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ABC Digital Media Forum 2008 - Beyond Public Service Broadcasting: Produsage at the ABC

This time next Friday, I'll be attending the 2008 ABC Digital Media Forum, an internal strategy conference that aims to develop innovative approaches to engaging with digital media (and importantly, digital media users) for our national broadcaster. I won't be blogging the full conference itself, as much of what will be discussed there will remain confidential for the moment, but I'm sure I'll be able at least to post my overall impressions. For some years now, the ABC has taken a markedly proactive stance towards exploring the potential of participatory new media models; it will be exciting to see what's already in the pipeline for the near future, and what may be possible a little further down the track.

I was invited to the conference by Tony Walker, Manager of the ABC's Digital Radio division (and the driving force behind the ABC Digital Futures blog), and will provide a few thoughts for a session titled "Content Production in the Age of Participation". Below is a draft of my remarks - any comments, especially from current or potential users of the ABC's services, would be very welcome...

Beyond Public Service Broadcasting: Produsage at the ABC

By Axel Bruns

Let me begin by thanking Tony for the invitation to join you today; it's great to be here. Before coming to Australia in the 90s, I grew up in what was then West Germany, which as you may know has had a very strong tradition of public service broadcasting since the war - so I'm very well aware of how crucial public service media organisations are as a place for informing and engaging citizens, and I'm delighted to support the ABC in its work.

Of course the shape of the media has changed a great deal over the last decade or two, and as far as I'm concerned it's set to change even further (and perhaps, faster), which raises the question of what the role of PSBs may be in this new environment. I don't mean to say that radio and television are no longer very important factors in creating a shared public mediasphere that we can all take part in (at local, state, and national levels), but as our media mix changes further in favour of online media, and as radio and television are themselves delivered increasingly also through online means, with their own opportunities and challenges, we - or mainly, you - will have to work out what that means for the ABC's role in society.

What I can offer you are some insights into what's happening in the hotspots of the online environment - and here, particularly those spaces which directly involve their users as content creators and collaborators (or what I'll call produsers - and I'll get back to that term).

I'd like to start with a couple of quick examples for what I'm talking about. The first one may seem a little irrelevant to the ABC, but I think it points to important lessons: I'm talking about Lonely Planet, the well-known travel guide publisher. For the last few years, the company has been in some degree of strife - it was hit hard by the global travel downturn after September 11, but another and perhaps more permanent factor in its decline was the rise of user-generated travel advisory Websites.

Especially with improving mobile devices and global access to the Internet, many travellers have switched from the traditional approach of carrying a more or less up-to-date guidebook on their journeys to using a mobile phone, laptop, or Internet cafés to access the latest information on what to do and where to go in the places they visit. And that's not all - they no longer rely on travel operators and local organisers to publish information about what's happening, but on informal networks of travellers who share snippets of information and recommendations about what hotels, tour operators, local attractions are must-sees or must-avoids.

Their contributions - on sites such as IGoUGo - can be as small as adding another five-star rating to the profile of a backpackers' in Beijing, or as large as posting extensive travel journals complete with photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube, and walking maps on Google Maps, for others to follow, discuss, and expand upon. Hotel and tour operators are as affected by this development as Lonely Planet, by the way - many of them have had to respond publicly to the criticism of their facilities, and have had to document the improvements they've made.

So, this participatory, user-led model of sharing travel recommendations has very rapidly undermined the traditional, top-down model of published guidebooks - we've moved from media for the people to media by the people. Interestingly, in the wash-up of all of this the BBC bought a 75% stake in Lonely Planet late last year, and the company has rapidly reorganised itself around improved collaborative online environments which are meant both to tie right into the user-led model, and to introduce into it the extensive experience of its staff travel writers.

I'm highlighting this example as it applies more broadly to all media organisations, of course - including the ABC: if even only part of what you've been doing so far is now able to be done by 'the people formerly known as the audience' (as Jay Rosen has called them), who have now become active content creators and distributors in their own right, you ignore them at your own risk. At the same time, for a progressive media organisation (like the BBC and, I hope, the ABC), there are great opportunities to develop new models, too - but it must move beyond a broadcast mentality to realise them.

My second example is the federal election we've just had. With my colleagues Jason Wilson and Barry Saunders, I had the opportunity to contribute a series called Club Bloggery to ABC Online, covering the interplay between bloggers and journalists during the campaign - and we've seen some very interesting developments here. One is that we've had to add the word 'psephologist' to our vocabulary - some of the most influential blogs of the campaign were written by professional or student scientists specialising in the analysis of opinion polls, and they sometimes gave the mainstream media a run for their money.

If you followed especially the columnists in The Australian closely, you'll have noticed a growing despair over these interlopers - they undermined what had been a relatively comfortable position of interpreting the polls from a position of apparent authority, and offered a very different reading of public opinion, backed by the facts and ultimately proven right by the election results. At one point in July, The Australian (dubbed the Government Gazette by the bloggers) thundered in its editorial that unlike those pesky armchair journalists, "we understand Newspoll because we own it" - but that turned out to be no more than hollow posturing in the end.

What's happening here is the rise not of armchair, but of citizen journalism, of course - something I've researched in some detail. I need to make this very clear: citizen journalism doesn't mean that professional journalism will suddenly disappear, or is no longer needed - but it does mean that it's important to recognise where non-journalists know more about an issue than journalists do, and to work with them rather than battle against them. The Australian got that terribly wrong - from what I've seen so far, the ABC has been doing a much better job here.

During the campaign, we ran a research project that developed a citizen journalism site called (with some support from SBS, I have to admit). What we tried to do here - and it's worked pretty well - was to focus especially on another area where citizens will almost always have an advantage over professional journalists: the local and hyperlocal field. So, we encouraged our citizen journalists to report on the local campaign in their own electorates - and ended up, for example, with some excellent coverage from Kalgoorlie; not an electorate which traditionally receives a great deal of attention.

So again, the idea here is to develop useful pro-am collaborations between citizen and mainstream media, with each side focussing on their own strengths and sharing ideas, information, and resources as appropriate. Mainstream media coverage can be extended and enhanced with additional information from citizens, drawn from their own expertise (local or professional); the mainstream may provide a starting point for further discussion down the line, but it may also be the case that the best citizen-generated work is drawn into the mainstream.

Towards Produsage

What I'm trying to say here is this: everybody has a useful contribution to make somewhere, and media organisations shouldn't be afraid of this, but actively encourage it - and make it as easy as possible to for people to make contributions, and to highlight the best contributions made by others. Whether we're dealing with creative work, citizen journalism, travel advice, or any other form of content, this relies on four key preconditions:

  • equipotential community structures which see every participant as a potentially important contributor and avoid in-built boundaries and hierarchies in favour of open, flat, heterarchical structures - Lonely Planet's editorial hierarchy was replaced by an open community of people sharing their travel experiences;

  • probabilistic processes which do not overly restrict contributors' abilities to make a contribution, and instead rely on the power of the community to distinguish constructive from disruptive contributions - the psephologist bloggers didn't rise to public attention because they had media backing, but because Australian Web users realised the quality of their work;

  • granular tasks which allow for the possibility of 'random acts of participation' even from uncommitted, casual, drop-in contributors - IGoUGo participants may just add a rating or correct an address, or may add entirely new resources;

  • shared rather than owned content which is intended for reuse, remixing, and mash-ups - what emerges from these projects is not a collection of individual stories and other content, but a collaboratively developed, shared resource.

I think it might be worth our while spending some time discussing how these preconditions may be achieved in any of the participatory spaces that the ABC is set to explore, keeping in mind the necessary operational constraints under which such spaces must operate.

I'd like to emphasise again that there are some very fundamental developments underway here. A lot of people are talking about the rise of user-led content production, as an alternative or complement to the professional production of content, and of course there's a lot of truth to this. I think the main point is a slightly different one, though - in many of the spaces for participatory media, the concern is not so much with the production of finalised content by individuals or groups, but with the ongoing development of a range of resources (whether we're talking about open source software, citizen journalism news, knowledge collected in Wikipedia, or even video content in YouTube). In other words, the focus should not be on encouraging users simply to create content and publish it, but to interact and engage both with content and with one another, without seeing publication as an end point.

For that reason I've suggested the term produsage as a way of thinking about this: a hybrid form of production and usage, or a way of collaboratively using content which in the process produces new material. Wikipedia users, for example, don't so much create new entries from scratch as they correct, reorganise, and expand the material already available in the encyclopedia; psephologists and other bloggers don't uncover new stories as much as they comment on, respond to, and follow up on existing coverage in the mainstream media and elsewhere; many YouTube contributors don't shoot new video from scratch, but remix and mash up available footage from a variety of sources to come up with clips as funny and exciting as the "Chairman Kevin" video some of you may have seen, which was featured on the ABC's Unleashed channel on YouTube before the election.

In my research I've identified a number of key principles which apply to almost all of these spaces, whether they deal with software development, knowledge management, or creative practice. Anyone looking to develop successful and sustainable participatory media environments should take these principles into account, I believe:

  1. Open Participation, Communal Evaluation
    Produsage is based on a principle of inclusivity, not exclusivity, and is therefore open to all comers. 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. Their contributions are 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 which are not will remain unused.

  2. Fluid Heterarchy, Ad Hoc Meritocracy
    Produsage necessarily proceeds from a principle of 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. Leadership is determined through the continuous communal evaluation of participants and their ideas, and through the degree of community merit they are able to accumulate in the process; in this sense, then, produsage communities are ad hoc meritocracies.

  3. Unfinished Artefacts, Continuing Process
    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. The content found in a produsage community 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.

  4. Common Property, Individual Rewards
    The communal produsage of content 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. Participation in produsage projects is generally motivated mainly by the ability of produsers to contribute to a shared, communal purpose. But although content is held communally, produsers are able to gain personal merit from their individual contributions - and in some cases this has been converted into tangible outcomes for dedicated produsers.

The Role of the Public Service Broadcaster

Let me just finish with a few brief words on why I think all of this is of crucial importance overall, and for the ABC in particular. To begin with, I believe very strongly that produsage is a growing trend, and part of a wider development towards a more participatory cultural environment. I think that eventually, it will fundamentally alter cultural and social structures; it spells the decline of consumers and audiences as we know them, and the rise of a more active form of public participation and citizenship.

Of course I think (and I hope nobody here will disagree) that the ABC should be a leader, not a follower in such developments - I think it ought to promote active citizenship, whether that means encouraging the creation and sharing of cultural content or political debate and deliberation, by citizens and between citizens. At the height of the broadcast age, the ABC necessarily had to act on behalf of citizens, as a proxy, offering a space where Australian voices could be heard and public concerns could be aired - this was its role as a public service broadcaster.

Today, I would argue that that role is shifting: actively participating citizens can now use online media to share their culture, their views, their experiences by themselves, but the ABC is able to provide a safe, equitable, fair, and inclusive space to bring together this diversity of voices - and that is the public service I believe it should provide. This would position it as a Public Service Media Organisation: a facilitator of citizen engagement rather than a broadcaster of content for and on behalf of citizens. In essence, what this means is to redefine the role of the ABC from making media for the people to making media with the people - perhaps a shift from ABC as 'Auntie' to ABC as mate, if you like.

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