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The Moral Economy of Web 2.0

Henry JenkinsVancouver.
The second keynote at the AoIR 2007 conference is by MIT's Henry Jenkins, speaking on the moral economy of Web 2.0 (in a presentation coauthored with Josh Green and emerging from the work of the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT). The central principle of Web 2.0 is to embrace the power of collective intelligence, as Kevin O'Reilly has said; another take on this is that users make all the content, but corporations keep all the revenue (according to There's a proliferation of pronouns (you, we, us), which opens an interesting tension of individual versus collective action (is 'you' singular or plural here?). Indeed, YouTube is a meeting place of so many different communities that talking about it in general misses most of the specificities of individual uses.

Henry's only work emerged from a strong interest in fan culture, or course, and here collaborative work is very common and may show us a glimpse of the future - yet on the other hand the most popular content even on YouTube remains made by a much smaller, much narrower group of contributors. The corporatisation of such work is also troubling, and there is at best an uneasy truce between user-creators and corporations.

Into this entered in the last year a new Web 2.0 company called Fanlib ("people-powered entertainment"), which sponsored fan contests around niche television shows and placed itself as the hub through which fan-created content flowed - but which was highly unaware of the cultures of fandom (and was strongly criticised in response). Fan critics found Fanlib's statement to its shareholders, which exposed the company's underlying agenda and intended terms of service; they suggested that it may be a trap for fan content creators which by publishing their work would further expose them to litigation by copyright holder. Additionally, questions about revenue sharing and labour remuneration, as well as about the morality of extracting profit from fan work were raised. How easily should fans give up control of their own spaces, just for the remote possibility of exposure or profit?

This ties in to wider questions of convergence culture, or course. Convergence is a cultural rather than technological process: we live in a world where every story, image, sound, idea, brand, and relationship will play itself out across all possible media platforms. By comparison, the hyper-multifunctional mobile phone is a crazy, tech-driven version of convergence. What is more interesting is the shift from transmedia entertainment to transmedia branding, and in this context, fan culture is also a mechanism of convergence which sometimes collides, sometimes collaborates with commercial interests.

A second aspect of this is collective intelligence: in a network society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems they could not confront individually. This is not the hive mind in which everyone is the same, but the collaboration of a much more diverse community.

Finally, we are seeing the emergence of a new form of participatory culture (a contemporary version of folk culture) as consumers take media into their own hands, reworking their content to serve their personal and collective interests. This is spreading every further (and visible for example in the U.S. presidential campaign) - participatory culture has low barriers to engagement, strong support for sharing creations with others, and informal mentorship, and members believe that their contributions matter, and care about others' opinions of self and work. Participants in such culture range from professionals to amateurs, but are no longer limited to those two options - there are many more hybrid positions between these two extremes.

Much of this is threatened by questions around net neutrality - if such neutrality is undermined, we may return to a more mainstream media-driven environment, and participation and civic engagement could be undermined. Henry mentions Jean Burgess's work on Flickr as an important form of vernacular creativity which fosters such civic engagement. By contrast, as Clay Shirky has suggested, the passive consumer is dying or dead - everyone is a media outlet participating in the network. Content movement across the network - the spreadability of media - also depends on copyright frameworks, of course. How this is described (from prosumers to produsers) is still being debated - Henry mentions Grant McCracken's idea of active, creative consumers as multipliers for marketing messages; he's also discussing my concept of produsage, and focusses here especially on the unfinished aspect of prodused artefacts.

There is now a whole new level of fan production, too - Star Trek fans are particularly active at producing fan films at the moment, and Robert Kosinets has studied this work in some detail; this is very different from the image of textual poaching as a fan resistance activity and is beginning to be accepted by some copyright holders. This is different in the Serenity case, where fans were sued for their appropriation of copyrighted content in fan production (and in return presented an ironic bill to the copyright holder for fan labour rendered to the franchise).

Networks value engagement and expression; consumers are no longer predictable and do what they're told. New content is increasingly produced with some understanding of this new position for consumers, who are better socially connected, more active and productive, noisy and public (and consumer action becomes part of the promotion tactics for commercial franchises). New consumers are (sometimes) resistant, taking media into their own hands - this is very visible for example in the context of the Harry Potter series, with fan groups sometimes turning even into very politically active groups. (The fan groups fighting to keep Stargate SG-1 on air are another example.) We're moving here from impressions to expressions, from intellectual property to emotional capital.

Eric von Hippel's work in studying lead users in innovation communities is extremely useful here. Lego's embrace of such users in developing new products is instructive in this context; it is an example of the broader phenomenon of crowdsourcing. Some grassroots phenomena also funnel back up into mass media distribution (and Henry also mentions John Banks's work on fan content creation in Auran's Trainz software here). There are interesting questions here around economies of scale, community buy-in, and game design as a community building activity (or perhaps community as game?) here.

Fan communities also provide important service roles (for example in dubbing Japanese anime to English), and in the process act as a kind of product testing community for the industry. The first stars are now emerging from these participatory culture communities - rapper Soulja Boy is one example, and the wizard rock community (mixing rock music and Harry Potter) is another. Participatory culture infrastructures support the distribution of new content and content forms here (and again this is a form of innovation testing, too).

The problem here is the question of labour - and Henry notes Mark Deuze's work on questions of precarious labour in digital content creation environments - and of intellectual property frameworks. For older media companies, Web 2.0 principles are not necessarily so easy to embrace therefore - and for the produsers, much the same might apply for very different reasons. How can we move from prohibitionist to collaborationist models? Henry notes that this is usually not a question of different models in different companies, but of internal struggles between different departments within the same corporations.

Ultimately, this is a question of moral economy, and we may learn here from the much earlier peasant reforms: where the popular consensus on how the world should work is disrupted, change and negotiation must necessarily take place (but most likely only through a great deal of struggle) - the typical example here is the continuing battle over filesharing, variously characterised as communism, piracy, sharing, giving. Many corporations now make money either way (selling music, or selling MP3 players) - and this returns us to the question of (free) labour, and highlights the need for further civic engagement by those whose cultural and intellectual interests are at stake. (Against this, Henry notes the spurious and simplistic anti-participation arguments of Andrew Keen.)

The posterchild of the enmeshing of participatory culture and mass media is U.S. comedian Stephen Colbert, who has very cleverly tied into user participation phenomena both to build his own popularity, and to question the underlying assumptions of particulatory culture - yet against this, Colbert's parent company has ordered all Colbert Report and Daily Show clips to be removed from YouTube. Corporations which don't understand intellectual property create a very confusing playing field for participants in Web 2.0 environments...

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