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(My) Online Opinion

Hmm. I've been invited to contribute a piece to the April feature of Online Opinion, which will look at online and alternative media in Australia. So, I guess I'll have to make up my mind about what I think about this topic... Here's a first take:

News You Can Produse

Much of the debate around online, and even alternative online media in Australia continues to miss the point. So much of online publishers' thinking about their work is still couched in an outmoded language which upholds increasingly hollow and counterproductive approaches to publishing. Indeed the terms 'publishing' and 'media' may be part of the problem themselves. 'Media', after all, implies the existence of a mediator, an agency presumably in the middle between producers and consumers which 'publishes', that is, makes public what was previously unavailable.

Both of these aspects are no longer sustainable. Especially in digital contexts the producer/consumer dichotomy is crumbling fast, as is evident from a very broad range of emerging practices. We can see this in the massive amount of content contributed by their players to computer games such as The Sims: 90% of content here did not originate with the game's publisher, Maxis. Or take the rapid success of the user-produced Wikipedia in dethroning the previously undisputed Encyclopaedia Britannica as the most-accessed online encyclopaedia: the English-language version of the Wikipedia now holds over 500,000 entries, and counting its many versions in other languages (including even Latin!) it has passed the one million mark now. And the rapid growth of blogs (their readership in the U.S. increased by nearly 60% in 2004 alone, as the Pew Center reports) also demonstrates the increasing moves from consumer to producer of content.

What we are seeing here is the emergence of a new kind of entity altogether - no longer simply producers or consumers, the participants in such phenomena practice a form of productive consumption: they are no longer simply audiences or even (media) users, but have become what I now tend to refer to as produsers. Of course there are detractors who see such increased production of content by the 'average' person as nothing more than vanity presses writ large and gone multimedia - but faced with a choice between such new patterns of active participation and the more traditional passive consumption of media content I know where my sympathies lie.

In this brave new world of individual and collaborative content production (and distribution!) at the grassroots, of vernacular creativity, the media do not publish any more, they publicise: they don't make public, they make more public. This piece, for example, was first posted on my own blog at, to see what responses it might generate; Online Opinion therefore benefits not only from my humble views but also those of my readers. At a much larger scale, the same principle applies to sites like the Wikipedia and the multitude of content available in the blogosphere, the universe of blogs and bloggers: working together in this open system, readers can become produsers, can comment, add, edit, and fix content and thereby produce (or indeed produse) better outcomes than those working in a traditional, closed production system. It is a principle borrowed from the realm of open source software development, where this involvement of the wider public is said to harness 'the power of eyeballs'.

These eyeballs, and their owners, thus become an active part of the media; they are all mediators now. In Australia, the online operations of traditional media operators have been relatively slow to react to this trend, and continue to limit their users - indeed, sites such as the FairfaxDigital online newspapers have now even made a massive step backwards by requiring their users to register before being able to gain full access to their sites. Rather than increasing their reach by allowing users to engage with their content more productively, this effectively shuts out casual readers - frankly, an utterly stupid move which shows nothing but contempt and mistrust towards potential users.

On a more progressive side, we find (as so often) ABC Online, which has now taken to providing RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds for its news content. RSS enables users to subscribe their Web browsers or mobile devices to up-to-date news feeds from the site, or even to embed these feeds into their own Websites (as I do on mine) - this therefore increases the reach of the ABC's news significantly, as well as enabling bloggers and other commentators (who also use RSS extensively) to engage with it much more immediately. Bloggers and others now do the work of spreading the content produced by ABC journalists, and of driving traffic to the ABC site.

As a further extension it would be interesting to see sites such as the ABC's listing all the places where bloggers and others cite and comment on its articles - this is already possible using blog technologies such as TrackBack. We would then enter an environment where a broad, democratic, distributed discussion of news and current events becomes possible - not without the media, but across many media. While there are some who claim that such developments would undermine the authority of professional journalists, it should be noted that here and abroad the journalistic class has done pretty well at undermining its own authority already; also, a healthy scepticism towards the media is hardly ill-advised at the best of times. At any rate, however, the horse may already have bolted - the move from consuming to produsing is already underway.

Well, that's take one. Any comments?