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Produsing Culture: Implications of User-Led Content Creation

My colleague Jean Burgess is the first presenter this morning at MiT5 - we have an all-QUT panel going this morning. She begins with a nod towards Andrew Keen's recent book The Cult of the Amateur, which provides an argument not based on a deep understanding of Web2.0, but is mainly a response to the increasing hype around Web2.0 (providing a kind of hysterical anti-hype which in itself still adds to the hype, though). Jean's own work on vernacular photography provides a more intelligent, nuanced look at some of the Web2.0 phenomena.

Early photography was exemplified by the gentleman photographer, a kind of skilled amateur exploring uses of the new technology; this diverged notably from the somewhat seedy figure of the professional photographer. The skilled amateurs (later also as opposed to everyday amateur photographers) began to introduce artistic components as drawn from landscape painting and other existing forms. Later, then, the emergence of cheap Kodak cameras further changed the field of photography - the slogan "you point the camera, we do the rest" turned the camera into a black box and turned photography into an everyday pursuit, but also one with a centralised authority. Kodak, in effect, became a cultural leader; vernacular photography was structured by a play ethic and photos were shared amongst family and friends.

New sites such as Flickr add not an entirely new mode of photography, but the means of mass sharing - "you click the buttons, we do the rest". Flickr also does not teach photography or position itself as a cultural leader on how and what to photograph, though. Jean now moves to speak about the in-depth interviews with Flickr users which she conducted for her PhD. Amongst the comments provided by her interviewees was that they used Flickr to for the first time engage in the making of creative content, because of their existing interest in exploring new technologies, as a means of generating more interesting photography beyond personal snapshots, as a means of exploring art outside of the traditional artistic scene, to explore specific artistic aspects of photography, to break with the standard amateur photography aesthetics, or to better explore the technical features of the photographic technology they were using. These are just some of the motivations, of course.

Flickr's 'interestingness' measurement (combining the number of views of, comments on, and people who have favourited an image) is one key component of the value of this site. The result is a public access to the images' most rich and popular meaning, incorporating social relevance, traditional popular tastes, references to professional photography, and new forms of innovation as well as classic aesthetic techniques. This, Jean, suggests, is a move in the democratisation of cultural value - not a flattening, but a convergence of competing values within this space. This is no simple inversion or revolution of traditional aesthetics, though!

Next up is John Banks, also from the CCi. His interest is in the implications of labour in co-creative environments. Co-creative relationships between fans and industry are now becoming more collaborative rather than oppositional; this is also evident in the buyups of sites like YouTube and MySpace. What is the role of user labour in these spaces, though - indeed, what kind of labour is being conducted here, and how does this affect the paid labour in the traditional industries connected to the user-led content creation environments? (John's background is in working with the Brisbane-based games development company Auran, who is at the forefront of building relationships with users as content creators.) This is reflected also in TIME's nomination of 'you' as person of the year, of course; these amateur 'yous' are working apparently for free, and at times beating the pros at their own game.

John now gives a brief overview of Auran, a company in Brisbane with some 80 staff who amongst others developed the railroad simulator Trainz - a 3D rail world which is entirely open for users to design and develop. Users were instrumental in extending the content available in Trainz; they were highly active content creators, contributing models of locomotives and rolling stock, trackside objects, ground and sky textures, and much much more, and did so often at a very high level of quality. Auran began to harness this creativity, embedding user-generated content into the game; from the 2004 version, almost all the art content in Trainz was sourced from the community. But is this exploitative of users, who did after all work on this for free?

From John's interviews with fans, it's interesting to see that they had a relatively positive view; many fans saw an embedding of their content in Trainz as a first move towards their own commercialisation of their content, and in some countries, the fans themselves also became the first-hand distribution agents for Trainz itself - Auran ended up dumping some of their commercial distributors overseas as the fans were doing a better job selling the game.

At the same time, there is an ongoing debate in the fan community between fans seeing fan content as payware, and those seeing it as freeware. A number of fans are angry that Auran would allow fans to commercialise their own contributions, believing instead that fan content should be free; at the same time, another sizeable group is very happy to have the chance to commercialise, unlike what is allowed by the EULAs of many other games.

A similar approach is now taken with a new Auran game, Fury, which is developed directly in interaction with gamer guilds and other fan interest groups. What is interesting here is that gamers themselves were generally not strongly concerned about the labour they contributed; where they started to use the term 'labour' themselves, it was at points where relationships with Auran broke down (often around the imposition of fixed timelines on the fan community to produce their contributions to the emerging game). This was a point of alienation, a point where 'fun' became 'work' - and managing this breaking point is one of the crucial tasks for organisations wishing to harness the power of user-led content creation.

Are gamers workers, then - is what they do a form of free, exploited labour? Do gamers misrecognise the value which they contribute? Often, in critical literature users are being portrayed as dupes, ignorant of the work they contribute to commercial projects; this overlooks that often this labour is voluntarily and willingly given, though. At the same time, the game industry touts a rhetoric of collaboration, but this also masks the ultimate commercial use of gamer work. Academics researching this gamer work may also introduce their own politics into their analyses, of course, and may be unaware (or ignore) that the gamers themselves don't share their politics.

An appropriate answer probably lies somewhere more towards the middle, then. We need a better open innovation model of co-creation, beyond the closed production model traditional embraced by industries. Some, like Andrew Ross, argue that user work may replace paid professional work, but John's own experience also suggests that it can create jobs for users moving into the industry. What it does do, certainly, is to change the way industry does business; there is a dynamic agency of innovation which reshapes business practices and markets towards open innovation networks.

And finally to my paper, which is up on the MiT5 site as well as here on my blog. I've recorded it as well - will try to put it up soon...

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