Prohibitionists and Collaborationists: Two Approaches to Participatory Culture

Next Generation, a leading webzine focused on the games industry, ran an excerpt today from my forthcoming book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which focuses on the very different ways media companies are responding to the desire of their consumers to participate in the production and distribution of media content. This passage cuts to the heart of my book's argument that the new media environment is forcing us to rewrite the relationships between media producers and consumers. Here's how the passage begins:

Grant McCracken, the cultural anthropologist and industry consultant, suggests that in the future, media producers must accommodate consumer demands to participate or they will run the risk of losing the most active and passionate consumers to some other media interest which is more tolerant: "Corporations must decide whether they are, literally, in or out. Will they make themselves an island or will they enter the mix? Making themselves an island may have certain short-term financial benefits, but the long-term costs can be substantial."

The media industry is increasingly dependent on active and committed consumers to spread the word about valued properties in an overcrowded media marketplace and in some cases, they are seeking ways to channel the creative output of media fans to lower their production costs. At the same time, they are terrified of what happens if this consumer power gets out of control, as they claim occurred following the introduction of Napster and other file-sharing services....

One can trace two characteristic responses of media industries to this grassroots expression: Starting with the legal battles over Napster, the media industries have increasingly adopted a scorched earth policy towards their consumers, seeking to regulate and criminalize many forms of fan participation which once fell below their radar. Let's call them the prohibitionists.

To date, the prohibitionist stance has been dominant within old media companies (film, television, the recording industry), though these groups are to varying degrees starting to re-examine some of these assumptions. So far, the prohibitionists get most of the press - with law suits directed against teens who download music or against fan webmasters getting more and more coverage in the popular media.

At the same time, on the fringes, new media companies (internet, games, and to a lesser degree, the mobile phone companies), are experimenting with new approaches which see fans as important collaborators in the production of content and as grassroots intermediaries helping to promote the franchise. We will call them the collaborationists.....

As the excerpt continues, I hold up Raph Koster, the man initially put in charge of the Star Wars Galaxies game, as a prime example of collaborationist thinking within the games industry.

Here's a few of the things Koster said when I interviewed him for the book.

Just like it is not a good idea for a government to make radical legal changes without a period of public comment, it is often not wise for an operator of an online world to do the same.

You can't possibly mandate a fictionally involving universe with thousands of other people. The best you can hope for is a world that is vibrant enough that people act in manners consistent with the fictional tenets.

Koster was an early and vocal advocate of player's rights, recognizing that an interactive medium has to construct a very different relationship with its consumers than exists around more traditional broadcast media. The game player helps to create and sustain the experience of the other players. From there, we can see the games industry embrace a vast array of different forms of user-generated content and we can also see games companies seeking advice from their consumers throughout the creative process. In the case of Star War Galaxies, Koster and his team put out design documents on the web and sought input from potential players while the game was still under development. This is radically different from the secrecy that surrounds the production of the Star Wars films. As I write in the book:

It is hard to imagine Lucas setting up a forum site to preview plot twists and character designs with his audience. If he had done so, he would never have included Jar Jar Binks or devoted so much screen time to the childhood and adolescence of Anakin Skywalker, decisions which alienated his core audience. Koster wanted Star Wars fans to feel that they had, in effect, designed their own Galaxy.

Of course, not everything turned out as Koster planned and the decline of Star Wars Galaxies is one of the major disappointments of the user-generated content movement. (But that's a subject for a future post.)

Keep in mind that the distinction between collaborationist and prohibitionist logics is a matter of degree, not a difference in kind. I use Star Wars in the book to show how the same media franchise can create radically different relationships with its fans at different moments in its history and as it moves across different media platforms. Most companies today embrace some elements of both models, resulting in profound contradictions in the ways they relate to their consumers.

Grant McCracken, the anthropologist whose comments open this passage, has suggested that in this new participatory culture, it might make sense to abandon the term consumer all together, seeing it as the product of an old economic system and an old way of thinking about how culture operates. Instead, he proposes the term, "multiplier." Here's what he has to say:

The term multipler may help marketers acknowledge more forthrightly that whether our work is a success is in fact out of our control. All we can do is to invite the multiplier to participate in the construction of the brand by putting it to work for their own purposes in their own world. When we called them "consumers" we could think of our creations as an end game and their responses as an end state. The term "multiplier" or something like it makes it clear that we depend on them to complete the work

As I was putting this post together, I got an e-mail from Mark Deuze, another researcher who is currently doing his own book on the ways companies of all kinds are tapping the creative energies and collective wisdom of their consumers. On his blog today, he posted some thoughts, inspired in part from an advanced look at Convergence Culture. He is also suggesting that user-generated content changes the institutional logic of the creative industries:

Media work tends to get caught between two oppositional structural factors in producing culture within media organizations: on the one hand, practitioners are expected to produce, edit, and publish content that has proven its value on a mass market - which pressure encourages standardized and predictable formats using accepted genre conventions, formulas and routines - while creative workers on the other hand can be expected (and tend to personally favor) to come up with innovative, novel and surprising products.....

Working in an organization using an editorial logic, media professionals tend to more or less ignore the shifting wants and needs of the audience in favor of producing content that holds up to peer review, wins trade awards (such as the Oscars in the film industry, a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, the Game Developer Choice awards, or the Golden Lion in advertising), and build prestige and acknowledgement throughout the industry. A market logic on the other hand embraces a competitive way of doing things, producing compelling content for as wide an audience as possible, and thus favoring a strictly commercial mass market approach to making decisions in the creative process.....

Considering the work by Henry Jenkins (2006) and others on the increasing role of the consumer as collaborator or co-creator of media content, I have to conclude that a possible third institutional logic is emerging next to, and in a symbiotic relationship with, editorial and market logics: a convergent culture logic. Work done following this logic includes the (intended) consumer in the process of product design and innovation, up to and including the production and marketing process. The work of authors in fields as varied as management theory, product design, journalism studies and advertising define media content in this context interchangeably as: consumer-generated, customer-controlled, or user-directed. Researchers in different disciplines have documented a distinct turn towards the consumer as 'co-developer' of the corporate product, particularly where the industry's core commodity is (mediated) information.

I like where Deuze is going with this framework. My experience is that the creative and business sides of media companies often respond differently to the idea of user generated content or participatory culture. For the creative, the fear is a corruption of their artistic integrity as they turn over greater control over the shape of their work to its future consumers. This reflects what Deuze is calling an editorial logic. For the business side, the greatest fear is the idea that consumers might take something they made and not pay them for it. That's the extension of the market logic. Both may need to rethink their position if media companies are going to benefit from the work of McCracken's multipliers, who can both appreciate the value of an intellectual property and extend its shelf life. And it is the neat fit between the Editorial and Market Logics which insures that many media companies will adopt prohibitionist rather than collaborationist approaches in the short term.