Producing consumption and consuming production

Paul Johnston, part of the hive mind which is the Connected Republic, draws our attention to “produsage” – a ghastly word for an interesting concept.  The word was coined by Axel Bruns, who defines it as:

the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement.

and the focus of its application can be gleaned from the title of the book he is working on:

Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage

Paul’s Connected Republic post has a a neat summary of the ideas behind the word which I won’t attempt to duplicate.   Instead I want to focus on a point most clearly made by Axel in a comment on Paul’s post (this is already getting hopelessly self-referential, and perhaps even autologically produsage):

I do think we’re moving (in some cases quite rapidly) towards a replacement of production/consumption with produsage in the informational realm.

That’s a big claim, and if it’s anywhere near being right has some pretty substantial implications for the real world as well as the world of Second Life.  One obvious risk in a bunch of bloggers talking about content creation is projection bias – the unwarranted assumption that we are typical of the population as a whole.  For the UK, at least, that clearly isn’t yet so.

oxis2007p61_3

This graph, taken from page 61 of the 2007 Oxford Internet Survey, show pretty clearly that online creation is very much a minority activity – and not only are the rates themselves low, but the rate of growth is also low or negative in most areas, suggesting that dramatic change is not imminent.

That, of course, doesn’t in itself invalidate the argument, though it does suggest the need for some caution.  But there is other evidence which suggests that passivity may be the dominant behaviour.  Wikipedia, for example, which makes into the produsage book title, may be open to editing by all its readers, but the overwhelming majority don’t, or don’t very much.  Jimmy Wales, its founder has been pretty consistent on the topic:

The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.

“A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence,” Mr. Wales said. “But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community.

It’s only fair to say that Wales’ methodology has been subject to some criticism, but however participation is assessed, readers still far outstrip writers, and it’s not obvious why that should significantly change.  That may result in a lot of free riders – but in the online world where marginal costs tend to zero, there’s no particular reason to see that as a problem.

Man on a bench looking out to seaFor a public strategist, that’s all by the way of a preamble.  In this world, there is the (very marginally) less ugly term, co-production, recently much favoured by think tankers.  It’s not by any means a synonym, but it does convey some of the same ideas, that service design and delivery shouldn’t be – or, some would argue, can’t be – done by producers alone.  The same question is interesting here as in the online world:  are there factors which will tend to shift the balance between producers and consumers and in doing so blur the difference between them?

It seems reasonable to assume that the trend will be upwards.  People (which of course means many people, not all people) are better connected and can collaborate to obtain individual and collective power in new and distinctive ways.  But that’s not really the issue:  the question is much more whether the balance of power changes significantly as a result.  And while there are clear forces for change, there are some equally clear forces tending to retard change.  One of the more obvious is that the game is much easier to play for producers than for consumers.  They have resources, they have people and above all, they have sustained attention.  The amount of attention most individuals are likely to be willing to give to the task of improving a service of which they are sporadic users is likely to be limited, and as much as with wikipedia or linux, most will be content to be content to be consumers, relying on the more highly motivated minority to safeguard their interests.  It is perhaps significant that one of the more dramatic forms of co-production, individual budgets, is being piloted among users of social care, where service usage is quite the opposite of sporadic.

All of that also introduces the dangers of non-response bias:  there is no reason to assume that the more active consumers will be fully representative of consumers as a whole (though that doesn’t stop inactive consumers from being net beneficiaries of the process:  representation doesn’t have to be perfect to be better than non-representation).  No great surprise there:  taking an intractable social problem and adding technology to it is more likely than not to result in a technically enabled intractable social problem.

Some tentative conclusions from stirring all that around:

  • Produsage and co-production will be important for some and may well have important gearing effects, but will remain marginal in a broader context for a good while to come
  • The nature of the co-production will be a function of the co-producers.  It matters who comes to the table, and public bodies in particular have a responsibility to avoid too narrow an approach to conversation or co-production
  • Bureaucrats don’t have a monopoly on inventing convoluted terminology.

Comments

  1. Like you, I’ve got a low threshold of tolerance for neologisms. They’re too often unnecessary and self-serving.
    I don’t think I can quite swallow “produsage”. I think I’d swallomit.
    But the idea of participative design and creation is a powerful one, especially in defining the need for, creating and monitoring contempory public services. So much of what people need they can do for themselves and for each other – all the informative and compassionate bits, for starters.
    Designers speak of co-creation or co-production, and when you add up all the possible aspects in government you reach what has been dubbed co-governance. I’ve accepted that neologism, though we havent begun to map out what it would really mean or how strongly it would be resisted.
    Is this the same thing?

  2. Co-creation and co-production I can just about live with – though I am not sure that either has yet acquired a fully settled meaning. Co-governance is another new one to me. Is that what we used to call “democracy”, or is that hopelessly old fashioned?
    But I don’t think any of those is produsage (which is just as well, or we might have to use the wretched word). If I have understood it right that’s more about collaborative improvement from linux through wikipedia to facebook where the distinction between the producer and the user of the service becomes blurred. Co-creation et al are more, at this stage to do with the distinction between designer and user becoming blurred. A disabled person with an individual budget is still unambiguously the person being cared for, even if the way the design and delivery of the care is done very differently. All of these words blur into one another: some will survive, others we can hope will not, but attempting a precisely graded taxonomy of these concepts is probably doomed to failure.

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