I was able to share some core insights from this research as part of an very engaged panel at this past week’s Futures of Entertainment conference (with musician T-Bone Burnett and Annenberg Innovation Lab head Jon Taplin.) Expect to see the video of this panel (and others from the conference) on my blog before much longer. For those of you who live in Los Angeles, you might be interested in attending a one-on-one conversation I am having with T Bone Burnett this Weds. Nov. 14, 7:30, Hammer Museum. Check here for more information.
Now back to your regularly scheduled interview…
You situate your study in a much larger tradition of media and cultural scholars in Poland writing about “circuits” or circulation. Can you share with us some of the core insights from that tradition?
ALEK TARKOWSKI: Polish sociologists in the Communist era were very focused on the issues surrounding the so-called “second circulation”, grassroots political and cultural activism as protest against the hypocrisy of the system and a sort of safety valve that enabled the society to externalize its frustrations. But in Polish history, informal circulations also included diverse economic activities and a vigorous youth culture movement. For us, that tradition served only as background – we haven’t used the tools that Polish sociologists developed to study alternative circulations. Yet we took them into account, since as concepts they have the power to disrupt the current logic and point out existing mechanisms that can be eerily similar to the ones observed in the Communist period. For example, there were social exchange networks used by our parents to distribute independent media and barely available products of Western popular culture. The irony of the situation lies in the fact that people who were active users of informal circulations in the Communist era are mostly quick to condemn informal usage of such circulations among their kids and grandkids.
Of course it’s difficult to make a direct comparison between both situations, but it turns out that as far as moral economy, or what people consider right and wrong, is concerned, there are a lot of similarities between the two. A qualitative study that Mirek is currently conducting involves a closer look at these similarities.
How might we situate the study of grassroots circulation of media in relation to the larger examination of what I call participatory culture or what Yochai Benkler discusses as “peer production”?
JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Research shows that in Poland the creative output uploaded by people to the Internet is still marginal and the percentage of active creators does not grow. Of course, I do not mean all the marks we leave on the Web, like Facebook comments – just more substantial forms of creativity. There are some differences in the results depending on the indicator we chose, but no more than few percent of Internet users engage in regular cultural production. That’s why we decided to look for a Poland-specific point of reference for your and Benkler’s ideas, which would enable us to expand cultural participation categories to include more elements than just “production.” We considered things beyond “peer production,” like peer reproduction, redistribution, and recommendation, as we decided that even though they’re more controversial than grassroots production, they have just as strong an influence on the media and culture, which are known for wielding distribution control as a powerful weapon.
We were also very inspired by Mirko Tobias Schafer’s “extended culture industry” concept, which dissolves the top-down/bottom-up distinctions. Even in the discourse of exploitation identical situations can be interpreted in completely different ways: Internet users redistribute content to which they have no rights, but simultaneously they are doing the dirty work for the corporations as they promote their work. In a way, both content authors and consumers are participating in culture – maybe both groups don’t share the same rights, but they surely share similar possibilities for action. The role of software in all this is also really significant – it’s often the case that participation based on redistribution requires very little activity. Many users of file-sharing networks exchange content almost incidentally, the software does it for them. The significance of technological architecture behind cultural participation is an avenue well worth exploring.
We still want to broaden our knowledge of the grey area between authorship and consumption because we feel that a lot of interesting things happen there. We just commenced a qualitative study of people who still aren’t authors but are something more than just consumers – the category includes people who function as grassroots content archivists, who prepare and release Polish subtitles for TV series and movies. In informal circulations these people are institutions, and preliminary interviews show that they often feel that their actions “serve a higher purpose.” At the same time, they’re still using content to which they have no rights.
As you note in your report, much of the work in “informal economies” has centered on the developing world. What new insights do we get if we apply this model to talk about how media travels through more developed countries? How, for example, might that operate in relationship to post-Communist Eastern Europe?
ALEK TARKOWSKI: The claim that informal economies and circulations function worldwide should be a truism. This is well demonstrated by Robert Neuwirth, for example. We find it very interesting that the informal economy category, at first devised to describe the economies of developing countries now applies so well to modern creative economies. We also like Ravi Sundaram’s idea of “pirate modernity”, which claims that modernity is neither regulated nor sterile, but haphazard, informal or even illegal.
And Poland, today a developed country, has been very different only twenty years ago. Although we moved from a shortage economy to a surplus economy, some mechanisms are still working just fine. And digital technologies only invigorate the informal circulations. Many Poles still remember the times when public radio played entire music albums on the air, while people at home mass-recorded them on tapes. Nobody really knows whether it was legal, but we all suspect that we might have had pirate public media back then. In the 1990s, we had legally operating stores that copied for customers albums from CDs to tapes. But simultaneously we assumed that this informality was typical of the Communist era when it functioned as the prohibited, glorified second circulation, as well as the crazy transition period of the early 1990s. We’re trying to demonstrate that the informal processes are still heavily influencing our culture.
The application of concepts developed for third world countries in Poland might hurt the national pride of many people. Yet we believe that Poland should draw on the experiences of for example the BRIC countries instead of comparing its culture industries with the United States. Look at the official copyright policy one feels as if Poland’s strategy was to copy the American intellectual property model directly. Yet we do not have Hollywood on the outskirts of Warsaw. While IP policy is imposed by international trade agreements, there is still room for taking into account local specificity and the national interest. This is rightly emphasized by Joe Karaginis in his commentary on our report. Joe writes that in the 19th century, the United States tolerated copyright infringement when it benefited American citizens. Meanwhile the policymakers in Poland, as well as we as a society, are not collectively asking whether another model might suit the Polish national interest better than the one currently implemented.
What are the primary motives for seeking content through informal circulation?
JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Asking about motivations that drive people towards using informal circulations is very important, but it would be wise to remember that for the user, the delineation between a formal and informal circulation is blurry at best. The average user doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to easily discern whether a given online source represents the formal or informal circulation. Even payment doesn’t help to distinguish between the two, as the grey area in Poland includes websites that charge the users not for content, as they claim, but for data transfer. But for users, that distinction is often unclear. For the purposes of our project, we classified online sources such as streaming as part of the informal circulation. But to answer your question, it appears that price is the key factor when it comes to picking the informal circulation; about two-thirds of the respondents point to this motivation. Availability of content and ease of acquisition turn out to be equally important. This criterion is especially important for people living in smaller cities. Many respondents also pointed out that it’s important to them how up-to-date the content offer on the Web is. With no comparable offer from the official distribution channels, the Internet becomes a much more attractive source of content. In Poland, the offer of video-on-demand services, online music stores and paid streaming websites is still very limited and aimed at a mainstream audience.
In our study, we also analyzed attitudes towards downloading. The results basically paint Poles as pragmatists: for many people downloading is simply easier than visiting a store.
Near the end of the report, you describe what you are calling “Next Generation Internet Users.” Who are these people and what distinguishes them from the general population in your country? Are they more or less likely to buy content online?
JUSTYNA HOFMOKL: Faced with rising Internet penetration rates, we decided to make the “Internet user” category a little more nuanced. That’s why we applied the concept of “Next Generation Internet Users,” a term proposed by the World Internet Project’s William Dutton. The term describes heavy Internet users, also accessing the Web through various mobile devices, people who are constantly online, more or less. They’re also distinguished by their relatively high creative output – they take photographs, create digital content, build their own websites. They are heavily involved in content sharing but frequently purchase content as well. In Great Britain, these users make up over 40% of all Internet users. The people we polled in our study, however, demonstrated higher than average Internet usage: they spend multiple hours on the Internet, often accessing it via different devices. They turned out to be a very cultured group: e.g. 89% of them declared that they read at least one book in the past year. Using informal circulations is common in the group. About 88% of them use the informal circulation of music, 73% use the informal circulation of books; 78% use the informal circulation of movies. A high percentage of the people we studied declare buying cultural content online – a little over a third of the respondents (37%) claim to have paid for access to content online in the past year.
Our study has demonstrated that the division of the Polish population into Internet users and people who don’t use the Internet is consistent with the division into people who actively consume cultural content and those who don’t engage with any type of content circulation (except broadcast media – TV and radio – which weren’t the subject of the study). At the same time, the people displaying heaviest Internet usage and cultural consumption are also the most active users of informal circulations.
What do you think are the biggest mistakes made by policy and industry folks when they look at the relationship between formal and informal circulation of content?
MIREK FILICIAK: Policy and industry folks have to stop perceiving informal circulations as excommunicated havens of the illegal and the anti-cultural. They need to treat these circulations as an alternative or as competition – it might be amoral and dishonest, but it is a part of the general circulation of culture. If a different approach is the desired result, changing the language might be a good place to start.
Policymakers make the mistake of considering only the legal implications of using informal circulations – we need to place a few positive aspects of these circulations on the other scale, like increased access to content and increased cultural activity. On the other hand, the industry in Poland offers few legal alternative to downloading – there’s not enough content, it’s expensive, and there’s no easy way to access it. We believe that people who engage with informal circulations might switch to legal purchasing of content online if given an honest alternative offer.
Presenting our findings to a group of industry representatives was an interesting experience. Many of the people from the creative industries, who publicly decried our report claiming that it legitimizes stealing, changed their tone and agreed with us in private conversations. They were aware of the fact that they will need to adapt to the users, and that the status quo is untenable and cannot be artificially supported by making the laws more severe. It was obvious especially to people working in the Internet industry. When asked about the main obstacles that hinder business development they didn’t mention piracy, they spoke about lack of flexibility on the part of collective rights management organizations and copyright holders, especially in the film industry.
We hope that the public debate currently underway in Poland, in which our report voiced a few very important issues, will head in the right direction. That we’ll witness the foundation of new services based on new business models and that the authorities, after learning from the experiences surrounding the ACTA fiasco, will introduce balanced regulations that will care for the interests of authors and producers as well as the society in general.
Mirek Filiciak is a cultural studies scholar, works at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities. He is interested in the influence of digital media on cultural participation practices and research methodologies. Co-editor of Polish cultural studies quarterly Kultura popular (Popular Culture), co-author of book Youth and Media.