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Defining and Developing Produsage and Its Tools


The second morning at CATaC 2006 begins with a session I'm chairing, and my own paper is also in this session - so I'll try to blog the other three papers, and to post the slides and text for mine. Chris Newlon and Anthony Faiola are the first presenters, on mega-collaboration. They begin with a focus on Hurricane Katrina, which they describe as exhibiting a pattern of success and failure. The response to the hurricane was a spontaneous gathering and coordination of information resources by private-sector ICT organisations and individuals, but the government failed to effectively make use of this wealth of information. Of course, planning is usually for the expected, but not for the worst imaginable extreme - how, then, to plan for the unexpected? Chaos was the only response in the Katrina case, especially also because of cultural barriers between the different agencies and entities involved in the flood response. At the same time, the use of private ICT resources can be described as a success - socially connected information networks were in clear evidence here, including privately run missing persons databases, as well as blogs, lists, bulletin boards, etc. This builds on a small world principle where most individuals are connected, but where such connection depends on contextual information which points towards the most useful contacts to utilise.

ICTs have empowered individuals via CMC, and more collaboration is possible - but there now needs to be a framework for a wider Mega-Collaboration (or MegaCol). This study worked towards building such a tool, in the form of a serious game. Such a tool needs to be general-purpose and must easily integrate adjacent projects and existing networks as well as facilitate small-world networking. It needs to be able to scale up and break problems and projects into chunks, and needs to be able to deal with unknown data; the game also needs voting and scoring structures which support new ideas as well as the tweaking of existing ideas.

Games offer a safe arena in which to confront cultural differences, and they challenge power structures. There is a need for such a game to support a third culture: a process of cross-cultural assimilation which also allows for the interaction between different subcultures. And the data structures need to support goals, objects, tasks, roles and players, and events, but these also need to be able to be decomposited into child objects, or combined into super-entities. These objects might exist in multiples, and may also transform into one another (events into goals, etc.), and they need to be able to be viewed through topical, spatial, temporal, or social lenses.

The team now proposes an architecture that supports a variety of servers and clients, running off MySQL and PHP at the backend and XHTML, JavaScript, and Flash on the frontend, with XML as a go-between. There is also a proposed database structure which I won't describe here as it's too difficult to represent the tables in detail, but it looks like a great deal of work has gone into this structural sketch. Further, there also is an interface mockup which shows what this system might look like. Such a tool might be useful well beyond disasters like Katrina, of course.

Crazy Brazilians?

Suely Fragoso from Brazil is next, and begins with some stats about the Brazilian Internet - there are relatively few users in terms of a population percentage (6.6%), with relatively recent uptake, but with users highly concentrated in the richer urban areas. Use is centred around ICQ, blogs, and other personal communication forms, and for those who use it, there is a relatively high use of the Net, with a high number of hosts as well as an active hacking community. For some reason, too, activity is seasonal and seems to pick a key target every year - photoblogging in 2004, and the online community site Orkut in 2005. Interestingly, Orkut provides use demographics which indicate country, age, and other percentages, and these show that some 70% of Orkut users are now Brazilian. Indeed, the number of profiles on Orkut has developed almost exponentially (but multiple profiles are possible, so this is not an indication of real user numbers).

Brazilian users of Orkut have started a number of Portuguese-language communities, which initially caused some flak from U.S.-based users and was addressed through the development of filters which hide specific language communities. However, Brazilian users have a habit of writing in Portuguese even in other-language communities, which caused a great deal of annoyance and even killed some Orkut communities. Discussions acquired a tone of protest against this 'crazy Brazilian invasion', which led to attacks against U.S.-based users in turn - and a movement in 2004 to try and outnumber U.S. users (which was achieved at some point in 2004), as well as, some time later, to dominate the site. It is not sure whether the description of this as 'crazy' here refers to Brazilians overall, or the invasion in particular. Additionally, the friends network system in Orkut was also used quite differently from how it is used by other cultures - Brazilians are making friends of just about any other user, rather than keeping a small network - and this undermines some of the social networking tools in the system.

Why Brazilians, then? Generally, Brazilians are described as friendly, social, well-meaning and cheerful, but in Orkut there is a great deal of aggressiveness and intransigence coming from them. Social networking services invite people with distinct cultural backgrounds and operate as privileged arenas of cultural hybridisation, but this can also lead to clashes of culture, and indeed Orkut shows some deal of Brazilian xenophobia. The clash against U.S. users is strange because both are new world countries, and national identity is often less important than local and other loyalties - and generally, Brazilians tend to want to be liked, so why does this relatively peaceful culture become so agressive in this case? The dominance of English language (rather than aggression against the U.S.) might be to blame here - Brazilian command of English is poor on average, and to be forced to communicate in that language may be stressful.

This is why many Brazilians resort to Portuguese regardless - the overall attitude is that 'the rules are correct and must be followed, but they don't apply to me', and that 'it is very rude on the part of others to insist that they apply to me'. Other studies have found similar tendencies in offline circumstances, too. Generally, institutions and values in Brazil are often incompatible in principle, and Brazilians have developed a capacity to live between the two opposed logics and adhere to each and both of them at the same time. Any law can be forgotten or limited in effect so as not to apply in the individual's case. Further, Internet users are a rich elite that is used to get a personalised treatment - and there is a general perception of public spaces to belong to no-one where behaviours that would be otherwise unthinkable can take place nonetheless. Only positive intercultural contact seemslikely to help solve these problems.

Towards Produsage

My own presentation further sketches out the characteristics, tendencies, and issues associated with produsage, or collaborative user-led content production. There are earlier versions of this work already on this site, and my paper today has been published in the CATaC 2006 conference proceedings; I'll also try to upload I've also uploaded the Powerpoint and text soon. Overall, I think it went well, and there were some very interesting remarks in the Q&A.

Note: I must admit that my published paper for this conference, attached here and published in the CATaC proceedings, is a little out of date - since submitting it, I've had some further thoughts that have led me to revise (or really, reorganise) the key characteristics of produsage somewhat. The Powerpoint has the latest version, for now.

A Wiki Revolution?

Leah Macfadyen is the last speaker, focussing especially on the revolutionary potential of wiki technologies. There have been many dreams of an Internet revolution ever since its emergence, of course, whether in knowledge management, education, politics, or many other areas, leading to the development of a global village - but in spite of these dreams and wishes the simple development of technologies, or access to them, has not yet brought about such changes. Open content and open source technologies do offer a potential for reaching some of these goals, however, and for challenging some of the fundamental assumptions currently in play. What defines the characteristics of a revolution are radical novelty, illegality or illegitimacy, and the promotion of a conception of human freedom. It is an assault on the principles underlying the assumptions of a social order - so, to what degree do Internet technologies revolutionise the status quo?

So far, their impact is limited - there remains a digital divide, online information largely remains controlled at the browser, search engine, and authorship and digitisation levels, and 'modern', Western values of textual authority remain focussed around private property, author identity, and affiliation. While the latter may be important in assessing the reliability of information on the Web, these criteria are also misused to deny authority to information which originates from non-standard sources.

In this context, wikis and similar technologies might finally have the ability to liberate the revolutionary potential of the Internet and support value shifts in favour of more collaborative engagement. Usually every page on a wiki site is editable by users, and they employ alternative IP licences - this does not mean they are anarchical environments, however, but instead there are often clear community structures and values, which means that these sites are best described as a form of social software. Leah now runs through some examples of wikis, from internal development wikis to wikis used for group collaboration, to the Wikipedia.

Are they revolutionary, then? They can be described as radically new, as they enable multidirectional information dissemination and rapid and multilingual growth, as well as employing unusually soft security frameworks building on participant cooperation. They could be considered illegal or illegitimate as they challenge the dogma of market-driven, corporate hierarchical models of production as being the most effective option, and undermine modern Western conceptions of authorship and authority. Instead, new measures of credibility are emerging: rigour (the total number of edits to an article) and diversity (the total number of unique editors). Finally, there is a potential for freedom here, as wikis facilitate a participatory 'deep democracy' and the self-organisation of actors and knowledge, thereby questioning traditional relations of power. Overall, then, there is a potential for a more revolutionary shift in knowledge production and dissemination, removing the control of information from a minority and providing new metrics for authority, accuracy, and credibility.

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PDF icon Towards Produsage.pdf60.47 KB
Office presentation icon Towards Produsage.ppt133 KB