Recent decades have seen the dual trend of growing digitization of content, and of increasing availability of sophisticated tools for creating, manipulating, publishing, and disseminating that content. Advertising campaigns openly encourage users to 'Rip. Mix. Burn.' and to share the fruits of their individual or collaborative efforts with the rest of the world. The Internet has smashed the distribution bottleneck of older media, and the dominance of the traditional producer > publisher > distributor value chain has weakened. Marshall McLuhan's dictum 'everyone's a publisher' is on the verge of becoming a reality - and more to the point, as the Wikipedia proudly proclaims, 'anyone can edit.'
The effect of these changes is not simply more (and more informed) consumption, however - we are not turning into Alvin Toffler's 'prosumers': consumers with an almost professional level of knowledge about what they consume, but consumers nonetheless. Instead, the networked and hypermediated persona that emerges is a very different beast: users are becoming active producers of content in a variety of open and collaborative environments. Whether it is as members of the distributed development and testing community for open source software projects, as authors, editors, and fact-checkers for one of the multi-lingual Wikipedia sites, as reporters, commentators, and pundits in open news publications ranging from South Korean citizen news site OhmyNews to tech-nerd haven Slashdot, or as global explorers and annotators for Google Earth, they are no longer producers or consumers, publishers or audiences, but both at the same time. They are not prosumers, but user-producers: produsers.
While born perhaps out of a collaborative, open source ideology, produsing is now increasingly recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity by business and governments alike. For example, the Sims range of games relies overwhelmingly on its users as content produsers - 90% of content in The Sims itself is contributed by user-produsers. Similarly, Brisbane-based games company Auran has established a community of produsers around its popular train simulator Trainz, with some 200,000 'assets' (locomotives, carriages, scenery and other elements) prodused so far. BBC News Online and other agencies now regularly call for their users to send in camera phone footage of unfolding events. And Trendwatching.com even sees a whole 'Generation C' of produsers emerging before our very eyes.
More broadly, the Chinese government is in the process of initiating a shift in its economic focus from 'made in China' to 'created in China', aiming to turn the country from the world's factory to the world's ideas generator. This shift, with its strong links to the recognition by European and Australian governments of the creative industries as a key economic driver, also builds on the move from users to produsers - it seeks to harness collaborative, grassroots creativity as a means of generating new ideas and new content (while at the same time attempting to maintain state control of the process).
So who are these produsers - and how will they fare in the light of increasing business and government involvement? As economic interests begin to explore ways to generate revenue from produsage, will they undermine its collaborative foundations, and will they reintroduce a regime of stricter intellectual property licensing? Or can the grassroots movement of produsers effect lasting change in our engagement with content, establishing a solid foothold for creative commons and other alternative IP licensing systems, and developing an equitable approach to relationships between the produser community and commercial partners?
Dr Axel Bruns teaches and conducts research about online publishing, electronic creative writing, online communities and popular music in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production (New York: Peter Lang, 2005) and editor (with Joanne Jacobs) of Uses of Blogs (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), and a founding editor of the online academic publications M/C - Media and Culture and dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing.
He is currently preparing From Production to Produsage, forthcoming from Peter Lang in 2007/8. More information about this book and other research projects and publications can be found in his blog at snurb.info.