There is a growing conversation about the nature of participatory culture (and digital media more generally) in Post-Communist Poland. Late last year, I featured a series of blog posts by Polish scholars looking at various aspects of this phenomenon and before that, I shared a report discussing media-sharing practices there. This week has seen the release of an important new report, Prosumption in the Pop Industry:An Analysis of the Polish Entertainment Industry, issued by the Local Knowledge Foundation, and prepared by Piotr Siuda Radosław Bomba Magdalena Kamińska Grzegorz D. Stunża Anna Szylar Marek Troszyński and Tomasz Żaglewski.
As part of their process, the researchers reached out to myself, along with Mark Deuze and George Ritzer, for our insights into what the report calls “prosumption,” and they ran the transcript of our responses at the end of the report. I have sought their permission to share some of my response to their questions here: There’s more from me as well as responses to these questions from Mark and George if you follow this link, where you can read a English language version of the report as a whole. The interview was conducted by Michał Chudoliński. (See bio below)
I should say at the outset that I am not a big fan of the concept of “prosumption,” which the field has inherited from Alvin Toffler. It assumes a kind of hierarchical relationship where the top level is occupied by the professional and the bottom by the consumer, with the amateur and prosumption layers existing in between. It assumes that the primary goal of amateurs is to gain entry into — or directly influence — the professional sphere of media-makers, and in my experience, this is more true of some fans or some kinds of fans for others. Across my work, I have documented cases where fans seek to actively influence mainstream media content, and others, where fans seek to construct their own culture, for their own purposes, and just want the corporate media to leave them the hell alone. Some of this has to do with their assumptions about whether the producers are apt to “get it right” if they seek to act on the fans’ desires, whether they have a history of being exploited or marginalized by corporate media rather than embraced, whether they see their pleasures as subcultural or dominant, and as such, the idea of prosumption is more apt to be embraced by those in dominant groups (i.e. white male straight Cis middle class etc.) rather than those who find themselves in more subordinate positions. I do not want to close the door entirely — I think there are ways that at least some fans have gained greater influence, there are always new and emerging models which we need to confront with an open mind and a wait-and-see attitude, etc.
Some of this skepticism comes through in some of my responses here, but I was not asked to directly address the concept of prosumption per se as a way of describing the phenomenon this report discusses. I was much more enthusiastic about the process of fans and producers working together towards shared ends a decade ago when I wrote Convergence Culture, than I am today, after six or seven years of “Web 2.0” corporate practices, which have just as often sought to strip mine fandom as a source of revenue and labor,than to act in ways that democratize and diversify who gets to participate in our culture. Yet, I think this report, which gives us a glimpse into how these questions are being thought about in industries that emerge in a different cultural, political, and economic context, may be a good moment for some further reflections on the nature of “prosumption” and where we are at in terms of corporate relations with fandom.
MC: In your opinion, what is the general level of prosumption in the pop culture industry globally? By prosumption, we mean the manner in which the pop cultural industry uses the activities and commitment of a mass culture audience to promote specific brands or franchises.
HJ: I have not seen anyone offer a quantitative measurement for how much user-generated content is being produced, under what conditions, in which contexts, around which content, etc. I would not, in any case, be the right person to try to address this question from a quantitative point of view. A part of the problem is that prosumption, as you are defining it, is a sliding scale. There are many forms of amateur cultural production in response to mass media fandom which is neither solicited nor valued by corporate rights holders. This is the realm of fan culture as we have historically understood it. There are forms of amateur production which make money only indirectly for corporate interests, such as the way content travels on Facebook, Twitter, and to some degree, YouTube, where the company does not really care what is being produced but simply that their platform is seeing a certain amount of traffic that comes in ways they know how to capitalize on. There are forms of cultural production where user-generated content is curated and harvested, so that the ‘best material’ gets shared with the larger community but the bulk of it ends up on the cutting room floor: this is often true in terms of various design contests around brands. There are forms of cultural production which are semi-commercial and semi-professional: much closer to the original meaning of prosumption. Here, both sides may profit from what is produced and shared: see for example Etsy or Amazon’s Kindle Worlds for two models of what this might look like. To me, these revenue sharing based models are very different from many of the kinds of free labor which have been critiqued by Marxist theorists. So, until we have a better vocabulary for talking about these and a range of other arrangements, I doubt we can come up with anything approaching a definitive answer to your question.
MC: What are the reasons for the emergence of prosumption in mass culture?
HJ: Again, to paint in broad sweeps, there was a great deal of grassroots cultural production across human history: it was simply localized or personalized, produced and shared within a geographic community and/or within a localized subculture. Many of these forms of cultural production were pushed from view by the rise of mass culture, but they did not totally disappear. We can trace many examples of participatory culture at any given moment across the 20th century and many struggles to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation. These various local practices provided the initial seeds of today’s prosumption. What happened though is that net- worked communications made these alternative cultural practices more visible; they could be shared easily across geographic boundaries; there were hybrid media spaces where different subcultures could observe and learn from each other; and people with shared interests could find each other. As this wave of participatory culture moved across networked society, then other institutions responded, seeking to channel and commodify participation in the various ways we discussed above. And that is what results in Web 2.0 business models and discussions of user-generated content. The problem with that model is that it defines all of the participants in relation to the tools, platforms, or content producers and not in relation to their collective goals as members of particular kinds of communities of practice.
MC: How do you expect pop culture prosumption to develop globally?
HJ: We are seeing examples in most parts of the world at this point, but its spread is uneven, not simply because of limited access to technological affordances, but also for cultural, legal, and political factors, given the ways that collective cultural production is bound up with issues of free expression and democratic citizenship, given that expanding chances to produce and share culture and knowledge can have a destabilizing effect on established hierarchies. But, we do not want to think about this purely in terms of a spread of one dominant participatory culture across the planet, though we can see people interacting at small scales via social media across national boundaries. Ethan Zuckerman’s new book does a convincing job of showing us all of the boundaries and barriers that affect who communicates with whom or who cares about what on the World Wide Web. We are also seeing local traditions of cultural production, say, the samba schools in Rio, assert themselves through digital media, and thus finding new forms of cultural expression and social connection.
MC: In your opinion, what strategies will be implemented to increase the significance of prosumption in pop culture? What will be the role of the Internet in this process?
HJ: I am less sure I want to increase prosumption as you have defined it above, where it is an extension of the commercial logics of corporate mass media or part of the new emerging logics of Web 2.0. What I want to promote is a more participatory culture where we expand access to the means of production and circulation to more of the population, with access defined here not simply in terms of tools and platforms, but also social and cultural resources. We need to promote a broad array of different models for production and circulation, many of which are not governed by the motives of neoliberal capitalism, some of which follow more closely forms of gift or reputational economies where creativity is motivated by social rather than material rewards.
MC: Pop cultural prosumption is more or less linked to fandom as a life- style. Fans who receive free samples, help to organize conventions, or re- view promotional copies are regarded differently by their community. Their status among other fans changes—they gain popularity and respect and their role as experts becomes more and more important. Have you noticed this phenomenon?
HJ: Yes and no. I think that in the US, fans are often distrustful of those who become more fully imbricated into the commercial system. Forms of prosumption may or may not actually value fan expertise or respect fan traditions. Certainly, there are more casual consumers who feel more comfortable remaining in these corporately policed spaces, but I think it is an open question whether these spaces will ever fully replace more grassroots spaces, which often actively resist corporate motives or question ideologies. Also keep in mind that fandom is only one form of participatory culture and only one of the sets of cultural communities that motivate prosumption. It might be interesting to look at something like Etsy, which certainly attracts some forms of fan production/consumption, but also taps into older crafter traditions that have often de- fined themselves in direct opposition to mass culture.
MC: In the traditional media model, the producers imposed their desires on the audience. What is the situation today and how is it changing? Is there equality between fans and producers? In fact, whose arguments are more important when it comes to conflicts of interests?
HJ: We are nowhere near ‘equality’ at the present time, but there have been shifts in the relationships between producers and consumers, at least as I observe them in the US. I would hate to universalize this. It has always been the case that producers have sought to control both the distribution and interpretation of their content as much as possible, and fans have often sought to elude that control to pursue their own interests. No one can really control what happens to media content once it reaches the hands of the consumer, but consumers have had difficulty influencing production decisions. This is why John Tulloch described fans as a “powerless elite.” Today, what fans make of the raw materials producers provide them is much more publically visible. More and more people know about fan fiction or are watching fan remix videos, and fans are collectively exerting much stronger pressure on producers to respect their interests as they are making decisions than impact the production. Fans are also involved in the circulation of the content, as more stuff travels through digital social networks, as well as across broadcast networks. As this has happened, producers have started to reappraise their relationships with fans. They initially acted out of fear of losing control. It is now clear they have already lost control in that sense, so they are seeking to court fans. Clearly, they would like to exert as much control as possible, but they are also having to give grounds on many traditional constraints on audience behavior as they are coming to realize that engagement is a key currency in the contemporary media economy.
MC: How do you evaluate pop culture producers’ tendency to employ fans (i.e., a fan becomes a professional)? Is it a common practice? How will it evolve in the next few years?
HJ: This is still a minority practice, but it is growing. Of course, in some senses, the line is an arbitrary one. Obviously, most people who produce popular media also consume it, many of them were ‘fans’ in the broadest sense or otherwise why would they enter the industry. But the process of training and recruitment as a professional often involves a reorientation where you are discouraged from seeing the world from the consumer perspective, and recruits often come to see consumers as very strange creatures. What we are seeing is that some producers are consciously bringing some of their most vocal fans ‘into the tent,’ i.e. inviting them to help advise the production on the desires of their community and in return, act as translators back to the worlds they came from. This works only in so far as these ‘fans’ are ‘representative’ of or ‘meaning- fully tied’ to the fan world in the first place. It is not as if fans speak with the same voice; there are all kinds of tensions within fandom and thus, there is a tendency for producers to recruit certain kinds of fans and leave others outside, perhaps even more marginalized than before. Fans make a distinction between affirmational and transforma- tional fans, i.e. fans who celebrate and master the storyworld as it is given to them vs fans who recreate the story materials to better serve their own interests. It is been much easier for producers to absorb affirmational fans than transformational ones, and this has gender implications since the first category is heavily male and the second more heavily female. So, unless the producers develop a deeper understanding of fandom’s own diversity, hierarchy, and traditions, there is a danger that they will over-weigh some fans at the expense of reaching the full range of consumers who are invested in their property.
MC: Majority of the fans consider their favorite protagonists to be beyond mere characters from a TV series or a graphic story. Rather, they are symbolic figures who inspire and have an opinion about important ethical truths or the contemporary world. Is such a perception deeply rooted among fans or is it becoming stronger, perhaps, due to some new phenomena?
HJ: I would say that stories have always existed as mythical resources through which we ask core questions about ourselves, our values, and our world. We understand this clearly enough when we are talking about folk tales, myths, and legends of the more historic variety, but when we talk about mass culture, the commercial dimensions—the commodity status of the text—can often drown out our appreciation of the symbolic roles such stories play within our culture. There has been a tendency to say that fans are confusing fantasy with reality—and that is almost never the case—or that they are ‘reading too much into’ popular fictions which were made for ‘entertainment purposes,’ and that is also not right. They are using these stories as springboards for important discussions they want to be having about the world, and they are using the characters as symbolic or mythical resources within those exchanges. That is why they want to rewrite or remix them: because they stand for something and they can be used to express ideas collectively that need to be heard. That is why fans are not content simply consuming: they ask questions, they tell stories, and they remix content, to see if they can more fully realize the symbolic potentials they see within this material. They are going to be doing this regardless of the commercial frames you put around that. Some kinds of prosumption practices can build partnerships with fans, while others impose limits and constraints or exploit fan labor in ways that will damage that relationship. Where this happens producers will face backlash from fans or fans will simply route around the constraints to more fully satisfy their goals. Right now, fans are much more sophisticated at navigating through the social media realm than producers are and have a much longer history of thinking about grassroots cultural production and circulation.
Piotr Siuda – an author and a coordinator of “Prosumption in the Pop Industry” project. PhD in sociology, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Sociology at the Kazimierz Wielki University (Poland), author of Religion and the Internet (2010), The Cultures of Prosumption (2012), Japonisation. Anime and its Polish Fans (being published). His research interests are the sociology of culture and social aspects of the Internet.
Michał Chudoliński is an alumni of Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, where he majored in Sociology and ran the Comics Club. In the years 2003-2006 he ran the comics department at „BatCave”, the most popular website about Batman in Poland and is currently the editor of “KZ” magazine (The most recognised Polish on-line magazine dedicated to comics) and the blog “Gotham in the rain” (A new blog, dedicated entirely to the Dark Knight of Gotham). He publishes in: “Nowa Fantastyka”, “Czas Fantastyki”, “2+3D”, “Ha!art”, and on the pages: “Polityka.pl”, “Noircafe”, and “ArtPapier”. Websites: http://www.kzet.pl/, http://www.gothamwdeszczu.com.pl/.