Share, Share Widely:
Technologies for Distributed Creativity
Interview with Axel Bruns (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0
Trebor Scholz: On the one hand weblogs are often criticized as being somewhat narcissistic public diaries, often authored by individual teenagers. But at the same time the blogosphere is increasingly important in political campaigning, education, research, and content management.
Blogs became an outlet for new media research practices. Much of scholarly research appears on weblogs. 'Edbloggers' use weblogs for collaborative learning, as personal portfolios, institutional interfaces, personal reflective journaling, peer-to-peer editing, annotated link collections, coursework, and sharing of educational content. The word "weblog" had the highest number of online lookups on Miriam Webster in 2004. Are blogs the social software du jour?
<background sounds of noise minor birds, and rainbow lorikeets>
Yes, and according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project blog readership has shot up by 58% in 2004 alone. Should this increased public interest over the last year be credited merely to a massive interest in more information about the US elections, or is it due simply to the hype about blogs? We are not sure -- but something is happening. The narcissistic teenage use of blogs gets a lot of bad press but it is actually not such a negative thing at all. People have written diaries for centuries: for many folks this form of self-reflection is an important part of their lives, a key practice in developing and maintaining their identity.
So, I do not have a problem with self-involved teenage diaries as such, but I am certainly not arguing that the quality of the writing is always particularly good or especially insightful. Even if this journaling would be all that blogs are good for, they would remain an important outlet for expressing the lived experiences of teens. What weblogs do enable, however, is a significant amount of immediate, ad hoc interaction between individual bloggers. They are in fact a tool for social networking. There is a real interest by people in sharing information and in connecting to each other. This interconnection of people with similar interests, with comparable life stories, does not exist in traditional diary writing. With blogs, individuals who have a particular issue in common can find each other and build ad hoc networks.
The same people who today criticize blogs for being self-absorbed and tedious accounts of everyday life are possibly those who used to criticize the TV generation for being isolated from one another. Such attacks may be little more than knee-jerk reactions to the perceived evils of the next new trend in telecommunications technologies. On balance, I would prefer interaction between possibly self-centered journal writers to non-interaction between couch potatoes -- it is a step forward. Suburbanites who are socially challenged may remain so no matter if they act online or off, while blogging offers them a way to connect.
TS: Social book mark tools like del.ioc.io.us and online social fora like flickr are helpful in linking up people with similar affinities. They create linkages between social networks. Both sites link 'users' based on topical affinities, creating possibilities for social networks based on a very particular set of interests.
AB: Yes, and they show that there is a profound shift currently underway. People are very interested in creating their own content, sharing their ideas online, putting their lives out there. And everybody has expert knowledge of something -- from music and movies to politics and social issues. Of course, putting the information out there does not mean that it will actually be read. There is a tremendous information overload; an enormous number of blogs are never visited. Alexander Halavais did a lot of work about this. He is a big believer in the social power of neighborhood blogs. How many of these millions of blogs are really being looked at or linked to? If you go to a blog you probably looked for it based on a search related to your affinities.
TS: This trend towards the uses of software tools in a site-specific, "situated" way has been much discussed recently. Some recent internet art projects address the needs of a geographically specific group rather than the anywhere and nowhere of the internet (devoid of political agency).
AB: What is interesting about blogs is that they are very scalable. They are useful for collaboration amongst small, geographically co-located groups as well as for distributed team work across a number of dispersed locales. The are useful for facilitating ad hoc interconnection between complete strangers based on shared interests - and sometimes perform all three functions at the same time. This multilayered structure has always been a promise of hypertext-based information structures. There is no longer a mutually exclusive choice between catering for the 'here' or for the 'anywhere and nowhere' you speak of-- it is possible to have both at the same time.
Importantly, too, blogs make it very easy for information to travel across the network, and this is why we speak so frequently of the blogosphere now. Ideas are picked up from one blog and republished on others, so that blogging is not about single weblogs - their strength is in their numbers. I am fascinated by the trend towards blog aggregation, through sites like Daypop and Technorati. Broader trends across the blogosphere emerge: individual words or topics suddenly show up as being in extremely high use, sometimes from one hour to the next. This is a good way to track what currently is on people's minds. It is less about the individual, local blog, and much more about the travel of information across the networks. Blogs enable this through commentary functions, TrackBack, Really Simple Syndication (RSS), and other technologies. The widespread popularity of blogging will most likely be amplified by the use of RSS feeds on mobile computational devices, such as PDAs and mobile phones, which makes information flows even faster.
For my book Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production, I focused on the field of news blogging. Here (as well as in academia) copyright is a key issue: there is so much re-use of articles, of text all over the blogosphere. Information, responses to political events that appear on blogs are often copied from the news feeds of other blogs (i.e. BBC News Online now also offers RSS feeds). What we are moving towards as a result of this constant repurposing of content is not so different from file sharing. A shared file is diffused across the networks. It is becoming hard to identify the author or owner of a piece of content because the files are changed in the process of getting shared across the networks, and they are hosted on a multitude of machines. Information in the blogosphere works in much the same way: it travels in between blogs by way of RSS feeds and commenting. Thereby, it diffuses into the blogosphere, and the originators and owners of this information are now increasingly difficult to track, which naturally raises issues about credibility as a result. In the case of news-related blogging, for example, rather than encountering distinct news reports readers in the blogosphere are more likely to encounter shared themes, memes, dealing with current events that are diffused in many variations across the network.
In areas where intellectual property is important, such as the academic area, this is a real problem. Elsewhere, it is perhaps a moral rather than a purely legal question: the originator of content, the person with the original idea, should always be credited, of course. But in blogging it is quite possible that the site of the original content creator will receive fewer hits than the major blog which spreads the word. There is a need here to engage with content in a morally sound sense which acknowledges the right of the creator to be attributed appropriately, which is very much the way that open source operates as well, and where projects like Creative Commons (CC) also tie in. It is exactly what the CC attribution license requires.
Blogs are a very useful tool for researchers to float their ideas before they are fully formed, to enable others to engage with these ideas, to share them and build upon them. This returns to a more traditional form of research, of academic, scientific work - a collaborative pursuit of knowledge. There is a problem with this in a highly commercialized research environment, of course, where people are unlikely to share their ideas before they have been fully formed (and ultimately, patented). But even if blogs are used only within a specific research team, without being accessible to the wider public, they still provide a useful way of sharing ideas within that group.
TS: The model of the artist as 19th century individual genius is still alive and well. Equally alive are models like the exemplary sufferer, the self-absorbed individualist, and the innovator and visionary misfit. Yet there is the overwhelming trend towards collaboration society-wide. How do you view this development?
AB: I agree completely, there really is a wide societal trend moving toward a more collaborative mode, using the Internet and cooperative social software tools to enable that. Broadly, I see two competing approaches at this point, which map very well onto the difference between closed and open source approaches:
The locked-down institutional approach is characterized by this motto: hang on to everything, keep it close to your chest until it is finally ready to be exposed to a wider audience.
And then there is the commons approach with its motto: share, share widely, in the belief that this approach will attract the best contributors and collaborators to the project.
This latter approach is also crucially driven and supported by a need for better communication, and it is no accident that since the advent of the Internet we have seen a range of communication technologies emerge, from email and newsgroups now all the way through to blogs, content management systems and wikis. There appears to be an acutely felt need for better communication which has driven such projects, and it is a matter of breaking out of some of the more locked-down institutional environments, or of changing these environments, to enable such collaborative approaches more fully.
TS: What could lead to such radical institutional change?
AB: The software industry is a useful example here-- we are now gradually seeing companies realizing that there is value in contributing to open source, even if their main business is still in selling software packages. This is a long slow change which will continue for some time to come until it is fully accepted -- and it may never be fully accepted. In an academic sense there are similar problems -- perhaps not so much related to questions of commercialization but certainly concerns of competition between different institutions or individual academics.
If you take an example of an open educational archive such as MITOpenCourseWare this becomes obvious. It is easy to be open and supportive of sharing all your materials if you are the market leader. The use of these materials only furthers and re-enforces your leadership. MIT benefits tremendously, of course. It is a bit different with other institutions -- they may not benefit in the same way at all from openly sharing their content, if these materials are seen as second-rate in comparison to what MIT and others offer.
And the fact that a particular university is known as having originated an important idea is of course helpful in the recruitment of, especially, international students and staff.
TS: What would motivate universities to engage in open collaboration?
AB: Even though faculty are often eager to collaborate, the administration may remain far more hesitant about that prospect and still have to work out for themselves what it is that would drive them towards collaboration.
TS: Foucault asserted that knowledge is not something that is called up or recalled from an originating source to be then transferred down from one person to another. He argued that this reproduction of knowledge can only reaffirm the existing social constructions. Cooperative technologies like blogs or wikis allow for network knowledge structures that are based on an engaged collective working through knowledge. Australia seems to pioneer much of the uses of social software in education. Do you know of reasons for this eagerness of people to contribute to the public? Do you think it is related to people's desire to contribute to something larger than themselves?
AB: Definitely -- take Wikipedia for example, which today is a fantastic resource and builds on the fact that anyone is an expert on *something*, even if it is only baseball. This enables them to contribute at least on that obscure bit of knowledge that they are most expert on, and if you put all of these contributors together then you do get a vast resource larger than themselves.
There is a real question of scale here, of course -- Wikipedia works in this way because it has a massive number of contributors, and is therefore able to cover truly encyclopedic territory; in smaller teams this is not necessarily the case. So, if you have a much smaller collaborative project of whatever form, it may take significantly longer to come to fruition. The project in this case may not be larger than yourself, but simply help in sharing the work load amongst that group - and perhaps you contribute to this project only as a stepping stone to more lucrative commercial work, using it to show your skills and knowledge and your ability to work effectively as part of a team.
Why Australia is so prominent in this field, I am not entirely sure - perhaps this has something to do with our remoteness, and therefore our greater reliance on communication technologies in the first place. There certainly has been a great level of involvement in collaborative systems for a long time. Matthew Arnison from Active Sydney still is one of the key advocates of open publishing, for example, and he and the Cat@lyst team also developed the first open publishing system for Indymedia, just before the Seattle protests. Australians have always had a healthy skepticism towards authority, and promoted the idea of a 'fair go' for everyone - perhaps that has something to do with it...
But as far as open source, open publishing, and open collaboration goes, we must ask: will it work everywhere, or only in specific fields - are there areas which are particularly suited or unsuited to open source-style approaches? I do not think this has been fully answered yet - in open source, for example, I am sure you can find some very successful projects which were driven by a great need for them, while there are also many others which never quite got off the ground because of a lack of contributors. In areas like open publishing, which I have researched in detail recently, there are some projects like Slashdot which have proven massively successful - Slashdot has some 600,000 registered users - while others in a similar vein are far less successful, perhaps because their topic area was simply less interesting to a large number of users. Even open news sites that were inspired by Slashdot, such as Kuro5hin or Plastic were less successful.
Plastic is a good example as it 'only' has some 30,000 registered users: it is a site that has only just managed to establish itself and survive, but has less of a topical focus. The common good or common interest in contributing to the site perhaps wasn't seen as clearly by its visitors as this has been the case in Slashdot.
There needs to be a clearly felt common need or common interest in such projects; in addition, there are also obvious technical issues about the ease of use, the ease of contributing, the ease of interaction. The Wikipedia is an interesting example in this case - Jim Wales's first venture, the Nupedia, largely failed, of course, because it made it far too difficult for users to contribute content to the encyclopedia. The team then developed the Wikipedia as a fully open-access site where anyone can contribute, anyone can edit, and it took off.
Also, how do you manage contributions in these projects - there are real differences in how open some of these sites are, how much the content that is submitted is edited. These questions all contribute to the success or failure of a site. Slashdot seems to have worked because in spite of the clear presence of its editors they do not interfere all that obviously - while they choose the initial articles which are published, commenting remains open and anyone can have their say. Some sites like Kuro5hin and Plastic even put the editing of articles themselves into the users' hands.
In sites where every article must be edited and approved first, this will likely be seen by the users as yet another hurdle to jump through, and in addition the process will take time, so that these sites are less likely to respond quickly to current events. These setup options certainly affect the success of a site, and in cases where users contribute or co-create content these are key issues to be addressed.
TS: In a recent discussion Clay Shirky pointed out that "Wired" had to shut down their entertainment and music online fora because users launched anorexia and cutting support groups in these online spaces. People gave each other moral support and hints on how to stay anorexic. There are many similar examples. This raises interesting moral issues.
AB: There have been a number of interesting phenomena around the relationships between such ad hoc social networks and the commercial interests which put these networks in place. A similar issue I have recently become aware of has played out in massively multi-user online role-playing games (MMORGs); some of the things that groups of users get up to in these games, while a clear example of distributed creativity on part of the users, are deemed not to be 'in the spirit of the game' and are shut down by the games companies. To give you a benign example, I have just seen a 'music video' which was intricately choreographed, staged and shot entirely by players for players within the Star Wars Galaxies online game (see the Cantina Crawl videos). These are very innovative, very creative uses of the technology, totally against what the game is really about, and so there are significant problems with the games companies not knowing what to do about them, not knowing whether they want this kind of interaction to take place within their games.
TS: On a recent blog entry you quoted Ted Nelson saying that "the present computer world is appalling - it is based on techie misunderstandings of human life and human thought, hidden behind flash user interfaces."
AB: Indeed - at the very least it is important to make computers much less intrusive, much less visible in the way that people work. This is partly simply a technological issue, but particularly in academia it is also about how we use technology. For example, at Queensland University of Technology where I work there is an ongoing drive to make learning and teaching much more learner-centered rather than teacher-centered, and teaching technology has a very important role to play here.
We currently work on a project at Queensland University of Technology in which we set up systems to support much more collaborative and creative engagements with knowledge and information. How do you make it easy for students to use systems like blogs and wikis? How can these cooperative technologies improve their learning experience? It is not enough to simply put these systems in place and to go through blogging and wiki exercises - rather, the presence of such systems and the different conceptualization of and engagement with knowledge for which they stand change the entire learning and teaching experience. It changes the way lectures are (or should be) delivered, and the way people engage with the material.
I have been using a wiki in one of my classes (using the MediaWiki system) and I have come to the point of thinking, 'do I need actually need lectures as such or can I change the delivery structure of the course on the whole into something that is much more like a wiki, that resembles a networked knowledge structure - rather than imposing a linear structure from week one to week 13 which presents to students a supposedly unified history of new media technologies?' Linear structures may be useful to some, but they do not accurately represent the multifaceted field of new media studies (or any other field of knowledge, really) any more; I need to find other ways to present the whole width and breadth of information to students and to work with them through this and move into their own areas of interest, in a much more flexible network structure. In the course, students in each semester both use the wiki as an information resource, and then collaboratively build on and extend it. An encyclopedia of new media terms and concepts, it is published to the Web as the M/Cyclopedia of New Media.
We are also setting up a multi-user blogging system (using Drupal), with the intention of ultimately being able to provide a blog for each student throughout the duration of their degree. This would enable us to get away from only using blogs in specific courses, which again would be a teacher-centered approach, and rather to take a learner-centered approach which enables students to log their own experiences throughout their time at university, regardless of what course they might be relevant to.
In the university blogging is great especially for first year students who find themselves in the middle of a new environment. Blogs allow them to share reflective journals, and throughout their academic careers these blogs are useful as they help students to self-monitor their academic development. Additionally, of course, people can also share their information and experiences, and collaboratively develop content. We are also looking to develop peer-assisted study schemes in which blogs by second semester students inform students in their first semester.
In the process, students gain advanced information and communication technology literacies which empower them to co-create and share knowledge. This is crucial: the new forms of interaction which are emerging across the board at the moment require some very different skill sets, and as teachers we must make sure that students are able to gain these skills. Students need to adapt to participate in these collaborative open content systems, and to become familiar with notions of distributed creativity - especially in the current environment where information, knowledge, and creative industries are accounting for an increasingly large share of the economy in most Western nations.
In this environment we are seeing a general trend away from pure consumption, and towards participation - from shows like Big Brother where audiences are actively involved in directing further developments, to games like The Sims, where now some 90% of all in-game content has been contributed by its users, or to the involvement of fans as quality assurance in the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We witness a blending of consumption and use, of using and producing which has begun to happen in recent years. I call this new form of active content co-creator a produser.
But this ability to be an active participant or produser is not only necessary from a career point of view: it is also increasingly a prerequisite to being an informed and active citizen.
TS: Thank you for being with us today.
Axel Bruns gratefully acknowledges the help of Peta Mitchell, who provided him with an iSight camera and laptop for the WebCamTalk 1.0 presentation.
'Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality' by Clay Shirky
Axel Bruns, "Community Building through Communal Publishing: The Emergence of Open News" published in Mediumi 2.1 (2003)
Axel Bruns, "From Blogs to Open News: Notes towards a Taxonomy of P2P Publications" presented at ANZCA 2003 conference in Brisbane, 9-11 July 2003
Bibliography on Blog Research
Edublogs Weblog Award
Voice Over IP (free, cross-platform)
Association of Internet Researchers