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Defining Creative Labour

From the packed plenary theatre we have now moved on to the first of the smaller sessions (which is similarly full) - one of nine or ten parallel sessions (so please don't take these blog entries as entirely representative of MiT5 proper...). This session is on creative labour in a produsage environment, and Mirko Tobias Schäfer begins by "Revisiting the Case of Interactive Audiences and the User as Producer". He notes that in 1983 TIME nominated the (personal) computer as 'machine of the year' - an interesting precursor of the recent nomination of 'you' as person of the year 2006, which has perhaps redressed the balance again from technology to users.

It is now necessarily to examine further the interactions between users and technology in participatory environments. There are arguments around top-down vs. bottom-up, or dialogue vs. broadcasting, repressive vs. emancipatory media use (e.g. in Enzensberger); there are also less binary examinations of users as encoding and decoding, as active audiences, as participants in fanculture (e.g. in Jenkins), perhaps also as active reinterpreters (as in Fiske - but here users may be internally, intellectually active, but not necessarily externally, communicatively so).

There is also a plethora of more or less useful and effective attempts to describe the participatory user communities which have now emerged (collective intelligence, smart mobs, etc. - as well as my own work on produsage); here, Mirko suggests that participation is defined as the consumer's cultural production within the domain of the culture industries, even though much of it also takes place outside of it (but is it really so black and white - how much is Benkler's work concerned with activity only within the culture industries, for example?).

Mirko now introduces a number of further tools or categories to describe this participatory engagement - symbols (metaphors, visions, policies, product definitions, imago); humans (producer, designer, user, hacker, audiences); artefacts (computers, software, the Internet); mediators (who transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry - see Latour); actors (agency); and the network (or perhaps indeed the worknet).

Such frameworks can be applied to cases such as the Xbox Development Kits (XDK), some of which were stolen and made their way into the demoscene; this led to the development of a new sphere of user content production for Xbox which Microsoft in turn attempted to shut down, leading to the emergence of a new alternative network entirely outside of the control of Microsoft. With the new Xbox 360, Microsoft reversed its position and made the XDK widely available to users, tapping into their content creation activities. Tagging, as for example in, provides a different example: an integration of user activity and smart technological harnessing of their content; as does Flickr with its tagging (and geotagging) tools.

What affects these phenomena is appropriation (what users do with technology); affordance (how technology channels action); and design (how technology is build and shaped). This is a socio-technical ecosystem which involves a dynamic milieu of a multitude of users and technologies, who co-exist and form fragile relations in countless concatenations on symbolic, technological, and social levels. The multitude of users extends and compensates pure technology, which in turn stimulates the multitude; user communities use, re-use, apply, and design this process, leading to the emergence of digital culture.

Up next is Jose van Dijck, presenting on Television 2.0: Video Sharing as Homecasting. She notes that the closed system of television is finally changing through the impact of videosharing sites, which do however remain confined to a specific space and are leading to a reframing of the social practice of television itself. In this it is also important to realise that each of the videosharing sites currently leading the market embody some very different approaches to online video use and sharing.

Broadcasting and broadcasters describe the traditional institutional context; against this, Jose introduces homecasting and homecasters as the DIY alternative. Both are involved in a process of mutual change as they engage (with) one another; neither will replace the other, as homecasting is significantly building on the content of broadcasting (and the opposite direction of interchange is perhaps also growing). Broadcasting is defined by technological constraints of one-way communication and scheduling, an economic base in advertisers creating target groups, and the social positioning of television as a window on the world; homecasting, on the other hand, is two-way and on demand, with users themselves creating target groups (for advertisers), and a spilling of home life onto the public sphere.

Homecasting is built on the emergence of the user (as opposed to a mere viewer or consumer); usage - or indeed produsage - is a new social practice, and the idea of interactivity is no longer sufficient to describe this form of engagement (because viewers were always active participants); similarly, the idea of the prosumer is a fallacious concept as it confirms a dichotomous, economic vocabulary. Users, instead, can involve the (co-)creation or user-produced content. Indeed, Jose suggests, there is a need for a term even beyond 'user' (she suggests 'You-ser'; mine would be produser, of course), because even broadcast involved some activity by 'users' - in the homecasting environment, however, users are now also becoming downloaders, evaluators, sharers, community builders, uploaders, distributors, content providers, tinkerers, creators, producers, designers.

Finally, there is also a redefinition of cultural form in this environment, then. Technology and social practice are intricately intertwined with cultural forms (programmes, formats, and the scheduling of programmes); such cultural forms have been traditionally defined as economic (products) and legal concepts (intellectual property), but these terms apply accurately no longer - instead, what we are talking about here could be described as 'snippets' or 'resources'. Where broadcast products were defined by a right to ownership, homecast snippets are designed to be used, shared, and (re)appropriated.

What exists here, then, is a set of two different yet intertwining institutional structures, divergent yet interweaving social practices, antithetical yet juxtaposed cultural forms - and it is crucial at the present moment to define these phenomena especially also in cultural terms. In such forms, the user is neither autonomous creator nor unpaid labourer - what, then, is the user agency in this context; what new dynamics between broadcasters, homecasters, advertisers and users is emerging here?

Elliot Panek is next, presenting on The Career of the Online Motion Picture Maker. He notes that for film and television production students, the use of YouTube and other similar sites is now becoming increasing important - they can be used as a kind of research lab for these students. At the same time, YouTube and similar sites also change the future career paths of such emerging media producers, who may well be simply exploited as cheap labour in a user-led environment. This adds to an already highly exploitative motion picture industry, of course.

Elliot notes the project of Channel 101 as an exception to the rule of online video sites, where there exists a close-knit community of content creators working within relatively established patterns of operation; the mainstream of video sharing sites is rather more based in the content creation and sharing of random participants at this point. There is an interesting crossover of trends, now - while television production is moving more towards the higher end of well-produced content, online production is built at present on low-cost, cheap-labour amateur productions (a kind of perpetual demo-reel for later professional work in television or film). At the same time, there is also likely to be a further division within the online production community itself, between those who create cheap, amateur content, and those who begin to embrace high(ish)-end production values even in this medium in order to showcase their abilities.

At the same time, the blog experience shows that online content creation is not only about the creation of content as a stand-alone product, but instead more akin to an ongoing conversation and collaboration, and the same is perhaps true now also for some of the content on online video sharing sites. This also further complicates intellectual property relations, of course, as content is no longer sole-authored but becomes inherently collaborative. The rags-to-riches mythology of Hollywood careers may no longer have any place here; video sharing could lead to the rise of a new "motion picture middle class".

Finally now to Cristobal Garcia, who will present on Innovation and Creativity in the Digital Age: Processes, Practices, Networks. He notes the transformation in business organisation through a move to a networked economy - a transition from autonomous small businesses through centralised corporate hierarchies towards decentralised networks of productive actors. This is analogous to the societal transformation from hierarchically organised towards more flexibly structured societies. In such business structures, industries are more permeable, and coordination takes place more often through informal distributed networks, for example.

The core ingredients to this new environment are creativity and innovation, and these must be demystified from a romantic conception. Creativity must be seen as a social and a group phenomenon, it can be triggered and stimulated, perhaps even taught, and it can be channeled to stimulate innovation on technological and organisational levels. Processes, organisation, culture, and management therefore form the components of a system of innovation, but here, traditional forms of teleological project management are often poorly suited to support a more open-ended process and practice of innovation - there is a fertile and useful tension between process and disruption which must be exploited.

How, then, do we understand and represent such work - which often happens in ways fundamentally different from the standard workplace manuals of operation? Cristobal proposes a move from prescribing corporate hierarchies of operation towards a more flexible, networked structure, and suggests that Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) can help to discover effective corporate structures in this context. ONA uncovers the undocumented, hidden pathways by which knowledge is transferred throughout the organisation; it measures and maps the relationships and information flows between actors in the network. The outcomes of such ONA must also be connected with examinations of formal organisational structures, as well as the physical environments within which they exist, as these environments also play a crucial role in structuring information and knowledge flows within an organisation, of course. An orchestrating and recombining of processes, practices, networks, and spaces may then lead to the creation of an innovation ecology.

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