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February 28, 2006 |

Last week we had the good fortune to have both Yochai Benkler and Henry Jenkins by to visit our Networked Publics group. And as if that wasn’t a sweet enough deal, they both have books coming out soon synthesizing their many years of work on networked culture and society, making this year a fabulous one for Internet studies. Henry’s Convergence Culture and Yochai’s The Wealth of Networks, are the state of the art in thinking about new media and the Internet. Both provide both rich detail in the form of concrete cases as well as frameworks for understanding the social, technical, and economic changes coming down the pipeline that are both highly original and syncretic. But my goal at the moment is not to do a book review. I just want to ruminate on one thread of conversation that emerged from spending a day each with these thinkers and their texts.

Henry and Yochai are in many ways complementary thinkers who share an appreciation for the bottom-up, emergent, and viral forms of social organization emerging from the maturing media ecology of the Internet. Mostly they are in agreement about the scope and nature of the sweeping changes on the horizon as content turns digitally networked, and they both are actively participating in shaping these conditions of the future to be safer for the creative and knowledge production of everyday folks. But they also have some interesting differences. Henry’s book is a revisiting of fan culture studies where he did so much ground-breaking worktwo decades ago, looking at how fans “poach” from commercial media. The cultures of appropriation and remix which were a marginal subculture in the eighties are now becoming more and more visible to the mainstream. In his new work, Henry argues that convergence culture means that fan-like relations to mass media are becoming more the rule than the exception. Even everyday media consumption is becoming more partcipatory (ie. fan-like) in an era of Tivo, digital download, and Internet fan groups. In this, his argument has resonances with Stephen Johnson’s argument in Everything Bad Is Good for You, as well as my own work on kids’ post-Pokemon media mix cultures. Engagement with commercial media is becoming more differentiated, smarter, more activist, and more social and these forms of engagement are crossing over to how people relate to domains such as news and politics.

Yochai also believes in the power of distributed intelligence and wired prosumers, and he sees amateur cultures such as fan cultural production as examples of “the wealth of networks.” But his focus is on what he calls “nonmarket” forms of culture and knowledge production. If Henry’s central cases are media fandom and alternative news, Yochai’s are open source and distributed models of software and knowledge production such as Linux, Wikipedia, alternative news, and some forms of science (eg. bioinformatics, seti@home). He argues that the dominance of commercially produced forms of knowledge and culture is a historical anomaly, and we are in the midst of a correction that will give more weight to amateur, non-commercial and folk forms. In many ways his argument is probably more radical than what Henry or I might say about the promise of amateur and folk cultures. He sees everyday amateur producers as increasingly the source of generative forms of knowledge and culture, that provide a genuine alternative to commercial media.

As Julian had already blogged, we had good conversation about alternative futures that lurked in the backdrops of Henry and Yochai’s analyses. In my own work I’ve really been struggling to define what the emergent role of amateur production is going to be in a reconfigured digital media ecology. I pressed both of them on this point. What do we think is the proper role for commercial media? Can distributed and amateur production become a genuine challenge to commercial production? Or will there always be a center and a periphery?

The discussion was more wide ranging than I can capture a few days after the fact. But at the end of the week, I think what it came down to for me was that this balance depends crucially on the specificities of the cultural forms in question. Yochai pointed out that his argument about distributed nonmarket production really focuses on cultural forms that can be easily decomposed, like software and encyclopedia entries. In his book, he talks about how even in the case of science textbooks, where it seems like this should work, the units are large enough that it is difficult to sustain as a volunteer effort. If we look at music, for example, amateur performance has always persisted because it is a media form that is amenable to local performance. Contrast that with something like feature films or the sustained multi-year (or at least season-long) narratives you get in an anime series, and you start moving into domains that require both a certain amount of capitalization as well as a sustained authorial viewpoint.

I think it is an interesting question what specific forms of culture and knowledge are amenable to development on an open source and distributed model. The answer to that may dictate whether the future is one of the continued dominance of commercial media (albiet on that has figured out a respectful relation to its fans and activist consumers) or one that is dominated by nonmarket cultural forms with commercial media occupying a less dominant role.