Commons-based peer produsage? Rethinking online production.

On: October 31, 2010
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About Lennard Torbijn


The Internet, and the emergence of Web 2.0 in particular, have been celebrated for their liberatory potential, setting free the individual consumers once bounded by industrial inertia. We only need to take a quick look at the Arctic Monkey’s success through the social networking website MySpace to conclude that potentially, everyone can become famous with hardly any costs or the need for a record label. Since the Internet emerged, not only as a new means of data transfer, but also as the medium that reshapes every way man produces and constitutes culture, the masses that had hitherto been silent, have been given a voice. This process of the ever expanding possibilities for people to communicate, interact and express themselves seems fruitful for the creation of online reference works, and for the online encyclopedia Wikipedia in particular.

To map the ways in which individual Internet users are able to articulate information, two key notions are applicable. ‘Commons-based peer production’ denotes an enhanced position for the individual user in the process of information production, while it connotes its decentralized, collaborative, and non-proprietary nature. ‘Produsage’ similarly connotes the fluid, flexible, and heterarchical organization of user-led content creation, but denotes the inapplicability, or obsolescence, of the term production as such. While both notions describe similar characteristics of the articulation of information, they implicate a different approach to the interpretation of the role of the individual user plays and the eventual outcome of the process as a whole. Pre-eminently being the most successful collaborative and user-led enterprise on the Web—concerning information, that is—the online encyclopedia Wikipedia proves a useful case study here. Wikipedia proves to be peer produced, there is no hierarchy, and there is virtually no government or regulation. This is captured in both ‘commons-based peer production’ and ‘produsage’. Wikipedia proves to be an advocate of the latter, although information is articulated the ‘commons-based peer production’ way. However, the information articulation on Wikipedia does have a more ever expanding process-oriented character than the term production implies.

New media theory has spawned various notions to capture the essence of online production. Through the Internet, we have seen the rise of a professional amateur, or the pro-am. Similarly, Alvin Toffler’s notion of the prosumer addresses the increased professionalism of the consumer. Yochai Benkler’s commons-based peer production and Axel Bruns’ produsage describe how we have departed from industrial production to online peer production that adheres to individual participation. The basic question is: what kind of production are we dealing with on Wikipedia, and how does it reshape the role of the individual user?

Commons-based peer production proves to be an apt description of the articulation of information as it takes place on Wikipedia. However, it does not fully suffice. Its inadequacies are made up by produsage, which in my view is an extension of commons-based peer production. We may conclude that virtually anybody may contribute information to an ever-expanding body of encyclopedic information, that is Wikipedia. The three main features, ‘the edit page’, the ‘talk page’, and the ‘history page’ enable individual users to engage in nonhierarchical, equipotential peer production. Here, individual users themselves know best what and where to contribute. This is to say that the allocation of information is highly effective, more than in an organization that deals with a managerial command. This may also be called a probabilistic approach on solving problems i.e. editing articles. This has proven possible because the tasks, in addition to not being assigned, are modular as well. This is all recognized by and captured in both the notions commons-based peer production and produsage. Essential to articulating information this way is that government and regulation be not as stringent as with industrial production. Not to say that government and regulation need to be absent. Government and regulation should be present, but only when the community feels that government and regulation are needed. Wikipedia proves that self-government and self-regulation can originate from the bottom-up.

We may also conclude that Wikipedia is a process. This is something not captured by commons-based peer production, but is captured by produsage. Therefore, here is argued that commons-based peer production and produsage mostly overlap, but produsage describes the one characteristic that is central to Wikipedia to succeed. On the one hand, this process is visible, for we can always look into the article’s history, contribute to the article’s content, and discuss the content. On the other hand, it is a process that is largely invisible. Invisible in the sense that whenever we consult an article, that article we view at that moment in time is merely a fragment of the article’s total history; it is a temporary capture of an ongoing process that might as well be edited the next hour already. But before we fully concur with Bruns on produsage, it must be stated that Wikipedia proves that new production models can exist alongside the more traditional, for traditional encyclopedias are still produced and that the future will show us whether all production is to be replaced by produsage.

Perhaps this blogpost can initiate research deeper into how information is articulated on Wikipedia. Combining seemingly different theories on how we produce information online, we may come to the conclusion that there is much agreement on the greater lines. Research into different cases may nuance the debate on online production more and perhaps, ultimately, we can agree on whether we are still engaged in producing or whether we are engaged in an interplay of users, producers, consumers, in other words whether we are produsing.

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