reliable as the products of the industrial content production process. This is increasingly the case for the three currently leading fields of produsage, perhaps - for open source software, for citizen journalism, and for the Wikipedia as a knowledge resource.

The second key transformation is that those who (in the face of produsage's early successes) develop commercial models for harnessing produsage processes and harbouring produsage communities resist the proprietary reflex to artificially enclose the artefacts and participants of produsage: that they follow the model of a or Flickr rather than that of a Facebook, and seek (legitimate) commercial success without hijacking the community in the process. Google does this, for the most part - and the emerging owners of the means of produsage need to be encouraged to follow the Google motto "do no evil" even more closely than Google itself may have turned out to do.

While, as we live through the slow paradigm shift from industrial to networked age, even the first transformation has taken place only in a number of (nonetheless important) domains, and is actively resisted by incumbent interests elsewhere, we must therefore already prepare the ground for a critical examination of where and how the second transformation will take place. This requires us to pay attention no longer mainly to who owns the means of production, but to ask a new question: who controls the means of produsage?

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