Friday, February 04, 2011

From Production to Produsage

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond. Peter Lang. 2008. 418 pages.

Axel Bruns coins a new term to describe all those involved in innovative new methods of internet-based production—produsers—the most succinct definition of which may be “productive users.” It’s a useful term, simply indicating that often in the new media, producers are also users and vice versa. Some of his examples include Wikipedia, Everquest, Second Life, and of course, one of the most famous products that is completely open source and user-produced—Linux.
Bruns offers a useful summary of the core characteristics of produsage early in the book, and then re-visits these core characteristics in each chapter. I found this immensely helpful. I basically memorized the core characteristics, and then was able to predict almost in advance how the characteristics functioned in the media or product/artefact under consideration.
Towards the end of the book, Bruns even offers a description of how produsage might function in relation to politics, thus indicating that this is a cultural shift and not simply a technological change in the means of production. Taking his cue, and for the sake of this essay, which is striving to bring these media and cultural texts into conversation with current understandings of the church, I list them but then interline thoughts on how they might function (or are already functioning) in the life of the church:

1) Open participation, communal evaluation: Participation in produsage must be invited from as wide a range of produsers as possible (Wikipedia is an excellent example of accomplishing this) because this increases the overall quality of the artefact or product. The same community who participates is also involved in the evaluation. “This holoptic model of communal evaluation in produsage, in which each contributor is able to see and evaluate everyone else’s contributions, also acts as a driver for a continuing process of socialization of participants into the community ethos. In a church context, this might mean that potential learners in adult education would participate in the planning process and selection of study material, and then evaluate later how they as a group did at selecting study material that helped the group grow in faith, knowledge, etc. I happen to think church leadership seldom does this in most contexts, but I do not have statistical evidence to back that up. Furthermore, I find it intriguing to ponder what it would look like to produse sermons through open participation and communal evaluation.

2) Fluid heterarchy, ad hoc meritocracy: Leaders in the system hold that role through the quality of what they produse. No hierarchy is needed to elect people to positions of authority. Instead of a bureaucracy, you find an ad-hocracy (Toffler). I find this concept to hold incredible promise, and I already see how it works on the ground. In almost every congregation I have served, some of the most significant ministries that were happening simply happened, and the congregation celebrated them because individuals had a passion and gift for them. Often, the elected bureaucratic machine, such as a church council, actually played a less important overall role in the economy and work of the congregation. Teams address needs as they arise, or as gifts are called out. This is called the principal of equipotentiality. I wonder, for example, if a fluid church in a produsage era even needs an elected council or board?

3) Unfinished artefacts, continuing process: Brian Eno suggests that we “think of cultural products, or art works, or the people who use them even, as being unfinished. Permanently unfinished. We come from a cultural heritage that says things have a ‘nature,’ and that this nature is fixed and describable. We find more and more thatn this idea is insupportable—the ‘nature’ of something is not by any means singular, and depends on where and when you find it, and what you want it for.”[1] This principle would introduce more grace and flexibility into churches. Things we do together in church are experiments, unfinished artifacts, as are we ourselves. I am in the continuing process of being finished by my relationship with you, and vice versa, and in God we anticipate the completion of this process, but only at the parousia. This is a thoroughly eschatological, and we can thank Bruns for pointing out how to think about it in terms of organizations and produsage.

4) Common property, individual rewards: I think this quote describes the key leaders of many congregations I have been a part of, “Innovative, commited and networked amateurs working to professional standards.”[2] Bruns is at pains to distinguish this phenomenon from another one, sometimes called “prosumers.” Prosumers are professional at their consumption. High-end audiophiles may be an example. Often the character of this group, who hold the property in common with others but receive individual rewards (prestige, etc.), is described in some unsatisfactory terms, such as nerds, geeks, enthusiasts, or hackers. In the church context, I see this most often happen when people simply give to the common good of the congregation, and take pride in the success of the congregational ministries. However, it is not insignificant to figure out how rewards for individuals happen in congregations, and to ensure that systems are in place to be clear about produsage in congregations as common property.

If you are short on time (this is a long book), I strongly recommend reading at least up through chapter six, the final chapter on Wikipedia. I was simply amazed and staggered by how Wikipedia works. I actually have always trusted Wikipedia for what it is. “By contrast with traditional encyclopedias, which seek to present the current state of knowledge about the world—Wikipedia presents the currently prevalent representations of knowledge about the world.[3] This is an epistemological distinction with hermeneutical consequences.

This, together with the fact that Wikipedia is a palimpsest where you can always view the history of the development of the document you are reading (a fact not known to all users of Wikipedia), makes me trust the information I gather from it more than other web sites, and to a certain degree, even from an encyclopedia. I have not expected Wikipedia to be an encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a wiki. Both are beautiful and interesting in their own right, if read for the genre they truly are. It is Bruns’ great contribution to the cause to have analyzed thoroughly precisely what is innovative and important about Wikipedia and other prodused artefacts.

[2] 29.
[3] 114.

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