More than a passing fad
The means of media production are becoming increasingly widely distributed. The iPod generation do not just want to watch and listen wherever they are, increasingly they also want to create and contribute. More than 1bn people worldwide and rising have the capacity now to become mini-media producers. Some may be professionals freelancing in their own time, most of a rising breed of Pro-Am producers: amateurs like Nick Jaffe, who do it because they love to not because they are paid, but who operate to high standards of production. They want to do it well, judged by the standards of the communities they operate in.
Those mini-media producers are linked not just by infrastructure but also by shared platforms and commons, such as MySpace, the web site aggregator, Second Life, the mass player immersive computer game and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which allow them to exchange, share, combine and review information..
These communities allow a long sliding scale of contribution. Industrial era information producers can only really work if the people contributing are employees, journalists, for example: professionals with the skills to use the very expensive equipment required to make media content. In this world the producers were employees, who worked 9 till 5, five days a week. Viewers and listeners did not get much of a look in. But the new media communities, the likes of Wikipedia and Second Life, allow a sliding scale of contribution: people can either contribute a lot (most edits on Wikipedia are made by a little more than 1,000 core contributors) or a little.
These new media communities can only extend the range of potential contributors by adopting a modular design for their products. Wikipedia is broken down into tens of thousands of particular articles. Linux, the open software programme, is broken into many thousands of smaller modules. That means people can contribute to just the piece that interests them, where their skills are relevant, without having to be involved in the organisation as a whole. As long as the modules fit together, like lego bricks, then it doesn’t matter.
Participative media is encouraging new kinds of personal freedom - individual activities like Nick Jaffe’s – only because it is also creating new kinds of social production: more or less tightly knit forms of collaboration to create, aggregate and distribute content.
Production by the masses creates millions of markets with a few consumers, whereas hit-driven industrial era production was designed to create a few products – songs, TV shows – with millions of consumers. And these markets behave much more like conversations ('Cluetrain Manifesto'?) – they encourage an interplay between producer and consumer – not just an exchange of goods and money. People who want to be participants and players want different things from people who just want to be couch potatoes. Players in any game want equipment to play with, a pitch on which to play, people to play with and some shared rules by which they play. Couch potatoes want good service: anytime-anywhere media, at the flick of a button. Commons based production offers something much more fundamental and potentially radical: tools that allow for mass participation.
There are several reasons for thinking this is more than a passing fad scurrying across the margins of the economy. First, these new collaboratives (co-operatives?) are emerging in information, software, entertainment, culture and media, which are among the fastest growing sectors of the developed economies. These sectors are not marginal but central to modern economies and indeed modern life. Second, while these new patterns of organisation are still emerging, the larger ones - and there are plenty that stay very small – nevertheless seem to have some powerful and durable features. They are driven by cheaper, more distributed technologies. They speak to values of individuality: they allow people more scope to express what matters to them and makes them distinctive. Third, they do not depend – as earlier efforts at collaborative (co-operative?) self-organisation did – upon people buying into alternative or altruistic values. These collaboratives (co-operatives?) grow because they work: their chief selling point is their practicality. If you want to buy anything in the world the best place to go is probably eBay. People do not use Linux open source software just because they do not like Microsoft; they do so because it works. Youtube is not just an interesting experiment; is allows amateur film makers to find an audience. Fourth, these social and collaborative ways of organising have powerful economic benefits in terms of competition: they are very low cost compared with traditional media. Online games that mobilise the contributions of thousands of players get a very low cost workforce of co-developers. These collaboratives often provide the most potent competition to incumbents and their established high cost models. Imagine a start up coming up with an alternative to Microsoft’s Powerpoint programme. No venture capitalist in their right might would back it, no matter how good the software. Why take on Microsoft? Competition to powerful incumbents often will not come from the market but from groups of amateurs who will carry on innovating even when there is no money to be made.
These new collaboratives are finding ways to respond to their own weaknesses. Wikipedia is still not as accurate at Encyclopedia Brittanica, which is also not as accurate as most people thought. One objection from traditional media stems from the cacophony of the material available on vast sites like Youtube and MySpace. How do people find their way to what they might want? Don’t they need a navigator? Isn’t that a role that only skilled professionals – like journalists – can play? Well perhaps, but it also turns out that the best of these communities work by allowing people to flag and recommend what might be relevant. Content is self-sifted by the participants.
A similar but slightly different objection is about quality. Many of these collaboratives work only because they have low or non-existent barriers to entry: it is very easy to take part and contribute. But then how can these very open, easy to access self-organising sites be trusted, if there is no one looking after quality? Don’t we need gatekeepers – professionals like journalists and regulators – to inspect and assess for quality? Again these collaboratives seem to be evolving their own, distinctive solutions to these questions, relying on self-help and peer review to trial, debate, test and sift good ideas from bad. On November 15th, 2004 for example Robert McHenry a former editor in chief at the Encyclopedia Britannica published an article mocking Wikipedia as the “faith based encyclopedia” highlighting in particular an article on Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s biographers disagree on whether he was born in 1755 or 1757. Wikipedia glossed over this debate fixing it at 1755. McHenry argued this showed it could not be trusted in the way a professional produced encyclopaedia could be. But within hours of McHenry’s article being published the reference was corrected and over the following days all dates and references in the article were checked. Within a week Wikipedia had a version which was clean and correct. Ironically McHenry’s critique had triggered precisely the collaborative self-correction mechanisms which should make Wikipedia so robust over the long run. Rapid feedback, peer review, many people looking for problems and providing solutions, provides a recipe for rapid improvement and high quality.
It is still early days but it seems likely that these highly social and distributed forms of media production, sharing and consumption will be durable. The dot.com boom was fuelled by venture capital money looking for the next big thing. Too often it found a better way to get pet food to people in a hurry. What we are witnessing now is a wave of social innovation fuelled by a mixture of cheap technology, amateur passion, simple economics, individual expression and loose collaboration. The lack of money, at least at the outset, is part of what makes this wave so powerful and durable. In media and culture, lack of resources is as likely to produce radical innovation as a well funded corporation, look to the margins for the next big thing, not the mainstream
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