Produsage: realising childhood dreams

Yay for produsage!

Until recently, you could go to the Barbie website and customize your own doll, which would then be shipped out to you. Devastated that I no longer had the chance to create my own image in plastic (they never make redheaded Barbies, it was up to me), I snooped around Google for a while, looking for other things I could design online and have sent to me. The ‘design-your-own’ opportunities ranged from Converse sneakers, to wedding dresses, and from garden plans to tattoos.

These days, it seems you can design pretty much anything you want online, and manufacturers will build it to your specifications and send it to you. You need not even leave your computer chair.

According to Bauwens (in Bruns): ‘In industrial processes, we could see the design phase being separated from the material production phase’. Bauwens uses the example of cars being designed by open source communities, and then produced by a third party who has access to the necessary capital. This example is evidence of produsage turning artifacts into products – the ever-evolving product created by produsers is being frozen in time by request. Manufacturers are no longer telling consumers what to buy, rather consumers (as produsers) are telling manufacturers what to make.

As can be seen from its online popularity, the process of turning artifacts into products is quickly becoming the new way to consume. But how does it work? According to Bruns:

The core business of the new production service industries will be to convert the intangible artifacts of the ongoing produsage-based design processes taking place in the informational realm into tangible products – that is, to produce the artifacts of produsage.

So, instead of going online and selecting a product from the display of what is available, you can log on, collaborate with others to create something new, and send the design to a manufacturer to build. Like Bauwens said (above), the design phase is being separated from the material production phase. Produsers are now designing, both individually and collaboratively, thus removing the design phase from the manufacturer. This new process is often aided by producers, as highlighted by Bruns:

In many of its native environments, the community of produsers is already working more speedily and more effectively on the creation, sharing and development of new information and knowledge resources that conventional produsers are able to, and for such producers, their business is rapidly converting from one based on content production to one which provides services to aid the community in its produsage efforts.

As could be seen from the old Barbie site, the doll’s producer, Mattel, recognized the desire for Barbie fans to create their own dolls. Rather than forcing their own creations down the fans’ throats, they created an online program that allowed consumers to create their own dolls, which Mattel would then produce, and send out to them. Though this opportunity is no longer available, many other producers have recognized the new design-your-own trend, and help, rather than hinder, consumers (as produsers).

Through produsage, aspirations to create something new and individual, collaborate with others to come up with a super-product, or even realize childhood dreams of creating your own Barbie doll, can be realized.

Published in: on May 26, 2009 at 10:42 am  Comments (1)  
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Pro-Ams: the new experts

As we have seen from previous posts, the new media du jour is produsage: the rise of consumers producing things they want to consume for themselves. Citizen Journalism is an example of this process: instead of consuming only media fed to them by industrial journalism, people are instead writing and collaborating online. The same sort of process occurs in the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia. One person creates a wiki page based on their knowledge in a certain area, and other users edit and add to this information as they see fit.

The main problem with produsage is that in allowing open production, the quality of the information posted and edited cannot be guaranteed. This is where the struggle between Professional and Amateur exists. A person who specialises in a specific field can be considered a professional, and thus a reliable source of information. However, a person who is genuinely interested in and has pursued the same topic, developing a large knowledge base in the process, is not considered reliable. WHY? Who defines professionals?

As Bruns points out:

Is an uncredentialed enthusiast, from amateur astronomers to local historians, from committed fans of Battlestar Galactica to the volunteer developers of open source software, to be considered as inherently less knowledgeable than ‘experts’ in the field?

‘Amateurs’, committed to their particular area of interest, with a large knowledge base to share on the topic, have coined the term ‘Pro-Am’, blurring the line between professional and amateur in their quest to improve sites such as Wikipedia with their knowledge. Sanger, however, as highlighted in Bruns, believes the line between professional and amateur is distinct. I, for one, have fallen victim to his theory.

Ever since I was five, I have been fascinated with Ancient Egypt. I watched documentaries, poured over library books, and nearly died of happiness in 1999, when the Queensland Museum held an exhibition featuring real mummies. I knew my stuff. From Ancient Egyptian myths and legends, to religion, warfare and everyday life, there was little information on this topic I didn’t devour.

In grade four, my class began learning about Ancient Egypt. I was, unsurprisingly, over the moon. Until the day my teacher (remaining nameless, as grudges still stand), informed the class as to the location of Ramases III’s burial chamber. She was wrong, so I corrected her – and promptly received detention. Parents were even called.

Now, I was right. But I was not the teacher. So I was punished.

Granted, a nine-year-old could be seen as a little different from a Pro-Am, but the basic stages of knowledge development are still there. I found a topic that I enthusiastically enjoyed and pursued, and developed a large knowledge base on that topic. When I dared to correct information presented by a ‘professional’, I was put down and punished.

Today, Pro-Ams are still facing criticism that their knowledge so enthusiastically learned is not reliable. However, as Bruns pointed out: experts and their expertise cover no more than the tips of the iceberg of human knowledge. No one person can know absolutely everything there is to know on a topic. By sharing and collaborating information on sites such as Wikipedia, Professionals and Amateurs come together to learn from each other.

As for the nameless teacher, I’ve nailed that chip to my shoulder.

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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Wikipedia – pride or prejudice?

Oh, Wikipedia. You owe me. 

Countless research assignments marked down due to unreliable sources, constant grief caused by questionable editing, premature stress lines appearing around my eyes resulting from teachers, lecturers and tutors shrieking your evils.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, collaboratively created and edited. The English version of Wikipedia contains over two million articles, ranging from creation theories to breaking news. This version alone also hosts over 4.5 million registered users. 

The problem my teachers have with Wikipedia is that anyone can edit its articles. They believe this means that although registered and anonymous contributors consist of ‘approved’ educated persons such as doctors, lawyers and academics, they also consist of unapproved, uninterested, uneducated parties, who mess with the factual content of pages for their own amusement.

It has been proven that Wikipedia has been used for less-than-orthodox purposes: according to Bruns, senators and congressmen have been caught tampering with their entries, and the entire United States’ House of Representatives has been banned from Wikipedia several times. The perpetrators in these instances of misuse are not likely the sorts of people my teachers had in mind when they declared Wikipedia unreliable due to their open-editing policy. Boyd highlights their ignorance( in Bruns): ‘many librarians, teachers and academics fear Wikipedia (not dislike it) because it is not properly understood.’

The truth is, Wikipedia is a self-correcting adhocracy – any new post will most likely be revised, corrected, and added to by other users. In cases where attempts are made to undermine Wikipedia’s development process (e.g. posting offensive material), users have usually responded quickly, reverting the page back to its previous state, correcting the changes made, or temporarily blocking repeat offenders from editing the page. The whole point of Wikipedia is that anyone can publish information, as anyone can edit existing information. So, although a minority (and not just uneducated delinquents, as generally thought) may post incorrect information on a Wikipedia page, it is highly likely another user will correct incorrect information within a few hours. According to Pink (in Bruns): ‘making changes is so simple that who prevails often comes down to who cares more. And Wikipedians care. A lot.’

The problem with Wikipedia is that its structure – around a self-correcting adhocracy – is not publicized. Unless teachers search the ‘about’ page in Wikipedia, it is not likely they fully understand (or will bother to learn) how methods of produsage are used in establishing the encyclopedia as a constantly updated and revised source of information. This is also pointed out by Bruns: ‘many of the critiques of Wikipedia… point to the as yet limited public understanding of that model’s underlying principle’.

It would seem that although my teachers have drilled into my head that using Wikipedia as an academic source is a big mistake, it is in fact their own beliefs of unreliability that have caused me so much grief. So many professionals and academics refuse to consider Wikipedia’s possibilities, that their students are now suffering from their prejudices.

Apologies Wikipedia, it seems the blame for my stress lines does not extend to you.

Published in: on May 14, 2009 at 9:09 pm  Comments (2)  
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Citizen Journalism – friend or foe?

My best friend Chloe is in her second year of a journalism degree. At the end of next year, she will graduate, a fully certified journalist, trained by some of the very best in the industry.

Who cares?

Chloe is one of thousands of aspiring writers and journalists falling victim to the citizen journalism movement. ‘Citizen journalism’ involves the idea that the news may be too important to leave to the journalists.

Since the creation of indymedia.com in 1999, citizen journalism has taken the world (via the internet) by storm. The process starts with one person posting an idea, fact, or story in an online community environment. The community then engages in evaluation on the topic, adding further information, discussing points of interest, and enhancing the quality of the information. It often occurs that by the community adding and evaluating posted stories, the quality and detail of the information far outstrips the same coverage by commercial journalism.

Since 1999, the online community has come to learn that citizen journalism is a good thing, not only for the individual and wider community, but also the improvement of the Fourth Estate. According to Bruns:

Corporate journalism must necessarily always exist under the threat and the suspicion of outside influences exerting their pressure on the journalistic processes for commercial or political reasons… Its [citizen journalism’s] open processes avoid the impact of personal or institutional bias on behalf of individual journalists and editors.

So if citizen journalism frees the Fourth Estate of political and institutional bias by replacing a profitable hierarchy with a collective of interested parties, why are journalists around the world (including Chloe) shaking in their grammatically correct boots? Surely, as part of the industry, they should be glad to be freed of their hierarchically-enforced shackles?

It would seem today the commercial journalism industry faces a crisis: audiences have become active users. Instead of paying to be read the news, audiences are engaging in citizen journalism: news written and read by the people. Put simply: the commercial industry won’t get paid for doing something everyone is doing. Advertisers, the main source of commercial media’s income, will look for the best possible exposure of their products to target audiences. If that is no longer within the commercial industry, they will move. And they have – Google advertisements feature on some of the more prominent citizen journalism sites: helium.com, OhmyNews.com, and cyberjournalist.net.

With a downturn in commercial industry funding, and a shift of audiences from commercial to citizen journalism, how will Chloe get her dream job? Are aspiring writers and journalists now forced to look elsewhere for employment, allowing their expensive, hard-earned skills lay to waste?

All is not lost. Open platform journalism organizations such as newassignment.net are hiring journalists to create the stories that people evaluate and build upon. Other mergers between the citizen journalism movement and the commercial journalism industry include the popular citizen journalism site OhmyNews.com, which hires professionals to assist in editing and mediating the process of community participation.

For an industry as set in its ways as commercial journalism, it is hardly surprising that a few feathers will be stirred when evolution pushes it in a new direction. The merging of audience participation and professionalism, however, seems to be the way of the future, especially in the news industry. Chloe and her classmates need not worry. If anything, it looks as though she will be reporting to an audience better informed and involved than perhaps an audience reliant on only one subjective source of news media.

Produsage – biting off more than it can chew?

The concept of produsage highlights that within the communities which engage in the collaborative creation and extension of information and knowledge… the role of ‘consumer’ and even that of ‘end user’ have long disappeared, and the distinctions between producers and users or content have faded into comparative insignificance (Bruns, 2008).

The theory of produsage is quite a simple one, though difficult to explain. In today’s online environment, consumers are claiming the role of producers. Once presented with products, consumers are no longer satisfied with being told what to consume; and so they create their own products. We can see evidence of this particularly in news websites: once produced by journalists and media moguls, collaborative news sites such as helium.com and cyberjournalist.net have popped up all over the internet, featuring blogs and reports from both ordinary people and qualified journalists worldwide. The people who read the stories on these collaborative sites also contribute to them. Thus the roles of consumer and producer merge, and we see the emergence of the ‘produser’.

There are four key principles of produsage:

Open participation, communal evaluation, where the relevance and quality of the produser’s contributions is evaluated by fellow produsers as they make their own contributions to the network. As Bruns points out: participants who consistently make such unusable contributions will also themselves drift to the outside of the community, although those found to by usually worthy contributors gradually rise to greater prominence among their peers.

Fluid Heterarchy, Ad Hoc Meritocracy, where the ‘worthy’ contributors, those who contribute relevant and consistent material rise in popularity and prominence, thereby creating an Ad Hoc hierarchy of contributors. This hierarchy is constantly changeable – as produsers desist in their contributions, or their work loses relevance, they lose popularity.

Unfinished Artefacts, Continuing Process, the result of produsage as an ‘artefact’ is described as such due to the fact content found in collaborative sites exists only as a temporary artefact of the continuing process – produsers will always update, alter, or add to the site.

Common Property, Individual Rewards, the idea that the contributions of individual produsers to community content should be recognised and rewarded where appropriate, but  the overall content should remain freely available to be read and modified .

Possibly the most popular example of the produsage effect, Wikipedia, highlights the most obvious negative effect of the produsage movement. The collaborative encyclopaedia is constantly criticised by academics, claiming the site unreliable. The reason? Anyone can contribute to Wikipedia. Unqualified produsers have as much ability to edit a wiki page as a qualified contributor. This fact heightens the risk in users gathering incorrect information. Though the principles of produsage help moderate collaborative sites such as Wikipedia, some contributions still slip through. For example, the Wikipedia page regarding the religious sect Netzarium, states that they are followers of Jesus. This is, however, not the case, as highlighted by a comment on the online blog cyberjournalist.net.

Though Wikipedia is moderated by its hierarchy of contributors, and follows closely the key principles of produsage, every single contribution to the site cannot possibly be moderated. The concept of produsage is all well and good – especially in today’s technological era – but the grand scale on which it is based is simply too grand. In cases such as these, it can be seen that the theory of produsage has bitten off more than it can chew. Prepare for the backlash.

Published in: on April 27, 2009 at 1:46 am  Comments (1)  
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