We Are Teaching Prosumers

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POSTED: September 22, 2006

In this essay I want to do two things. Firstly I want to discuss the increasing amount of social software that is becoming available on the web by describing some popular applications and looking at how they work and how they fit together. Secondly I want to look at how this software might change what we do, both by changing how we think about what we do, and by changing how another group of people – let us call them prosumers – think about what we can offer them.

A useful starting point for the discussion might be the first Web 2.0 conference, hosted by Tim O’Reilly in October 2004. This conference arose from O’Reilly’s belief that the sudden collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001 had been deceptive, and that far from collapsing the web was actually growing. Carlota Perez had described this process in Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: the Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages (Edward Elgar, 2002) where she argues that collapses are predictable features of rapid technological development, and shakeouts typically mark the point at which an ascendant technology is ready to take its place in the world. O’Reilly decided that the companies that had survived and were quietly prospering had many things in common, and that an analysis of this would be to everyone’s benefit.

Using “Web 2.0” as a convenient and memorable label he proposed a model of the web as a platform: a set of software services, each of which “automatically gets better the more people use it”. The analogy here is with something like a telephone: the more people that you know who have phones the more useful your phone becomes to you. Often these the companies providing these services have no real product other than the activities of the people who use them.

eBay is a good example of this phenomenon. In February 2006, according to USA Today eBay had 135.5 million registered users. About 430,000 individuals and small businesses make part or all of their income from listings on eBay, which is nearly three times the number in late 2002. Yet, as Tim O’Reilly points out, “eBay’s product is the collective activity of al its users”. It has a critical mass of sellers and buyers, which makes it almost indispensible to people who want to buy and sell online. According to its public financial statements eBay’s net income for the three months from April to June 2006 was $249,994,000.

I mention these figures because it is easy to underestimate the extent to which online activity has moved into the mainstream, and to continue to regard it as a minority pursuit for a number of limited sub-cultures. 135 million users cannot all be written off as teenager gamers, or computer nerds, or the socially incompetent. Moreover the amount of money being spent there, and equally importantly the amount of time being spent there spending the money, is large enough to have measurable effects on other retail mechanisms. This becomes even clearer when we realise that Amazon, the online consumer retailer (that has expanded from books to dvds, electronic hardware and software and many other areas) had a gross profit of $510,000,000 in the same three month period.

We can view Amazon and eBay as successful examples of entrepeneurs adapting an existing model and applying it to the internet. Amazon did not invent bookshops, and they did not even invent postal book sales. Similarly eBay did not invent the auction. Both of them understood how the internet could be used to gain critical mass both in terms of customers and merchandise. Amazon can “stock” every book and cd in print because they only need to make the details available on their web site and then order it from the supplier if anybody pays for a copy. Having everything available for inspection makes Amazon the obvious place to search for a book or a cd; and being the obvious place to search makes the the logical place to complete the transaction.

This should be enough to guarantee Amazon’s success but in fact they have spent a lot of time and effort creating an entirely different process to draw people in. From the outset they made efforts to create a community. Anybody can post a review of anything on the site, and all the reviews are aggregated into a communal review system. People are encouraged to publish lists on the site (lists such as “50 great detective novels”, “20 videos you must own”, and so on) and to publish their profiles. Through this system a large subset of their users become involved in creating a comprehensive listings system that can be successfully used to find something similar to a book or a video or a cd that you already own. It is this social aspect of Amazon’s site that is arguably the real key to its success. Many users spend time and energy acting as guides to other users with the result that the site works like an old-fashioned music store where the shop assistants are all enthusiasts and evangelists for the music they are selling. Unlike in a supermarket, at Amazon you can ask a question such as “what else will I like if I like Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett?” and get an informed answer that is, at the least, likely to point you towards something interesting.

Wikipedia provides another compelling example of this process whereby the thoughts of a large number of people are aggregated into a social wisdom. It was started in January 2001 and the project has been described as “an effort to create and distribute a multilingual free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” It has more than 5 million articles in many languages, including more than 1,370,000 in English.

It is published as a wiki, which means that anybody can edit any of the text in any of the articles. Unsurprisingly this has been the source of much scepticism. However, in a study in 2005 (Collaborative Authoring on the Web: A Genre Analysis of Online Encyclopedias, Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Hawai’i International Conference on System Sciences.) Emigh & Herring found that “Wikipedia achieves its results by social means, including self-norming, a core of active and vigilant users watching for problems, and editors’ expectations of encyclopedic text drawn from the wider culture.” Moreover, in December 2005 a study was published in Nature which suggested that Wikipedia was almost as good as the Encyclopedia Britanicca in terms of the accuracy of its science entries. According to the study, “only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively”.

My purpose in explaining this is not to extol the benefits of Wikipedia as an instant source of knowledge, but rather to point out that apparently the unusual process through which it is compiled does not seem to work any worse than traditional hierarchical systems. It may well be that, in terms of serious research, the primary benefit of Wikipedia is the external links embedded in each article which tend to point to other (perhaps more authoritative) sources on-line However, even if that was all it did this would still make it an immensely useful catalogue, and a realistic first port of call when embarking upon research.

The habit of cataloguing collectively in this way has spread widely in the five years since Wikipedia was founded. Del.icio.us is the leading “social bookmarking” site. Its software allows anybody to categorise and store the address of any web page they visit on the Del.icio.us web site. Visitors to the site can then look up all the bookmarks that have been categorised under the heading “sports” or “chemistry” or whatever. This might sound like a very mundane and uninteresting process, but it has proved very popular indeed; to the extent that it was acquired by Yahoo in December 2005. Greg Yardley, director of operations at Root Markets, noted at the time that “most importantly, the del.icio.us acquisition says ?hey, community is worth something.? The technology behind del.icio.us was easily duplicated – thanks to the open-source clone de.lirio.us and the social-app-building service Ning anyone can start a similar service…. It?s the del.icio.us community that can?t be duplicated. Yahoo didn?t buy del.icio.us? technology; it bought our bookmarks and tags”.

The growing ability to aggregate data from individuals to form larger, and more useful, public collections inspired a number of people to realise the possibility in aggregating data about people in the same manner. Friendster was one of the first social networking sites, and for a time the most popular. People joined, filled out their profiles, added any other information and links that they wanted to, and then met each other on the site to engage in discussion, with the hope of meeting each other in real life later. Social networks sprang up to meet needs from dating through to job hunting.

Almost all of these, however, have been eclipsed by MySpace, which started in July 2003. In three years it has grown from nothing to a site that has an estimated 100 – 140 million members, depending on which figures you believe. It was purchased in July 2005 for $580 million by News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s media company. What it offered, that other sites did not, was simple but critical. Whereas other sites had made users fill in standard application forms and then displayed the results using standardised, well designed templates, MySpace offered members almost unlimited capacities to customise their pages. Friendster looks like a well-designed professional site. MySpace looks like a horrible mess. But, crucially, it is a dynamic, involving mess and its rapidly increasing membership is apparently drawn by the ability to create, and be seen to create, even if the results are not what media professionals would regard as of an acceptable quality.
The attitudes and inclinations that led to the establishment of these businesses have also led to the establishment of similar initiatives in areas more directly related to the traditional media. The rise and fall of sites allowing users to trade music files has been well documented, as has the subsequent rise of sites like iStore which allow users to purchase music in the form of downloadable files. These developments were viewed by the music industry as anathema when they began, but this year has seen many of the major companies beginning to make their music available on-line through licensing arrangements. The music industry itself is now beginning to talk about a future in which most music is bought and sold digitally, and beginning to recognise that its old business model is now longer viable.

This has been given a new urgency by Rupert Murdoch’s statement last month that he was going to start MyMusic, a download service that will partner with the estimated 30 millions unsigned musicians on MySpace to sell digital downloads. Several bands (the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, for example) have already risen to prominence solely through exposure on MySpace and Murdoch is planning to capitalise on this by offering musicians a way to completely cut traditional record and publishing companies out of the picture.

Broadcast television faces a similar dilemma. As television has moved in the direction of reality shows, and programmes like Jackass and Dudesit where people are filmed doing things that are gross, messy or dangerous, several internet companies like YouTube have begun to prosper. YouTube began in January 2005 with the slogan “Broadcast Yourself”, and now has over 80,000 new video clips uploaded each day. In February 2006 NBC sued over allegations of copyright infringement, but upon closer inspection completely changed its position. In June it signed a partnership agreement with YouTube and set up a specific NBC Channel to show material that it owned. CBS followed suit in July, establishing a similar partnership.

last month YouTube announced that it hopes to offer every music video ever created, while still remaining free of charge. Warner Music Group and EMI have confirmed that they are among the companies in talks to implement this plan. Two weeks ago Warner Music and YouTube signed a deal, in which YouTube will be allowed to host every music video Warner produced while sharing a portion of the advertisement income. As part of this deal, user created videos on YouTube will be allowed to use Warner songs in their soundtracks

Both the number of users, the size of the companies willing to get involved, and the nature of their involvement, are significant. They suggest that major players in the global media business see this as a significant new market, and they suggest that the users of these services differ from the users of traditional media services.

The success of MySpace and the permission in YouTube’s agreement with Warner Music allowing members to use Warner music in their own videos, point to one thing. These users are as keen on producing as they are consumer, and will move to places where production and consumption are linked aspects of the overall experience. In The Third Wave Alvin Toffler referred to these people as prosumers, and in 1999 the Cluetrain Manifesto spoke of an economic shift “moving from passive consumers … to active prosumers”.

Prosumers pose a threat and a challenge both to traditional media and traditional forms of media analysis. In additional to the areas I have discussed above we can trace their effects on the written media, as blogging has moved from being an interesting minority pursuit to a mainstream method of delivering information, and now, as the internet moves into Web 2.0, they and wikis are becoming the public point of call both for individuals and companies. In blogging as with participation in MySpace and YouTube the user “consumes” membership of a community through the process of creating new, additional information or meaning. The conducer moves to places where this is most possible, and through the information she produces alerts other prosumers who then follow in her wake. This is the basis of successful viral marketing, and this is how small companies with little money and now promotion have grown into monsters like Del.icio.us and YouTube.

The habit of conduction (if we can call it that) has practical results. It means that things that we have taken for granted, like filling in forms, no longer seem necessary or acceptable. I felt irritated, for example, about having to fill in my details for the new Arcada research database. The information was already there on my website. Why couldn’t I simply post a link? Even better, why couldn’t I post a feed-link and have the research site fetch the information form my site instead of its internal database. That way, if I update my cv on my website it would update automatically on Arcada’s.

I give this example for two reasons. Firstly it related directly to our own working lives; and secondly because it shows that the effects of changes of habit do not simply occur at the places where you might expect them. We fill in forms compliantly because we have learned to expect other people – professional experts – to mediate between us and the production of whatever we are providing data for. What if we stop assuming that this mediation is either necessary or desirable?

We will ask why we are providing the same information twice, and we will ask why we are watching television programmes made by people who don’t watch ours. In other words I am suggesting that this process is eroding our belief in the need for filters and mediators, because the existence of MySpace and YouTube are demonstrating that the ability to produce and to broadcast is not the scarce resource it has been claimed to be. If we can aggregate the views and votes of 100 million users, and I can see a list of the best videos, then what is a channel controller for? What is an a&r man in a record company for?

Two years ago we could ask these questions hypothetically, but today many of our students are (whether they would describe themselves this way or not) prosumers, and we are trying to teach them about the future of media as though they were not already living in it. This year I announced to my classes that all information and assignments for my classes would be posted on my blog and that they should respond by adding comments to the posts. I told them that would not accept any written or media work emailed to me any more, but instead I wanted them to post all their work on their own sites at Arcada or elsewhere, and send me a URL where I could find their stuff. And not one of them batted an eyelid or looked even slightly puzzled. Not one.

We live in interesting times.