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Collaborative media: production, consumption and design

Update: The book ‘Collaborative Media’ has been published – view it here!

Jonas Löwgren, Professor of Interaction Design, and Bo Reimer, Professor of Media and Communication Studies, discuss the concept of collaborative media.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

You have just finished your book on collaborative media. How do you describe this concept, and do we really need yet another expression when talking about media?

JONAS: Collaborative media is the kind of media that goes beyond the traditional model of a producer distributing the same media product to a large number of consumers. The thing about collaborative media is that production is also distributed so that many more people can, and actually do, engage in media content production. In our case, that applies to digital media since that is the field we are operating within. Various forms of collaborative media, such as cut-and-paste photocopied fanzines, also existed before the rise of digital technologies, but the kinds of collaborative media that we focus on are within the digital realm.

BOSSE: To problematise that further, you could say that it is also a perspective to have on media, looking at aspects of media that have to do with collaboration rather than things. Using the term ‘collaborative media’ is an attempt to come up with better ways of speaking about contemporary media in comparison to similar kinds of concepts like new media, digital media and so on.

Can you give us some examples of collaborative media?

BOSSE: In the work for the book (to be published in 2013), we have done a number of concrete case studies describing how collaborative media can be designed, produced, and consumed. We take our point of departure from things we have been involved in at Medea, or projects that we have special access to, or knowledge we have that has some kind of Malmö connection. We look at some of the more well known examples such as Arduino (an open hardware platform) and Bambuser (a live video broadcasting service used on mobile phones), but also other kinds of examples.

JONAS: If we start on one end of the wide scale of collaborative media we find the Facebook thumb, the “like-button”, which can be described as the atomic action of collaborative media. It is a very simple action, but is a part of producing the content of the medium that is known as Facebook. The interesting thing is that a “like” does not only show up as content, but it also changes the structure of what you see on your Facebook page. That is, your experience is to some extent shaped by what people have liked. It is a simple action, but with fairly profound consequences. However, this particular case is not what we put an emphasis on in our case studies. A couple of other cases that more have to do with our field of interest at Medea are, for example, the Bambuser and Malmö City Symphony project. Bambuser is a fantastic example of a new and inherently collaborative media platform, stretching out across the world, being used by millions of people and having a real influence on the way societies are developing, even in terms of global politics. The Malmö City Symphony, on the other hand, is an extremely local project, strongly facilitated and curated and with a fairly low number of people participating, but where the content production by these individuals is an essential part of the production, the result, the event.

BOSSE: Let me describe the project a bit closer, and where it begun. The City Symphony is a film genre from the 1920s where filmmakers made a symphony of the city using the rhythm of daily life as one way to portray it. The Malmö City Symphony is that idea, but brought into a contemporary setting. In this project, people in Malmö were invited to contribute to the symphony by sharing their films about Malmö shot with digital and mobile cameras. Their images and films were shown at an evening event where their contributions were put together by VJ’s (video jockeys) at the same time as there were two electronic DJ’s playing music accompanying the films. This event, with all the images, and music, also became a film in itself – The Malmö City Symphony.

Video: excerpt of Malmö City Symphony, performed and recorded at Inkonst. Full video here.

JONAS: It is a bit like a crowd-sourced performance version of the 1920’s city symphonies. These have the same kind of approach, different kinds of technologies and different ways of creating and putting together the content.

BOSSE: This whole setting also offered the possibility for anyone to remix that film again, which is very different from the 1920’s. Anyone can make their own version of Malmö City Symphony just by using the film clips that are out there.

When talking about collaborative media it becomes obvious that the role of the consumer has shifted into also becoming a producer of media content.

BOSSE: It is actually more than that. As you said, the people that previously only consumed media now take part in its production. What we write about in the book is the step before that, which is the actual design of the media infrastructure itself. People are not only consumers and producers of media; they also increasingly take part in the process of designing both the media hardware and software.

JONAS: A very good example of this is the #hashtag function in Twitter. When Twitter was launched, there was no such thing as a hashtag – it was just a tool for broadcasting 140 characters of text. After a year or so, one of the early users was missing a way to search in the Twitter streams. That person came up with the idea of using a searchable hashtag in connection to the tweets. It was just an improvisation based on a need from a user. The solution caught on, everybody started using it and six months later it was part of Twitter’s functionality. Since then, a whole ecology has emerged of third party sites aggregating Twitter feeds in different ways, all using the hashtag functions, which was not originally designed by the people behind Twitter, but by an early user.

Has this development also changed the way media platform producers design their systems?

JONAS: That is one of the main insights here. In the early days, when you designed a software product you tried to make it complete. You had a release date, the product went out into the world and you were done with it. Maybe you did a new version a year later, but that was it. When you design a media platform today, you try to go public when you have just a skeleton, just a bunch of functions, an early beta. You start engaging people in the continuous design of the platform. Early users are involved in figuring out what the most appropriate functions are and how it should really work. The whole development process has changed fundamentally, in media primarily but also spreading to other areas of software development. This concept of perpetual beta is growing enormously. Also, in areas where you don’t design media platforms you do the same thing, you launch a rudimentary version and then you rely on the community of early, dedicated users to help you get it right.

BOSSE: Consuming, producing and designing together – all three steps.

JONAS: In traditional media you have production, and you have consumption. What we put forward is that in collaborative media you also have design and that these three steps are interconnected. People formerly known as users are now placed in the middle and take part in all three parts in the infrastructure: design, production, consumption.

– Learn more about the concept of collaborative media in Designing Collaborative Media: A Challenge for CHI?.
– An interview with Jonas Löwgren on the topic Building knowledge around collaborative media design
– Keep your eyes open for the forthcoming book on collaborative media from MIT Press.

Image credit: Flickr user misspixels CC:BY-NC-ND

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