One of the things we’ll be talking about in my upcoming Building a Culture for Reading in a Digital Age course is, of course, not just reading but the whole digital age itself.
What is the culture of this so-called digital age? What distinguishes it from the era in which most of us grew up?
One of the major markers, I’d argue, is in the participatory capacity of digital media: the ways in which the distinction between producers of media and consumers of media begins to collapse.
We become digital, goes the argument, as we become part of the cycle and networks by which media is produced.
Facets of our identities become embedded in digital interactions and networks and practices.
I began blogging a little over six years ago, just before my elder child was born. I didn’t set out to have the experience create a shift in my identity. I didn’t even set out to become a blogger per se: I didn’t actually read blogs much, at the time.
But something changed for me in the first year after I began blogging. Other people found me, found my writing, and began to leave comments. Their comments generally linked back to blogs of their own. I started to read. Conversations developed. Relationships developed…even friendships. Some of those friendships became fleshed out by face-to-face meetings. Shared histories evolved, preserved in the amber of our blog archives. I became a consumer of the medium, as well as a producer.
Now, most people read blogs before they write one, or look at Instagram or Flickr before they begin sharing photos of their own. But it doesn’t matter which way one goes about it: once you start contributing and sharing and connecting with the work of those who connect with yours, you’re engaging in something called produsage. You’re in the network.
That capacity to join in strikes me as one of the most important distinguishing aspects – or at least potentialities – of digital media. When I watched TV as a kid, it was a one-way medium, a broadcast medium. Sure, I once wrote a fan letter to Mr. Dressup, and got a stamped reply in a CBC envelope, but the relationship between myself and the TV shows I loved was a one-to-many exchange. Mr. Dressup was the one, and I was – as far as the medium enabled our relationship – part of the many, one of a hundred thousand other largely indistinguishable kids who grew up with Casey and Finnegan.
Produsage is not broadcast.
The digital innovation and connectedness that mark social media practices like blogging, Tweeting, photo-sharing, etc, occur in what Axel Bruns (2007) calls a produsage economy, one in which creation and consumption are combined. Also referred to as prosumer exchange (Ritzer & Jurgenson, 2012), this phenomenon is one of the key factors shaping social media’s relational, interdependent environment. In social media, basically, the faceless mass of the broadcast audience becomes a network of individuals.
Produsage relies on networks to collapse notions of production and consumption. The exchange is, on the surface, simple. I write posts, you read them, and vice versa. You make a YouTube video, I click the link on Twitter and leave a comment. You announce your start-up venture, consolidating information I think might be useful, and I share that with 1400 followers. Or twelve. Or 63,000. So long as we are networked via some platform and I happen to be present and catch what you share, the opportunity for that exchange exists.
The size of individuals’ networks matters less than their interconnectedness, their capacity to intersect and create reciprocal audiences…at least until a user’s popularity reaches a scale where one-to-one communications become impossible, timewise. But still, the capacity to interact with large-scale produsers or prosumers on social media platforms is there: if you engage with someone in a sustained manner and offer them value, chances are good that a relationship may develop. Figuring out what individual users consider value and will respond to, and building a profile and network from which to engage, are part of the art of social media.
Produsage matters because it offers people the opportunity to be part of the media they consume. For me personally, it’s been valuable to my development as a writer and as a student: my networks have expanded my horizons and my contacts and my opportunities on both fronts. It’s also been valuable simply to me as a person, in terms of the relationships and friendships I’ve built.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve noticed that the enthusiasm over produsage that marked the early days of social media seems to have been subsumed in the pursuit of ever-bigger audiences. Blogging – and most other social media platforms – have become increasingly monetized, populated with people and corporations interested in reaching broad audiences for business reasons. This ends up prioritizing old broadcast media-style practices, and small produsers with small voices can end up feeling drowned out by the large ones.
I see the promise of produsage being watered-down by this turn of events, and I wonder what it means for those of us interested in having a voice, even in small networks? For the uses of digital media within education? For encouraging kids to become produsers as part of reading in a digital age?
And I wonder, too, what happens to the culture of digital media if – like most media before it, printing press and radio and TV included – it ends up in the hands of a few powerful interests? Produsage offers the possibility of many-to-many communications, but the serious reconfiguration of cultural practices and power relations involved makes navigating the path to becoming a producer as well as a consumer an increasingly challenging one.
What do you think? What do you think are the barriers to produsage? The costs and benefits? Has the capacity to participate and produce as well as consume media had any resonance or impact on your life, personally or professionally?
Where do you see the roadsigns pointing us, as a culture?