Much of the debate around online, even alternative online, media in Australia continues to miss the point. So much of online publishers’ thinking about their work is still couched in an outmoded language that upholds increasingly hollow and counterproductive approaches to publishing. Indeed the terms “publishing” and “media” may be part of the problem. “Media”, after all, implies the existence of a mediator, an agency presumably in the middle between producers and consumers that “publishes”, that is, makes public what was previously unavailable.
But these views are no longer sustainable. Especially in digital contexts the producer-consumer dichotomy is crumbling fast, as is evident from a very broad range of emerging practices. We can see this in the massive amount of content contributed by their players to computer games such as The Sims: 90 per cent of content did not originate with the game’s publisher, Maxis.
Or take the rapid success of the user-produced Wikipedia in dethroning the previously undisputed Encyclopaedia Britannica as the most accessed online encyclopaedia. The English-language version of the Wikipedia now holds over 500,000 entries, and counting its many versions in other languages - including even Latin, it has passed the one million mark already. And the rapid growth of blogs, the Pew Center reports blog readership in the US increased by nearly 60 per cent in 2004 alone, demonstrates the increasing move of the everyday user from consumer to producer of content.
Or perhaps what we are seeing here is the emergence of a new kind of entity altogether, no longer simply producers or consumers. The participants in such phenomena practice a form of productive consumption: they are no longer simply audiences or even media users, but have become what I now tend to refer to as “produsers”. Of course there are detractors who see such increased production of content by the “average” person as nothing more than vanity presses writ large and gone multimedia. However even if that is all they are, faced with a choice between such new patterns of active participation and the more traditional mostly passive consumption of media content, I know where my sympathies lie.
In this brave new world of grassroots individual and collaborative content production (and distribution!), of vernacular creativity, media organisations do not publish any more, they publicise: they don’t make public, they make more public. This piece, for example, was first posted on my own blog at snurb.info to see what responses it might generate. On Line Opinion therefore benefits not only from my humble views but also from those of my readers.
On a much larger scale the same principle applies to sites like the Wikipedia and the multitude of content available in the universe of blogs and bloggers, the blogosphere. Working together in this open system, readers can become produsers: they can comment, add, edit and fix content, and thereby produce - or indeed produse - better outcomes than those working in a traditional, closed production system. It is a principle borrowed from the realm of open source software development, where this involvement of the wider public is said to harness “the power of eyeballs”.
These eyeballs, and their owners, thus become an active part of the media: they are all mediators now. In Australia the online operations of traditional media outlets have been relatively slow to react to this trend, and continue to hinder rather than help their users. Indeed, sites such as the FairfaxDigital online newspapers have even made a massive step backwards by requiring their users to register before being able to gain full access to their sites. Rather than increasing their reach by allowing users to engage with their content more productively (by linking to it, blogging it, commenting on it), this effectively shuts out casual readers - an utterly ill-considered and frankly stupid move that shows nothing but contempt and mistrust towards potential users.
In sharp contrast to such news Neanderthals, On Line Opinion has of course added its own forums and blog already. We also find innovators, as so often, at ABC Online, which has now taken to providing RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds for its news content. RSS enables users to subscribe through their web browsers or mobile devices to up-to-date news feeds from the site, or even to embed these feeds into their own websites, as I do on mine. This therefore significantly increases the reach of the ABC’s news, as well as enabling bloggers and other commentators, who also use RSS extensively, to engage with news reports much sooner. Bloggers and others now do the work of spreading the content produced by ABC journalists and of driving traffic to the ABC site.
As a further extension it would be interesting to see sites such as the ABC’s begin listing all the places where bloggers and others cite and comment on its articles - this is already possible using blog technologies such as TrackBack. We would then enter an environment where a broad, democratic and distributed discussion of news and current events becomes possible, not without the journalistic media, but across many media outlets large and small. While there are some who claim that such developments would undermine the authority of professional journalists, it should be noted that here and abroad the journalistic class has already done pretty well at undermining its own authority for years. The intense public scrutiny of content by a multitude of produsers’ eyeballs might indeed help raise journalistic standards, if open source and Wikipedia experiences are any indication.
On the other hand, collaborative online news production entirely outside of traditional journalism is also possible in some fields. For almost a decade, technology news site Slashdot has been remarkably successful without the benefit of staff reporters or costly self-promotion. The team behind the Wikipedia have now also turned their attention to news and are exploring the potential for a multi-lingual Wikinews service with openly editable articles prodused by Wikinews users. They have managed to publish some 1,000 news articles since the first public beta launch in late 2004.
But whatever the fate of any such individual endeavour, overall the move from consuming to produsing is well underway. The media won’t ever be the same again.