During Communist rule in Poland amateur film making clubs thrived in steel works, dockyards and factories. They made not just documentaries or home movies but fully fledged feature films. Film making was encouraged in part to divert people away from idle chit chat or trying to find out what was going in the West. Marysia Lewandowska, the Polish artist based in London has spent several years looking at the experience of the film makers and at a talk at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in May 2006 she explained. “What they were really doing by making films was learning how to be free, how to make something that mattered to them.”
Lewandowska’s insight also applies to the rise of social media. By making things that express themselves, however modestly, people are learning a new kind of freedom of expression and creativity. Freedom is not to be measured by how much you can buy, the choices available to you as a consumer. Personal autonomy is also about what you can be, how you can express your distinctive sense of self. Social media allows a vast expansion of that kind of freedom. That is why these new forms of collaborative endeavour will prove to be so much more significant than the first Internet boom.
The first Internet boom, in the late 1990s, seemed to offer a revolution but actually just promised to get dog food to your door more quickly. Why should these new collaboratives offer anything more substantial? Or to put the question in a slightly different way: is this just a way for kids to display pictures of themselves on the Internet and for bands to market their MP3 files or could it bring larger, more significant benefits to society?
First, it is good for personal autonomy. How we consume information, what news and views we get access to is fundamental to how we see the world and make decisions. The kinds of cultural activities we engage with has a huge bearing on who we think we are, where we come from, the story we tell about ourselves. Seen in these lights traditional mass media suffers from several limitations which stem from its economics. The high capital costs of creating systems for creating and distributing content - employing hundreds of journalists and others in expensive office space in London, buying printing presses and building studios etc – means media organisations need to find big markets to attract advertising or win support for public subsidy. That may mean, however, the number and range of views and voices traditional media can air are too limited : there isn’t enough time, money and capacity to reflect the diversity of what people have to say. New, more distributed, forms of production and sharing allow many more views to be garnered from many more sources, often from those that would not pass the tests of return on investment or public value. A related critique is that high capital costs puts media organisations in the hands of only a few people – corporate owners or state appointed executives. Concentration of power is a bad thing if it suppresses diversity and debate. As yet more distributed forms of production have escaped this problem: Jimmy Wales does not decide what happens in Wikipedia in the way that Rupert Murdoch can influence his editors and empire. If distributed media allows for more diversity of expression then it should also create a more open, contested culture. It should be possible to see any issue – and so our own role in it – from several different vantage points. That in turn should help to make us more self-aware, reflexive and critical.
Social production recreates the possibility that people, like the Polish film makers, can find a sense of autonomy through work, albeit not work for a corporation. People who produce, for free, new computer games, encyclopedia article, software, music, films are finding ways to express themselves through voluntary labour. That is why social production offers the possibility of a deeper sense of freedom based on participation not just consumption; taking part not just consuming. It also allows a wider range of motivations to come to the fore. Most people have diverse motivations. They are neither purely altruistic, completely self-interested, nor obsessed by the power and status conferred by hierarchy. Non-market, social forms of production allow people to do things because of their passions, interests and skills rather than because of the financial rewards or because they are told to do so by their boss.
Second, social production of media should be good for democracy and the quality of debate in the public sphere. Television and mass media have provided the information backbone to our public life: that is where issues are debated, politicians and others appeal for our attention and occasionally our votes. Yet concentration of ownership gives undue weight to the views of a few. The passive send-and-receive broadcast model means that people are treated as targets for well-honed messages rather than as citizens and participants. The need to reach large audiences with well produced commercials requires money and that in turn creates opportunities for corruption in party funding. Politics is turned into a spectacle, part of the entertainment business, searching for an audience: George Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother is just the most recent and infamous example of this trend.
The media commons would make it far easier for people to have their say, to voice their views and to get organised: it promotes basic democratic values such as self-organisation, free association and self-regulation. Modern political parties, themselves creatures of the industrial era, now find themselves constantly outflanked by social movements and campaigns, often born by self-organising networks. These new forms of political engagement are not based on send-and-receive models of communications; they are more like vast rolling conversations. We have already seen in the US and the UK that bloggers and campaigners can provide an important new check on the power of traditional media, forcing newspapers and news channels to pick up stories they have ignored or dropped. The rise of blogs-come-political campaigns such as the Daily Kos, which emerged out of the ruins of Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign, show that social media can get organised and have an impact in its own right.
Third, in the long run commons based media should be good for equality and global development. At first glance it is far from clear why there should be any connection between media, poverty and equality. Why should people who need clean water, food and HIV drugs be at all concerned with how middle class kids in the developed world share their MP3 files? About 25,000 people a day die from diseases caused by lack of clean water. Set against that challenge the debate over the merits of social media versus traditional media seems besides the point. But as Yochai Benkler puts it in The Wealth of Networks:
“Information, knowledge and culture are core inputs into human welfare. Agricultural knowledge and biological innovation are central to food security. Medical innovation and access to its fruits are central to living a long and healthy life. Literacy and education are central to individual growth, to democratic self-governance, and to economic capabilities. Economic growth itself is crucially dependent upon innovation and information. For all these reasons information policy has become a critical element of development policy and the question of how societies attain and distribute human welfare and well-being. Access to knowledge has become central to human development.”
Stacked up against that challenge how does traditional media fare compared with social media production? Proprietary systems for owning and controlling knowledge limit its flow and direct it to where people can pay. That is why so much pharmaceutical research is devoted to diseases of the rich and corpulent and so little to diseases of the poor. In most scientific and cultural fields one person’s output becomes another person’s inspiration or input. If proprietary controls – such as patents and copyrights – put up the price of inputs, then it will price out of the market some innovators who cannot afford to pay the fee to license access to the knowledge. The alternative to proprietary systems for spreading knowledge and ideas has been international versions of traditional public service broadcasters, often state funded and at times politically motivated.
Barefoot media offers some distinct advantages. As Amartya Sen has argued good government depends on democracy and democracy depends on the free flow of information. To the extent that social media production is less easy to control than traditional, concentrated broadcast media, then authoritarian regimes have fewer options to keep their populations in ignorance. Commons based media is relatively low cost and so more readily applicable to problems of the poor. It does not rely on employing high cost, professional journalists or researchers. Open and collaborative models encourage self-help and self-reliance. Wikipedia’s example is just the leading edge of what could become a new global information commons, stretching from information and media, into culture and science.
The new forms of structured self-organisation – We-think - witnessed now across fields from software and computer games, to music and basic information sharing – could bring our societies very large benefits in terms of competition, efficiency and innovation, freedom, democracy and social justice. But they also pose a significant challenge to all institutions – not just media organisations – that have relied on high barriers to entry and professional control of knowledge and information. Doctors, teachers and journalists, the organisations that employ them and the places they work are all being changed by this trend from centralised to more distributed activity; mass markets to niche; broadcast communication to conversation; consumption to participation; passive to interactive. This is a world in which as Benkler puts it :
“All the means of producing and exchanging information and culture are placed in the hands of hundreds of millions, and eventually billions, of people around the world, available for them to work with, not only when they are functioning in the market to keep body and soul together, but also, and with equal efficacy, when they are functioning in society and alone, trying to give meaning to their lives as individuals and as social beings.”
The continued rise of social media production will not necessarily compete with, still less displace traditional media corporations. Indeed they could complement one another and many corporations will see opportunities in creating their own versions of social media, witness News Corporation’s purchase of My Space. The computer games industry shows that proprietary ownership of the core game can be combined with massive subsequent player development: Electronic Arts increasingly provides not just games but platforms and tools for communities to develop games. Second Life, the highly immersive game created by Linden Labs, takes this one step further and allows players together to create the environment. Large computer companies such as IBM are very successful in making money from the open source Linux operating system, by selling related services, rather than software. The point as far as the media is concerned is that the whole domain of media production has expanded: the range of possible contributors and distributors has widened. In other words all sorts of interesting hybrids, collaborations and complements are likely to emerge from the interaction between traditional, industrial era media and the new commons based systems of social media production. It does not have to mean war. But it could because these emerging models present a huge challenge to the established incumbent models of Hollywood, the music recording industry and broadcasters, both public and commercial.
The media industries have relied upon high capital costs for creating and distributing content for their competitive advantage. In the old days they could see the competition coming from a long way off because it needed a lot of money and equipment. But over the last decade that has all changed. It is becoming harder and harder to spot where the competition is coming from in a world in which a twenty year old college drop out can write a file sharing programme on a borrowed laptop which eventually upends an entire industry’s distribution and business model: Napster. We now live in a world where any newspaper reader can also become a commentator and publisher. Where bands can create a following online without a recording studio or a record deal.
In this world, not surprisingly the incumbents have sought out new ways to shore up their position. High capital costs no longer provide a sufficiently high barrier to entry. So instead over the past two decades there has been a massive expansion in the coverage of intellectual property, copyrights and patents, to make new forms of social production too costly or too risky. This extension of intellectual property is presented as merely protecting creators against theft. But one motive is protectionist in the economic sense: a rearguard action to protect an incumbent business model against disruptive, low cost competition. All of this will make it much harder for consumers to become producers and participants, to cut, paste, add, amend, share.
Modern societies have developed in the context of mass media and industrial information production, which have shaped our view of where ideas come from, how debate takes place, who can be a media producer and who merely a sofa born consumer. A genuine shift is underway, from production for the masses to production by the masses, which will mean as Benkler puts it:
“Information and communications are core elements of autonomy and public, political discourse and decision making. Communication is the basic unit of social existence. Culture and knowledge, broadly conceived, form the basic frame of reference through which we come to understand ourselves and others in the world….the basic components of human development depend on information and innovation and how we disseminate its implications.”
The rise of social, commons based media production allows us to imagine how we could reorganise ourselves, promoting greater freedom, democracy and possibly justice, while also promoting innovation and efficiency. Nick Jaffe is at work in his bedrooms. So are millions of others. The genie is out of the bottle. It is not going back in.