Friday, September 08, 2006

Part 2. What Are We Talking About?

This is Part 2 in a multi-post series on the topics of Participatory Media and Consumer Generated Content.

• • •

Consumer Generated Content. The term itself is a topic of debate. It is also called "consumer generated media", "user generated media", "participatory media" and a more specific form of it is known as "citizen journalism". The debate usually centers around the part of the term that describes the "stuff" generated and shared. The word I have the most issue with is consumer.

"Consumer" usually describes a "role" played by a person in the context of an economic framework. Within the narrower context of this discussion, a consumer is one who particpates in an exchange to receive a piece of "content". In the phenomenon known as "User or Consumer Generated Content" there are usually no economics involved. Since financial transactions are so little a part of what's going on, the use of the term "consumer" seems completely inappropriate to me.

This really takes us into the thick of it. This is where we uncover the big beef. Technology is disintermediating old processes and the need for corporte participation. By extension, it's disintermediating money from many of the exchanges that take place between people. If money isn't changing hands, who the hell are you calling consumer?

An open letter to corporations and commericial interests: You are, unfortunatelty, going to have to find a way back into the game before you can start calling names (like consumer). My friends and I are having a great time online and we don't recall inviting you. More and more, it's looking like we aren't going to be needing you either. Check back in with us when you've got something good.

As a "digitally active" person, one who blogs and spends a lot of time interacting within digital communities, I must say that this is the area of my life where I feel least like a consumer. (I can't go anywhere in Manhattan without turning a stack of bills into a pile of receipts.) This isn't to say that there isn't a level of exposure to advertising and the presence of corporations online, but they don't control the content, distribution or dialog there and they are easier to ignore and shut out here than anywhere else.

The term "Consumer Generated Content" is also being popularized by people selling strategic advice about partipatory media to confused marketers that are feeling left out. I have begun referring to this as offering drowning lessons for the sinking. (No one has figured out anything I would call swimming yet.)

• • •

Let's return to the term "content" or whatever we are going to decide to call the "stuff". People have been creating and sharing the kinds of content that's now referred to as consumer generated for a long, long time.

As a child during the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) I remember seeing "Hey Iran!" photocopied flyers everywhere. This is the bumper sticker version from that period.

Land O Lakes "Boob Peak" Cards
There is a very old and infamous "crafts project" that involves making a card from a Land O Lakes box. The box the Native-American woman is holding up in the image is converted into a flap that is lifted to reveal her breasts. (The "breasts" are actually made from her knees using the image from the back of the box.)

I chose these pre-internet examples because the are very similar, in some ways, to some of the things being described as "consumer generated content". The content of participtory media often relates to popular culture and larger issues of shared experience. Popular "viral" content is often humorous and/or involves risque and sexual themes.

Let's take it a step further. Couldn't homemade birthday cards be considered "consumer generated"?

There's an important characteristic that makes something relevant to our discussions here. The content must take the form of digital media. It needs to have been created or captured in a way that makes it exchangeable digitally. It might be a song, but it's not a tape or CD. It's a file format.

An amature street performer's act or a band's performance IS content, in a strict sense. It's communication and an exchage of meaning, but no one talks about these things in the context of "consumer generated". They don't, that is, until those things become exchanged artifacts in the person-to-person, digital distribution network of individuals and their connected devices.

Given the points I've made I think "Participatory Media" is probably the most apt term to describe what we are talking about. The use of the term consumer is not only inappropriate it masks very serious problems that the worlds of media and advertising face. People have been creating non-professional content and engaging in its non-monetized exchange forever, but Its existence didn't have the scale and distribution to have an impact on corporate structures. Enabled by technology, it does now.

• • •

On Participatory Media and User Generated Content. A multi-post series.

Part 1. Talking to Ourselves
It's what people do!

Part 2. What Are We Talking About?
Defining the terms and context.

Part 3. Its Gotten Personal
The points of connection are now directly to, and between, individuals.


ayenbite_of_inwyt said...

"Participatory media" is a term that might well be used as the cornerstone of a powerpoint presentation but it shouldn't be used in the real world. It's awkward, i.e. loutish.

You are trying to find a phrase that embeds a contrast to the unidirectional flow of media content that we all grew up with. It is not easy to find the right phrase.

"Backtalk" is better than "participatory media". However, once the new forms become commonplace the contrast will no longer be helpful. Moreover, it doesn't neatly cover images, or sounds, opposed to words.

I like "scattering" for this reason: x-ray scattering pounds an object with x-rays some of which will be reflected. The reflected rays will reveal microstructure of the pounded object (e.g. chemical structure of viral material).

"Participatory media", now called "scattering", pounds readers/viewers/listeners with words, images, sounds, concepts, that will (sometimes) be reflected by other words, images, sounds, concepts, revealing aspects of the mind-lives of the the readers/now writers.

Moreover,"scattering" can be shortened, conveniently, to "scatting" when the reflection is incompetent:

"scatting" is used in jazz to indicate babble, sung to fix a melody; also "scatting" brings to mind "bull-shitting" as
the primary meaning of "scat" is animal dung.

Thomas Sherman said...

Fascinating observations.

It seems to me we are trying to describe two things. 1 is a general term used to describe a piece of digital media, the file, link, post whatever that is actually being exchanged. What traditionally what thought of as media, tape, records etc. Even in the fine arts watercolor paper is considered "media", its what you use to capture and "fix" the communication.

The other thing we are describing is the new networked, 1-to-1, 1-to -all, any-to-all version of technologically enabled communications. Scattering and scatter are interesting, I will have to give that some more thought.

I think that the important features of it is that it is decentralized, unregulated and open to anyone, and

ayenbite_of_inwyt said...

Before focusing on "media", it is useful to characterize the kind of communication of that "we (are) talking about":

i) is is sociable (not talking to oneself or shouting into a canyon);
ii) it has a targeted audience (usually loosely constructed);
iii) there is expectation of reaction in kind, not necessarily focused narrowly on the originator;
iv) the reaction is not altogether predictable (as, e.g., propoganda wants for itself);
v) the reaction is socially revelatory (expresses personality, style, information from a singular perspective --- or SOMETHING ----that has been "tricked" out of the responder by the originator.
iv) there is a presumption of amplification of force, compared to, say, private conversation, through "technology".

If this specification is acceptable, I will show that you might be construing media too narrowly, and that it is not always obvious what
is used to "capture and 'fix' the communication". In short, MODELING of media might be required: modeling is intrinsically oriented towards "simplification", by leaving out "unnecessary details".
It is intrinsically "unrealistic" for this reason, but only becuase there are very great complications in rendering things "as they are".

I will again use terms "scattering" and "scatting" to suggest competent and incompetent (or socially disagreeable) varieties of this kind of communication, in preference to "participatory media", since we are trying to understand just what "media" might mean in the present context, and must abstain from using it until we are comfortable that is is unproblematic.

Example 1: I spend a few Saturday afternoons in Tomkins Square Park.
Each time, without attracting immediate attention, I drop a hundred dollar bill on the pavement, as a "scattering" gesture.

The first week, the boy with the size 12 sneaker places it over the bill and waits till sundown. This is optimal decision-making, according to economists, but it is socially disagreeable "scatting".

The second week, the boy with the happy home life grabs the bill and rushes to the hot dog stand, exchanging it for free hot dogs for everyone in sight. This is back-scattering. Very pleasant.

Now what is the "media" of this communication: The pavement!????

No! the CROWDED pavement!!!!!

Engaging in this project without a crowd would be like buying a ticket for the bumper cars at the amusement park when there are no other players, a bland experience.

Second example: The next exchange is MUCH TRICKIER TO MODEL. YOU WON'T GET IT FIRST TIME: Elkins (in "Renaissance Theory") of the Art Institute of Chicago descibes an assignment given to a student: develop an art=historical critique of Tintoretto's "Rape of Lucretia". His student inscribed a report in a sketch book, complete with scholarly references. She then covered the report with gesso, sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent, enough to indicate the presence of the report while rendering it illegible. On the gesso fields, she copied many times over details of the Lucretia's bent knee, as rendered by Tintoretto. This is clearly an instance of scattering, according to the characterization above.

In what media was this message inscribed? Was it a sketchbook?
A sketchbook + an art history report as typeface, a sketchbook + an art history report as typeface + conceptual frame, a sketchbook + art history report as typeface w/without conceptual frame + gesso. Just how was this communication "fixed"?

Third example: A drill sargeant barks: When I say "Do you hate the enemy enough, you say 'No, I cannot hate the enemy enough, SIR!' Now I ask you, "Do you hate the enemy enough?"

Almost all soldiers bellow' No, I cannot hate the enemy enough, SIR", but one soldier bellows,
"I hate the army, but I cannot hate the army enough, SIR!".

The rebellious soldier is scattering, the others are scatting.

What is the media used by the rebellious soldier? This is probably best modeled as an ethos---much more complicated than watercolor paper.

The amplification (the "techological" twist) in the first and third examples is effected through surprise, in the second example, imagination and surprise.

A final example: one of the simplest forms of communication is telgraphic Morse code. At first glance, the media is purely mechanical, the messages are straightforwared and exact. Yet in wartime, attention has been paid to the "wrist" that is producing the signals. Careful analysis of intervals between atomic signals (dots and dashes) can identify the individual who is transmitting. This allows modeling of "credibilty" into the media.

I emphasize here that "participatory media" appears to refer to a limited subset of interactions that represent a social transformation underway. A broader term is needed. As soon as one generalizes from the traditional electronic and print media, the separation of medium from message is as difficult as the traditional problem of separating form and content.