Saturday, April 29, 2006

At what point does collaboration cease to be reciprocal and simply become appropriation?

When I started blogging my research four years ago, I remember running into other academics both online and offline who thought it wasn't a good idea to share my findings so freely. I remember thinking how sad it was that they were so attached to the idea of intellectual property and their own career advancement. I've since abandoned such self-righteousness, but stand behind my desire to be the kind of academic who shared everything - what I read, what I thought, what I wrote.

I wanted other academics to borrow and build on my work. I trusted them to give credit where credit was due, to return the favour by sharing their own research. And you know what? They did. They do. I haven't lost control of my research and I've had the absolute pleasure of getting to work with, and learn from, some really incredible scholars.

But I didn't start blogging just for other academics. I had lofty - if terribly naive - dreams of becoming some sort of public intellectual. I wanted to exceed the fortifications of the Ivory Tower with every post, damn it! I wanted to give back as much as I could to the people who had funded my research. I wanted to be held accountable.

I especially wanted to learn from non-academics, and share with them what I had learned from my own encounters. I was attracted to the cultures of collaboration and sharing I witnessed online. I found kindred spirits and made friends who have been instrumental in shaping my thinking and writing. It's been good, for sure, but I've also learned an important lesson: not everyone understands or values reciprocity in the same ways. In other words, not all sharing is created equal. At first I thought it was simply a case of some people taking more than they give. But now I think it's more than that: I think it's a cultural difference.

I've written many times, here and elsewhere, that I question the kind of reciprocity at work when a small group of people profit from the work of many others. (And don't even get me started on individuals who profit from the not-for-profit work conducted by academics and others, and that includes accumulating and leveraging social capital from recommendations and the like.)

In the past I would have considered these things amongst the ill effects of capitalism, but now I think it's a bit more complicated than that. After all, some of this labour is actually being done for free. Out of love even, like with Flickr or any number of mod communities. The DIY ethic, in fact, is based on the power of creative re-use and re-appropriation. But these terms are now being tossed around in software and hardware development like organisations and companies only care about democratic participation, and not profitability.

Jean Burgess knows much more about mass amateurisation and vernacular creativity than I do, so I hope she can help me out here: At what point are labour and love exploited? When does collaboration become appropriation?


Blogger Rob said...

New Term "Venture Academic", as in venture capitalist: So I go to a meeting about generating a collaboration, a "collaboratory" - we have to talk about this term - concerning interactivity and the arts last night and rather than talk about collaboration we were confronted by very enthusiastic proponents of individual projects - what one astute participant outside called "a set of business plans". These were all products in the making - with all the pros and cons to that. So being invited to make a "pitch" for inclusion I reflected on what this might mean for the process of academic or arts grant applications which have become a feature of arts faculty life in so many countries and also what it meant in terms of the doing of "research" - and whether research was even possible.
In Anne's terms, there was a good sense of "play" in the room, but play between individuals and code, not amongst a group other than the sort of play that gets going between authors and audiences or entrepreneurs and bankers.

Blogger Chris said...

Personally, I find you to embody the model of where I wish all academics could be - open, honest, community-integrated. Hell, you even wet your toe in the ongoing nonsense of my blog. Now that's dedication to community! :)

If more academics were like you, I wouldn't have left academia after my Masters degree. But, sadly...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This like more likely to come up in my sexual relations:)

maybe a vote for big love?

P.S. Im not a texer....


Blogger Mathias K said...

While direct collaboration may not spring from this blog (I dont know) dont forget to take into account the impact on a larger group. Your writing forms part of a larger voice of online writers.

By promoting openness you help and form others to do the same. So while this is not direct reciprocal benefit it is, indirectly, creating a better place (wow, that sounds very naive).

My real blog is Wrote. Keep writing!

Anonymous mary said...

In a very coincidental (or maybe synthetic, or maybe numinous) way you've said what I've been thinking for the last few days.

You've described it much better, though. *The point* is "when a small group of people profit from the work of many others," whether or not that is social or material profit. And how and where this occurs--academia, profit, not-for-profit--is *beside* the point.

There is so much in this. Collaboration is a system, yes? Like capitalism. But social status is the cash.

Great, great post. Too bad you already have a PhD thesis.

Anonymous jean said...

Hmmm. This will be a long and possibly unsatisfactory answer. Blame it on the writing up process, which means I both have lots of ideas and no confidence in my ability to organise them ;)

I'm not sure if it's because I'm in the middle of preparing yet another music subcultures lecture for tomorrow, but every time I hear "appropriation" in the context of DIY/vernacular culture, alarm bells go off. Mainly because of the mythologising of punk that went on for so long, and still goes on - where punk is idealised as a space of knowing, chaotic counter-appropriation-as-resistance (i.e. 'bricolage'), which had a brief, glorious flaring up and was then stolen back by the fashion, advertising and music industries. The argument against that comes from McRobbie who pointed out that countercultures are all enterprise cultures - spaces of symbolic exchange that develop their own economies that work in symbiosis with "the" economy. The shifting economic functions of the second hand clothes market in relation to punk was her very cogent example.

The second problem I have about the "appropriation" critique in the context of punk-style DIY culture is the way the logic of coolness is inextricable from it - when is the radical a progressive dynamic and when is it a mechanism of exclusion? Especially since cultural capital, if we want to call it that, is no longer tied up with 'high culture', but has more to do with highly literate omnivorousness across cultural divides.

So "appropriation" sometimes stands in for the "masses" getting hold of symbolic practices that were only readable or practicable by a hip counter-elite.

But obviously, this isn't your question, really. There's a whole other thing about researchers or designers collaborating with their constituencies and/or with Big Business on behalf of their constituencies, usually in the name of participatory something-or-other. I work in a research culture where such collaborations are highly valued, which is both a welcome challenge and fraught with ethical issues, and I guess I have the same concerns.

When doing the digital storytelling stuff, I've started concentrating more than anything on understanding why participants are there, and what they want to get out of the process; and a lot less on what they will produce and what that will be useful or valuable for. then again, if I wanted to make money designing a platform for 'participatory media', that would be kind of essential - the participants would be my customers.

finally (and now I am hopefully actually responding to your point):
"But these terms are now being tossed around in software and hardware development like organisations and companies only care about democratic participation, and not profitability."

Exactly. Collectively, with our desire to participate, our labour-as-love and our whimsical half-understood urges to create things and share them, we are grist to the Big (new) Media mill. what i've become interested in lately is the question of whether such participation actually add up to anything at all beyond that and/or beyond the accumulation of new media cultural capital for the early adopters of each new development (blogging, flickring, videoblogging, whatever's next).

None of which should surprise me. Software can only ever replicate the social contexts in which it was created, right? The most active citizens of, say, flickr are uncannily similar, not as the result of some conspiracy, but simply as an effect of just who the early adopters are always going to be.

People like me, only a bit cooler and a lot less prone to worrying about things like this ;)

Anonymous anne said...

rob - "collaboratory" is a brilliant word! it sounds so artifical ;) and is it just me or does this figure of the "venture academic" not make your stomach turn? i mean, i stand behind your pitch for a little criticality and reflexivity, but i really wanna know if it worked. it's harder to play against code than with it.

thanks chris & mathias k! that's always encouraging to hear.

mary - your comment made me look up collaboration in the oed, and of course, here it is: what other word means *both* 'united labour' *and* 'traitorous cooperation with the enemy'?! but is it really only a matter of unequal exchanges?

jean - i just have to say that i admire your mind in many of the same ways as jw admires marilyn's ;) but seriously, have you also noticed that re-appropriation is often used to disguise the actual *appropriation* going on? and i think punk & hacker diy ethos could use a bit better recognition of how much of what goes on requires complicity with the status quo. in other words, a little de-romanticising seems in order and i know you're totally on top of that, which is very cool.

and you're right - what exactly are people participating in or with? what do they get out of their participation and what do others get out of it. at this point, it strikes me that most "participants" (either early or late adopters) are getting far less - of all kinds of capital - than the folks who "organise" or "enable" the participation.

but sadly, i'm reminded of the challenge to politicise people and this makes me tired, so i'll stop writing now ;)

Blogger Jean-Louis Trudel said...

Looking forward to a possible collaboration, how proficient are you in French?


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