From Production to Produsage: Interview with Axel Bruns (Part Two)

Friday, I ran the first installment of this two part interview with Queensland University of Technology’s Axel Bruns, who discussed his core thesis about the blurring of the role of consumer and producer in the new cultural economy. Today, he extends this concept of “produsage” to explore its implications for knowledge production, citizenship, and learning, as well as provides us a glimpse into the innovative academic community which has informed his work.

What are the implications of the produsage model for understanding how knowledge gets produced and circulated? You clearly are interested in this book in Wikipedia. What core insights can we take from Wikipedia that might be applied to other collaborative enterprises?

In the first place, perhaps, I think it would be great if Wikipedians themselves could draw some further insights from the way Wikipedia has developed so far, and better understand the drivers of its success. Its very success is a threat to its future survival, if it means that there is a growing disconnect between middle and upper levels of Wikipedia’s administration and everyday users and contributors. The project has been remarkably resilient to internal and external threats, of course, but that doesn’t mean that it will continue to weather any storm that comes its way. In particular, I would argue that Wikipedia should work to enshrine the prerequisites for produsage as absolutely fundamental, inalienable principles of the project, and protect them even against well-meaning suggestions for change. (That doesn’t mean locking down its present modus operandi for all eternity, of course – but whatever changes are made must be made very carefully and with due consultation.)

The crucial question for Wikipedia and other produsage projects concerned with building and growing repositories of community knowledge is that of how to engage with those who are regarded as experts in their field, of course. Both sides of this debate have valid arguments in their favour, of course – people like Wikipedia dissident and Citizendium founder Larry Sanger point to the fact that clearly, different people do have different levels of knowledge about any given topic, while others believe that any a priori elevation of the contributor level of such experts (or ultimately, exclusion of non-experts) is unnecessary: if these people have superior knowledge and the sources to back it up, that knowledge should come through collective evaluation processes unscathed.

Ultimately, I think that a compromise will be needed. Perhaps established expertise in a field should be highlighted to other contributors to produsage processes – this is something which happens over time in longer-term collaborative communities anyway, as through both their collaborative and their social interactions in the community individuals get to know one another a little better. Those who are more than just purely random contributors, dropping in and out of the community, could be encouraged more directly and immediately to create a profile and identify who they are (and the community could sanction more strongly those contributors who falsify their profiles in order to claim expertise that they don’t have).

At the same time, however, as both addition and alternative to such external markers of expertise it would also be important to trace more explicitly the quality of contributions made to the produsage project, as an internal marker of demonstrated expertise. Citizen journalism communities like Slashdot and many others already provide a model for this, which could be translated relatively easily to Wikipedia and other more recent projects – while the model isn’t completely tamper-proof, there, internal ‘karma’ scores mark the accumulated social status of contributors as judged by their peers, and post signatures and personal profiles enable contributors to provide some pointers to external information about who they are.

Slashdot’s own model isn’t ideal, but what its and other models of combining internal karma and external accreditation point towards is essentially an attempt to embed ongoing internal processes of peer-to-peer evaluation in the community within the broader landscape of knowledge and expertise that exists around it. What’s crucial in this is to strike a fine balance between admitting and recognising, and even encouraging, the contribution of such external expertise, and allowing for the discovery and ascendance of experts who arise as entirely indigenous to the produsage community. Such latter trends can be observed for example in open source software development, where there are plenty of stories of initially amateur programmers who showcased their growing skills through contribution to software projects and eventually gained paid employment in the software industry (which today no longer means leaving open source produsage behind, incidentally).

Zooming out from Wikipedia or any one produsage project, what this could point to is the potential for a fruitful combination of knowledge produsage (which is obviously based on the logic of Chris Anderson’s ‘long tail’ and aims to harness the distributed knowledge of a large and diverse community) and conventional knowledge production (built around a more industrial closed model centred around the sharp spike from which the long tail extends). From that perspective, experts and their expertise cover no more than the tips of the iceberg of human knowledge, and the hierarchies of expertise which exist in conventional disciplinary frameworks are revealed to be themselves no more than the peaks of the wider heterarchical structures of the knowledge space. Through Leadbeater & Miller’s boundary-crossing ‘Pro-Ams’, we are able to join together these spaces of knowledge regardless of their very different internal logics.

(No judgment of quality is implied in this description – the less visible bulk of this iceberg of knowledge that sits below the waterline of professionalism is no more or less important to the whole than the visible tip above it. At the risk of belabouring the metaphor: it’s the bulk of the iceberg that makes the whole thing float and keeps the tip above water.)

What’s just as important as a willingness of produsage communities to engage established experts with respect (but without undue deference), though, is a recognition by the other side that this arrangement can only be sustainable if produsage communities, too, are respected – and not simply exploited as cheap labour, or a convenient incubator of new ideas. Especially where knowledge generated through produsage has direct value for industry, there is a clear danger of commercial exploitation – your own work on Fanlib’s ham-fisted attempt to commercialise fan fiction makes for a great case in point here.

There’s a continuum of potential commercial approaches here, from what JC Herz has called “harnessing the hive” (for example by building legitimate business models around free and open source software) through to harvesting the hive (no longer necessarily so benign in nature), and through to hijacking the hive (where strong produsage communities are lured into commercial spaces, in order to monetise their work – recent controversies around Facebook’s approach to user-generated content and data might serve as examples here). This latter strategy may generate good short-term profit, but is likely to poison relationships with the community for the longer term; I think industry still has much to learn about how to engage with produsage communities in a sustainable and respectful fashion, and ignores these questions at its own risk.

Is it appropriate to apply the same concepts to talk about our new roles as consumers/producers of culture and our shifting roles as citizens?

I think so, yes. It’s not far to go from active cultural to active political participation, and we’re seeing more examples of using the tools of produsage for political effect every day. Building in part on Pierre Lévy’s discussion of “molecular politics” in his Collective Intelligence, I’ve tried to develop a first rough sketch of this produsage politics – or perhaps produsage of politics – in my paper at the MiT5 conference last year, and extended this further for one of the later chapters in the book.

One thing, I think, is certain in this context: a produsage-based approach to politics would look significantly different from the current mass media-driven and ultimately industrial model of politics as it exists in the US, Australia, and many other developed nations. To bear any resemblance to produsage as it exists in other domains, to begin with, it would have to operate on a much more deliberative, open, and inclusive basis than political processes have operated during the height of the mass media age – and groups such as MoveOn in the US and ,a href=”http://getup.org.au/”>GetUp in Australia may be early indications that such shifts are now being attempted by interested parties, if haltingly and uneasily.

One of the major obstacles to moving further along that road, however, are the mainstream media, who have oversimplified our understanding of politics to an eternal contest between left and right – this is politics as a sport, scored in opinion polls and delegate counts, and analysed from the sidelines by pundits and commentators. This leaves little room for nuance, for broad, constructive, and open-ended deliberation; such deliberation may take place (we hope) in parliamentary committees and party rooms, and (we know) in grassroots political communities from MoveOn to the central hubs of the political blogosphere, but the media play a very effective spoiler role that prevents these two sides from connecting successfully.

Politicians who engage with the diverse voices of the grassroots and are prepared to change their minds in the process are condemned as weak and prone to backflips, while those who listen only to what they want to hear are hailed as strong leaders. Jon Stewart had it right when he said to the hosts of CNN’s now-defunct politicotainment show Crossfire “please stop. You’re hurting America” – and the situation isn’t much better elsewhere.

So, my hopes for a shift to produsage politics remain limited in the short term – though at the same time, I firmly believe that the stranglehold of the mass media over societal processes is waning, and as it decays, more opportunities for direct involvement in political processes by active citizens are becoming available. This doesn’t necessarily equate to a shift of politics in favour of what would conventionally be described as a ‘progressive’ direction, incidentally – produsage politics is likely to represent in the first place simply the views of those who participate, whatever their views may be…

In talking about education, you describe a shift from “literacies” to “capacities.” Explain. What kinds of skills are required to become a produser and what steps might schools take to insure access to those skills?

Especially in light of what I’ve said in the political context, education becomes even more crucial. The more central produsage becomes to our society on a cultural, social, and political level, the more do we need to work to close the “participation gap” that you’ve highlighted in your own work. I see this as a two-step process, which mirrors the two elements that come together to form produsage itself: on the one hand, there’s a need for people to become sophisticated users of the tools and content artefacts provided by produsage – they need to understand how these things have come to be, and what they represent (for example, how trustworthy and reliable they are, whose ideas are reflected in them, how they may be utilised, and with what limitations).

This, I think, is centrally a question of literacy: much as conventional media literacy enables us to receive, understand, decode, and interpret media messages, so should produsage literacy enable us to trace and evaluate the processes of produsage which have led to the resources we have in front of us. Produsage literacy enables us to separate the layers of the palimpsest that is represented by each entry in Wikipedia, by each story in citizen journalism, for example – it gives us the skills to check discussion and edit histories and see whether the choices made along the way were acceptable to us. (In my experience, a remarkable number of otherwise very knowledgeable people are worryingly unaware that this is even possible.)

A second step, then, is the need to provide people with the ability to make active, productive contributions to produsage projects – to move from user to produser. This is the “leap to authorship” that Rushkoff describes; it ensures that people are able not only to benefit from hearing the voices of others, but also to add their own voices to the discussion. To date, this remains a serious problem for produsage: what’s represented so far are still only the voices, views, and ideas of a minority; even a project as large as Wikipedia reflects not the diversity of views in society as a whole, for example, but only the different opinions present in its contributor base. (In that sense, as much as it is sometimes accused of elitism, given that studies show stronger participation by relatively affluent and well-educated users Wikipedia is itself elitist!)

To contribute in this way and be a genuine produser rather than just a user, I think, requires a set of specific capacities for participation that goes beyond the level of produsage literacy. Building on work I’ve done with my QUT colleagues Jude Smith, Stephen Towers, and Rachel Cobcroft, I think there’s a set of five core collaborative capacities (I call them the C5C for short): creative, collaborative, critical, combinatory, and communicative capacities. None of these are inherently new, of course, but I would argue that education must aim to increase its effort to build such capacities in learners with a particular view to how they might be applied in communal produsage environments. So, for example, it’s no longer enough to nourish a creative drive, or support a critical mindset: instead, the question becomes how we might express our creativity or criticism in the collaborative context of produsage in a way that benefits rather than undermines the shared project.

For educational institutions, this begins quite simply with putting learners in a position where they might experience both the outcomes and the dynamics of produsage processes (and also involves offering help and support where such processes are confronting) – schools and universities which close off access to Wikipedia on a wholesale basis, for example, do their students a significant disservice, and would be better advised to take learners on a guided tour of exploration of that space; such a tour could highlight the pros and cons of community-based produsage processes in comparison to the industrial model of knowledge management which is practiced in other encyclopaedias, for example. It would thereby provide better insight into when and under what circumstances to trust Wikipedia content, how to evaluate it against other sources, and indeed whether to have blind faith in any information source, produced or prodused. Sadly, even such simple steps have proven too far for some schools, which have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and effectively leave their students to explore produsage spaces in their spare time, without supervision and support.

A second step would involve a more active exploration of produsage as a way of collaborative creating content – either within existing online produsage communities themselves, or in a safer internal space that models the processes which occur outside. Only this second step, aiming to develop learners’ capacities for active contribution to produsage projects, would also provide direct support for learners’ transition to the active forms of citizenship which are required for political produsage models; additionally, of course, possessing such produsage capacities may also be of significant benefit for the individual’s personal and professional career as produsage models become more embedded in commercial activities.

Your work has very much been informed by the context in which you work. Can you share with us some sense of the intellectual community which has emerged around the Creative Industries group at Queensland University of Technology? What commonalities do you see across your projects?

Creative Industries, as I see it, is itself a way to look beyond recognised realms of cultural and creative activity, and to highlight the social as well as commercial impact of creativity well beyond traditional “high culture”. I’ve talked in the context of knowledge and expertise about the way in which produsage and expert communities may join together as the below-water bulk and the above-water tip of the iceberg, and it seems to me, for example, that the work being done at QUT to map the impact of creative industries activity on economy and society follows a very similar logic. What happens at the top end – highly visible commercial and taxpayer-funded cultural production – really couldn’t exist without the presence of a much larger, much harder to grasp bulk of everyday grassroots and Pro-Am creative practice. The grassroots sector is the incubator and proving ground for new creative talent and ideas, some of which gradually gain enough visibility to be drawn out into the open and into the creative industries proper – at this grassroots level, there’s a strong similarity to what I’ve described as produsage, then.

Recently, some of this work by my colleagues has focussed strongly on applying quantitative models gleaned from other disciplines to tracing and predicting the evolution of cultural trends, and I’m very interested to see what impact these developments may have on my own work. My colleague John Hartley is currently leading the charge towards a blending of elements from cultural studies, evolutionary economics, and anthropology (and a few other bits and pieces) into what he calls ‘cultural science’. This resonates with several elements of my work on produsage: for example, what preconditions are necessary for a large-scale collaborative project like the Wikipedia to gradually appreciate rather than deteriorate in quality – in simple terms, is there an ideal community size or structure that enables collective intelligence to emerge and operate most successfully; how diverse or how uniform should a community be in order to maintain some sort of cohesion and shared purpose while also preventing a descent into uncritical groupthink?

To borrow from a scientific discipline not (yet) represented in the cultural science project: astronomers speak of a ‘habitable zone’ around a sun – a range within which there’s just enough energy coming in to keep water liquid and the atmosphere gaseous, neither too cold nor too hot, which enables the evolution of life. Our Earth is just far enough away from the sun to be in that zone; Venus and Mars probably aren’t, and Mercury or the outer gas giants certainly aren’t. In a similar way, by accident or by design, Linux, Slashdot, Wikipedia, and the other success stories of produsage have managed to find their own habitable zones, and life there is flourishing; can we use cultural science to establish a clearer picture of exactly is required to sustain these lifeforms?

That’s one thing which really excites me about produsage, creative industries, and cultural science – there’s plenty more work to be done, and it feels as if we’re close to many important new discoveries. Wherever that takes us, it will be an exhilarating ride from here…

If you’ll permit me a final aside: I’ve been a little surprised by the opposition from some quarters (even from some new media scholars) to new terms like produsage. Perhaps there’s a difference in mindsets here that’s comparable to that between engineers and scientists: the engineer’s first response is usually “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and it’s true, our language for describing these new produsage phenomena ain’t entirely broke: we’re just forced to use cumbersome workarounds like ‘user-led content creation’ to even come close to describing what’s going on here. That’s a bit like applying the umpteenth service pack to Windows to enable it to interface with a new piece of hardware – it’ll work, but not necessarily as well as it could.

The scientific process is (ideally) based on a more risk-taking approach of developing theories and hypotheses and seeing if they can be proven to work, and that’s the one I’d like to think I’m following in developing the produsage idea. Its equivalent in software, in turn, is Linus Torvalds’s approach in kickstarting the Linux juggernaut: develop it as far as you can, and then throw it out there to see if it takes off. If it does, there’s an opportunity for us to collaborative develop a modern alternative to what we’ve been forced to work with so far – something that does exactly what we want and need it to do.

I’d like to see the concept of produsage in similar terms: I’ve studied and described its operations in as much detail as I’m able to, for now – and I’ll continue to contribute my updates via Produsage.org – but it’s over to others now to evaluate, adapt, develop and change the concept on a more collaborative basis. What comes out of this at the end may no longer be exactly what I had in mind, but it’s got the potential to provide many more of us with a common ground for developing a shared understanding of what’s really going on here – and ultimately, how better to develop the idea of produsage than by taking a produsage-based approach in the first place?

Dr Axel Bruns (http://produsage.org/) is the author of Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). He is a Senior Lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, and has also authored Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production (New York: Peter Lang, 2005) and edited Uses of Blogs with Joanne Jacobs (New York: Peter Lang, 2006). In 1997, Bruns was a co-founder of the online academic publisher M/C – Media and Culture which publishes M/C Journal, M/C Reviews, M/C Dialogue, and the M/Cyclopedia of New Media, and he continues to serve as M/C’s General Editor. His general research and commentary blog is located at snurb.info , and he also contributes to a research blog on citizen journalism, Gatewatching.org with Jason Wilson and Barry Saunders.