28 April 2014

The social economies of networked cultural production (or, how to make a movie with complete strangers)

There's been a lot of talk about the disruptive and transformative powers of networked technologies, with Wikipedia and open source software commonly highlighted as examples of new production models. However, the economies (whether monetary, social or political) of networked cultural production are under-theorised, and the motivations (including understandings of social capital) of participants producing crowdsourced cultural goods are still little understood. OII Researcher Isis Hjorth discusses her recently completed doctoral research on crowdsourced film-making in the wreckamovie community.

Nomad, the perky-looking Mars rover from the crowdsourced documentary Solar System 3D (Wreckamovie).

Ed: You have been looking at “networked cultural production” — ie the creation of cultural goods like films through crowdsourcing platforms — specifically in the ‘wreckamovie’ community. What is wreckamovie?

Isis: Wreckamovie is an open online platform that is designed to facilitate collaborate film production. The main advantage of the platform is that it encourages a granular and modular approach to cultural production; this means that the whole process is broken down into small, specific tasks. In doing so, it allows a diverse range of geographically dispersed, self-selected members to contribute in accordance with their expertise, interests and skills. The platform was launched by a group of young Finnish filmmakers in 2008, having successfully produced films with the aid of an online forum since the late 1990s. Officially, there are more than 11,000 Wreckamovie members, but the active core, the community, consists of fewer than 300 individuals.

Ed: You mentioned a tendency in the literature to regard production systems as being either ‘market driven’ (eg Hollywood) or ‘not market driven’ (eg open or crowdsourced things); is that a distinction you recognised in your research?

Isis: There’s been a lot of talk about the disruptive and transformative powers nested in networked technologies, and most often Wikipedia or open source software are highlighted as examples of new production models, denoting a discontinuity from established practices of the cultural industries. Typically, the production models are discriminated based on their relation to the market: are they market-driven or fuelled by virtues such as sharing and collaboration? This way of explaining differences in cultural production isn’t just present in contemporary literature dealing with networked phenomena, though. For example, the sociologist Bourdieu equally theorized cultural production by drawing this distinction between market and non-market production, portraying the irreconcilable differences in their underlying value systems, as proposed in his The Rules of Art. However, one of the key findings of my research is that the shaping force of these productions is constituted by the tensions that arise in an antagonistic interplay between the values of social networked production and the production models of the traditional film industry. That is to say, the production practices and trajectories are equally shaped by the values embedded in peer production virtues and the conventions and drivers of Hollywood.

Ed: There has also been a tendency to regard the participants of these platforms as being either ‘professional’ or ‘amateur’ — again, is this a useful distinction in practice?

Isis: I think it’s important we move away from these binaries in order to understand contemporary networked cultural production. The notion of the blurring of boundaries between amateurs and professionals, and associated concepts such as user-generated content, peer production, and co-creation, are fine for pointing to very broad trends and changes in the constellations of cultural production. But if we want to move beyond that, towards explanatory models, we need a more fine-tuned categorisation of cultural workers. Based on my ethnographic research in the Wreckamovie community, I have proposed a typology of crowdsourcing labour, consisting of five distinct orientations. Rather than a priori definitions, the orientations are defined based on the individual production members’ interaction patterns, motivations and interpretation of the conventions guiding the division of labour in cultural production.

Ed: You mentioned that the social capital of participants involved in crowdsourcing efforts is increasingly quantifiable, malleable, and convertible: can you elaborate on this?

Isis: A defining feature of the online environment, in particular social media platforms, is its quantification of participation in the form of lists of followers, view counts, likes and so on. Across the Wreckamovie films I researched, there was a pronounced implicit understanding amongst production leaders of the exchange value of social capital accrued across the extended production networks beyond the Wreckamovie platform (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). The quantified nature of social capital in the socio-technical space of the information economy was experienced as a convertible currency; for example, when social capital was used to drive YouTube views (which in turn constituted symbolic capital when employed as a bargaining tool in negotiating distribution deals). For some productions, these conversion mechanisms enabled increased artistic autonomy.

Ed: You also noted that we need to understand exactly where value is generated on these platforms to understand if some systems of ‘open/crowd’ production might be exploitative. How do we determine what constitutes exploitation?

Isis: The question of exploitation in the context of voluntary cultural work is an extremely complex matter, and remains an unresolved debate. I argue that it must be determined partially by examining the flow of value across the entire production networks, paying attention to nodes on both micro and macro level. Equally, we need to acknowledge the diverse forms of value that volunteers might gain in the form of, for example, embodied cultural or symbolic capital, and assess how this corresponds to their motivation and work orientation. In other words, this isn’t a question about ownership or financial compensation alone.

Ed: There were many movie-failures on the platform; but movies are obviously tremendously costly and complicated undertakings, so we would probably expect that. Was there anything in common between them, or any lessons to be learned form the projects that didn’t succeed?

Isis: You’ll find that the majority of productions on Wreckamovie are virtual ghosts; created on a whim with the expectation that production members will flock to take part and contribute. The projects that succeed in creating actual cultural goods (such as the 2010 movie Snowblind) were those that were lead by engaged producers actively promoting the building of genuine social relationships amongst members, and providing feedback to submitted content in a constructive and supportive manner to facilitate learning. The production periods of the movies I researched spanned between two and six years – it requires real dedication! Crowdsourcing does not make productions magically happen overnight.

Ed: Crowdsourcing is obviously pretty new and exciting, but are the economics (whether monetary, social or political) of these platforms really understood or properly theorised? ie is this an area where there genuinely does need to be ‘more work’?

Isis: The economies of networked cultural production are under-theorised; this is partially an outcome of the dichotomous framing of market vs. non-market led production. When conceptualized as divorced from market-oriented production, networked phenomena are most often approached through the scope of gift exchanges (in a somewhat uninformed manner). I believe Bourdieu’s concepts of alternative capital in their various guises can serve as an appropriate analytical lens for examining the dynamics and flows of the economics underpinning networked cultural production. However, this requires innovation within field theory. Specifically, the mechanisms of conversion of one form capital to another must be examined in greater detail; something I have focused on in my thesis, and hope to develop further in the future.

Isis Hjorth was speaking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Isis Hjorth is a cultural sociologist focusing on emerging practices associated with networked technologies. She is currently researching microwork and virtual production networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

Read more: Hjorth, I. (2014) Networked Cultural Production: Filmmaking in the Wreckamovie Community. PhD thesis. Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, UK.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Policy and Internet Blog, nor of the Oxford Internet Institute.