Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage
Author: Axel Bruns
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2008
Review Published: November 2009
After reading various sections of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, I have often wondered what an explicitly rhizomatic culture might look like. I found one answer in Axel Bruns' Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond. The culture evolving out of the internet is a rhizome and Bruns, though he does not specifically use the term, shows us how and why.
One of Bruns' objectives for this book is to define and justify the term "produsage" as a description of contemporary cultural creation. Bruns contends that our current metaphor, which compares the material production of physical objects (e.g., cars, shirts, or pencils) to the production of culture and cultural objects, fails to capture the reality of cultural creation in an age of computer networks and the internet. The old metaphor, like all metaphors, has concealed the opportunities for better social and political relations that are inherent in different metaphors. The distinction between producers of culture and consumers of culture is fast disappearing, Bruns argues, and there are new cultural participants who have invented new processes of cultural creation. The new formula is: producer + user = produser. Although Bruns does not press this point too strongly, he intimates that a better metaphor might be a comparison of the creation of social relationships to the creation of contemporary culture.
In addition to defining and describing produsage, Bruns also confronts some of the controversies that arise from a concept like produsage: e.g., trust, expertise, and governance. Bruns attempts to overcome stereotypes and outdated assumptions about the creation of internet content. A lack of order and hierarchy on the internet is not anarchy but is, instead, heterarchy. A lack of standard modes of organization on the internet is not disorganization but is, instead, a loose organization that produces a "hive mentality." In short, if culture is not produced that does not mean there is a lack of product but, instead, there is produsage.
Bruns' strategy for promoting the term produsage in Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond is two-fold: first, provide a conceptual framework and rationale for the term produsage; and then, discuss the term as it applies to virtually every realm of cultural creation on the internet. In the introduction to the book, Bruns launches and justifies the need for the term produsage. In the first chapter, he continues by describing the key characteristics of produsage. For instance, in produsage, there are not any firm boundaries between producers, distributors, and users of culture. Produsage processes and products are decentralized (as opposed to centralized), granular (as opposed to composite), and ownership is common (as opposed to individual). Produsage is self-directed in a "probabilistic" (e.g., hit or miss) fashion; the telos of produsage is holoptic -- decided by participants according to what they perceive as useful or worthwhile -- instead of panoptic -- predetermined by a small number of managers who are supposed to see the big picture. Because produsage creates artifacts that are unfinished variations of previous creations rather than products that are finished and then consumed, the results of produsage are never completed and never used up.
After these two definitional chapters, Bruns turns to computer networks and the internet and demonstrates how produsage is the paradigm for what is created there. Bruns spends a chapter on produsage in open-source software (such as Linux), a chapter on produsage in blogs and citizen journalism (such as Kuro5hin), and two chapters on internet encyclopedias (specifically, Wikipedia).
Bruns then devotes a chapter to folksonomies -- knowledge structures and methods of categorization and classification (such as delicious) -- and a chapter on the roles and redefinitions of experts in the realm of produsage. Bruns also allocates a chapter to produsage in file-sharing sites (specifically, photo-sharing, fan fiction, and music- and video-sharing sites), a chapter on the effects of produsage on media and copyrights, a chapter on produsage in online games and multi-user virtual environments (MUVES), and a chapter on produsage in social networking sites (such as Facebook).
Finally, Bruns turns toward realms where produsage does not yet play a significant role but might in the future: he has a chapter on produsage in education, and a chapter on produsage in politics and democracy. Bruns' concluding chapter addresses two topics: the possibility of produsing (instead of producing) physical objects and the likelihood of a cultural shift to a primarily prodused culture.
Obviously, this book covers a lot of ground while driving at a single thesis: prodused culture is a paradigm change. Bruns' chapters discuss an impressive variety of internet phenomena. At the same time, however, his repetition of claims, definitions, and his core thesis can become tiresome. Bruns' writing style is highly analytic: his ideas are thoroughly explained; his descriptions are detailed and subtle. But he also writes in long sentences saturated with independent clauses, asides, clarifications, and qualifications. He uses a large number of new and coined terms which, while necessary for a subject of this scope, are often difficult to wade through because the book lacks an index. (I found myself wondering whether this was a side effect of the very cultural change Bruns describes: a change where prodused internet word searches have replaced produced paper indices.)
Despite these flaws of expository style, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond is worth looking through -- at least individual chapters if not the entire book. For one thing, the book is a good blend of information, argument, and evocation. Bruns' explanations of produsage and of various internet phenomena are thorough and realistic. There are also persuasive moments when Bruns argues that produsage is a new cultural paradigm and that this new paradigm is worth defending.
Some of the most provocative moments appear when Bruns explains why seemingly disparate concepts are, in produsage, actually interdependent. For example, the characteristics of produsage seem, at first glance, confused about whether produsage is the result of cultural creation or the process itself. It becomes clear, however, that produsage is both result and process and that, furthermore, this hybridization of product and process is what makes produsage different than production.
The dismantling of these distinctions and dichotomies has implications for audiences in communication studies. For instance, that staple of interactional communication studies, the distinction between content messages (primarily verbal messages that convey content or information) and relational messages (primarily nonverbal messages that negotiate or affirm the relations between communicators), is questionable in a produsage environment. We come to realize that while content is prodused, so are social interactions, and that the two are prodused in such a way that they are interdependent. Bruns, for example, writes that produsage overcomes certain communication barriers that afford effective collaboration. The reason why is because produsage creates new and different sets of content and relational rules for interaction. While production may start with an a priori set of rules for social relations, produsage negotiates those rules in every moment of content creation.
Furthermore, the collapse of the production-based producer-distributor-consumer model reflects the continued critique of the sender-message-receiver model of communication that appears in virtually every communication studies textbook. Whereas the old model conceptualizes communication as a transfer of information, in produsage, where the creator and the user are one in the same, communication can be conceptualized more like Hans-Georg Gadamer's (1989) formulation of communication as a fusion of two horizons of meaning.
The principal value of Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond is that it serves as an opening statement in a larger conversation that we are produsing. And although, as of this writing, the word "produse" does not yet appear as an entry in the English language edition of Wikipedia, the general framework Bruns proposes has merit and is one we should consider produsing. (A good starting place might be the book's companion web site.)
This book review, for example, is itself produsage: the rightness or wrongness of my review, considered on its own, devoid of context, presented in my authoritative voice, does not matter as much as how well my descriptions and judgments resonate with the content and context of the other reviews -- here or elsewhere -- of this book. From the perspective of Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm (1989), this attitude might be called narrative fidelity. Here, my review, in dialogue with Verena Laschinger's and Erin Stark's reviews, as well as Bruns' response, is produsage.
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hans-Georg Gadamer. (1989). Truth and Method. 2nd rev. ed. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer & Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad.
Walter Fisher. (1989). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Alan Razee is an instructor of Communication Arts at Fresno City College. Alan offers his thoughts on the intersection of rhetoric and geography on his blog at alanrazee.blogspot.com. Alan reviewed Eloquent Images: Word and Image in the Age of New Media and From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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