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Produsage: Basics

Revisiting Produsage

Things have been quiet on this site as I’ve been busy with other work, related only loosely to the idea of produsage,  but I’m currently at a PhD symposium in Copenhagen where I’ve been invited to present an update on my work on produsage. Here, I’ve revisited the fundamental concept of produsage and made the link to my current work on the uses of social media, especially in a journalistic context. Slides and audio below:

Produsage Revisited (Uses across Media 2013)

Axel Bruns. "Produsage Revisited." Invited paper presented at the Uses across Media 2013, Copenhagen, 31 Oct. 2013.

Social Media: Understanding Online Communities (SSCRC 2010)

Axel Bruns. "Social Media: Understanding Online Communities." Presented at the Smart Services CRC Participants Meeting, Sydney, 21 April 2010.

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Strategies for Engaging with Social Media: Two Reports for the Smart Services CRC

One of my research gigs for 2009 was to investigate the potential of social media for the Smart Services CRC, a cooperative research centre comprised of several Australian universities and industry partners from the media, finance, government, and IT fields. Ostensibly, the goal here was to translate what we know about the principles and processes of produsage into actionable ideas for organisations and businesses which aim to engage with social media communities, and I'm pleased to announce that the two reports produced from this research are now available under Creative Commons licences. (I mentioned the release of Report 1 in a previous posting in June.)

All of this was in recognition of the fact - and to say this is not a dig specifically at the CRC's industry partners, but speaks to an almost industry-wide malaise - that social media and the communities which use them remain very poorly understood by the organisations which attempt to use them, which has led to a great many failures in working with social media. (For mine, the jury is still out on whether even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg actually gets social media.)

Indeed, it seems like these failures are now used by some corporate planners to argue against engaging with user communities altogether - 'social media' has become a dirty word for them, as ReadWriteWeb reports just today. It's unlikely that such a head-in-the-sand strategy is going to be successful in the long (or even the short) term, of course - much as the music industry has found with filesharers, social media communities aren't something you can contain by ignoring them, suing them, or quarantining them from your own content using paywalls or other protection mechanisms.

So, what our two reports for the Smart Services CRC aim to do instead is to provide an accessible, level-headed introduction to social media which draws substantially on produsage theory but tries to present those ideas in as simple and straightforward a manner as possible (without, hopefully, dumbing them down too much). I've even gone as far as avoiding to use the term 'produsage' itself all too much, in order not to scare any overanxious corporate strategists who might be frightened off by their encounter with new ideas...

Produsage and Beyond: Exploring the Pro-Am Interface (JMRC 2009)

Axel Bruns. "Produsage and Beyond: Exploring the Pro-Am Interface." Invited seminar at the Journalism & Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 Oct. 2009.

The concept of produsage (Bruns 2008) describes the user-led collaborative approach to content creation which is prevalent in open source, citizen journalism, and the Wikipedia, as well as many other social media spaces. While many produsage projects have emerged initially to challenge dominant players in industry, their successful establishment as viable and sustainable alternatives also opens the door for an exploration of manageable cooperative arrangements between industry and community. Many challenges remain for such Pro-Am (Leadbeater & Miller 2004) models, however - not least an often deep-seated sense of mutual distrust -, and successful Pro-Am models may be most likely to succeed when sponsored by trusted third parties (public broadcasters, NGOs). This presentation explores pitfalls and possibilities in the Pro-Am space.

From Prosumer to Produser: Understanding User-Led Content Creation (Transforming Audiences 2009)

Axel Bruns. "From Prosumer to Produser: Understanding User-Led Content Creation." Paper presented at Transforming Audiences, London, 3-4 Sep. 2009.

Alvin Toffler's image of the prosumer (1970, 1980, 1990) continues to influence in a significant way our understanding of the user-led, collaborative processes of content creation which are today labelled "social media" or "Web 2.0". A closer look at Toffler's own description of his prosumer model reveals, however, that it remains firmly grounded in the mass media age: the prosumer is clearly not the self-motivated creative originator and developer of new content which can today be observed in projects ranging from open source software through Wikipedia to Second Life, but simply a particularly well-informed, and therefore both particularly critical and particularly active, consumer. The highly specialised, high end consumers which exist in areas such as hi-fi or car culture are far more representative of the ideal prosumer than the participants in non-commercial (or as yet non-commercial) collaborative projects. And to expect Toffler's 1970s model of the prosumer to describe these 21st-century phenomena was always an unrealistic expectation, of course.

Beyond Toffler, beyond the Prosumer

I'm briefly back in Brisbane before heading back to Europe for the next round of conferences and a good month as a visiting scholar and Alcatel-Lucent Fellow at the Hans-Bredow-Institut in Hamburg. My time here at home has given me an opportunity to reflect on the conferences I attended on the last trip: WebSci '09 in Athens and Prosumer Revisited in Frankfurt.

Prosumer Revisited in particular, which I blogged about here, was an interesting experience - probably my first opportunity to reconnect in detail with the work being done in the overall area of produsage (and some way beyond it) in German academic research. A number of the keynotes at the conference were excellent, and it'll be interesting to follow some of the trajectories they explored.

I remain very much unconvinced about the attempt to make Alvin Toffler's term 'prosumer', now a good quarter-century old, do all the work of carrying this research, though - and not just because with the produser I have my own neologism to offer as an alternative. To begin with, the term 'prosumer' has never been satisfactorily defined, and is now regularly used to mean whatever a particular speaker wants it to mean - that tendency, I'm afraid, was also in evidence in some of the presentations at the Prosumer Revisited conference itself. (Put another way - perhaps we've never properly visited the prosumer when the term was first coined; 'revisiting' it today can therefore inevitably only add to the confusion over how to understand it.)

For Toffler himself, as far as I can make out (and even here, the definition shifts over the decades), the prosumer was for the most part simply an extension of the conventional production line: a way to involve consumers in better reporting their needs and wants to producers, and thus to enable a process of mass customisation. More active, independent customer, consumer, or user agency seems to be denied by this model, though - the prosumer, as I read Toffler, very much remains a (professional) consumer, and fails to make the more towards becoming an active producer in any real sense of the word.

Organisation in Open Source and Social Media: A Response to Chris Anderson

My colleague Julien Vayssière at the Smart Services CRC sent me a link to a post on Chris Anderson's The Long Tail blog today, which seeks to draw a distinction between the organisational paradigms of open source and social media. The key point:

What makes successful open source projects is leadership, plain and simple. One or two people articulate a vision, start building towards it and bring others on board with specific tasks and permissions. The best projects are the ones with the best leaders.

Social media, on the other hands, doesn't exist for a shared purpose. It exists to serve the individual. We don't tweet to built Twitter, we tweet to suit ourselves. We blog because we can, not because we have signed on to a blogging project.

There's some truth underlying this, but I'm sorry - as far as I'm concerned, that description is way too simplistic. Anderson goes on:

Vom Prosumer zum Produser: Ein neues Verständnis nutzergesteuerter Inhaltserschaffung (Prosumer Revisited 2009)

Axel Bruns. "Vom Prosumer zum Produser: Ein neues Verständnis nutzergesteuerter Inhaltserschaffung." Presented at Prosumer Revisited: Eine Tagung zur Aktualität der Debatte, Frankfurt, 26 Mar. 2009.

Alvin Tofflers Bild des Prosumers beeinflußt weiterhin maßgeblich unser Verständnis vieler heutzutage als "Social Media" oder "Web 2.0" beschriebener nutzergesteuerter, kollaborativer Prozesse der Inhaltserstellung. Ein genauerer Blick auf Tofflers eigene Beschreibung seines Prosumermodells offenbart jedoch, daß es fest im Zeitalter der Massenmedienvorherrschaft verankert bleibt: der Prosumer ist eben nicht jener aus eigenem Antrieb aktive, kreative Ersteller und Weiterbearbeiter neuer Inhalte, wie er heutzutage in Projekten von der Open-Source-Software über die Wikipedia bis hin zu Second Life zu finden ist, sondern nur ein ganz besonders gut informierter, und daher in seinem Konsumverhalten sowohl besonders kritischer als auch besonders aktiver Konsument. Hochspezialisierte, High-End-Konsumenten etwa im Hi-Fi- oder Automobilbereich stellen viel eher das Idealbild des Prosumers dar als das für Mitarbeiter in oft eben gerade nicht (oder zumindest noch nicht) kommerziell erfaßten nutzergesteuerten Kollaborationsprojekten der Fall ist. Solches von Tofflers in den 70ern erarbeiteten Modells zu erwarten, ist sicherlich ohnehin zuviel verlangt.

'Anyone Can Edit': From Users to Produsers (Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, 2009)

Axel Bruns. "'Anyone Can Edit': From Users to Produsers." Guest lecture at the Sino-German School of Governance, Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, 26 Mar. 2009.

Um die kreative und kollaborative Beteiligung zu beschreiben, die heutzutage nutzergesteuerte Projekte wie etwa die Wikipedia auszeichnet, ist ein Begriff wie 'Produktion' nur noch bedingt nützlich - selbst in Konstruktionen wie 'nutzergesteuerte Produktion' oder 'P2P-Produktion'. In den Nutzergemeinschaften, die an solchen Formen der Inhaltserschaffung teilnehmen, haben sich Rollen als Konsumenten und Benutzer längst unwiederbringlich mit solchen als Produzent vermischt - Nutzer sind immer auch unausweichlich Produzenten der gemeinsamen Informationssammlung, ganz egal, ob sie sich dessens auch bewußt sind: sie haben eine neue, hybride Rolle angenommen, die sich vielleicht am besten als 'Produtzer' umschreiben lassen kann. Projekte, die auf solche Produtzung (Englisch: produsage) aufbauen, finden sich in Bereichen von Open-Source-Software über Bürgerjournalismus bis hin zur Wikipedia, und darüberhinaus auch zunehmend in Computerspielen, Filesharing, und selbst im Design materieller Güter. Obwohl unterschiedlich in ihrer Ausrichtung, bauen sie doch auf eine kleine Zahl universeller Grundprinzipien auf.


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