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Updated: March 18, 2010 13:14 IST

The rush to celebrate Web 2.0’s potential

D. Murali
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The development of new kinds of interactivity and participation has not only altered the balance of power between the producer and the consumer in some locations, it has also blurred the distinction between these two functions, says Graeme Turner in ‘Ordinary People and the Media: The demotic turn’ (www.sagepublications.com).

The shift has been so pronounced that new terms, such as ‘produser’ and ‘prosumer,’ have been coined to describe a consumer who creates his/her own content and distributes it online through video aggregator sites such as YouTube, social networking sites such as Facebook, or via blogs, acknowledges Turner.

Yet, such activity constitutes an extremely small proportion of the full range of media consumption and production around the globe, the author observes. In relation to participation through blogging, he cites the ‘1 per cent rule’ invoked by Internet historian and activist Geert Lovink, thus: “If you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will interact with it (commenting or offering improvements), and the other 89 will just view it.” And as for uploading video content onto YouTube, the figure is even lower, Turner notes. “Less than half of 1 per cent of visits involve posting videos (Miller, 2009).”

Therefore, he finds that the projections of the importance of the ‘produser’ in the future have tended towards the hyperbolic, overstating the current dimensions of the trend while drawing conclusions about the possibilities from a selective geographic sample which reflects the concentration of such activity in the US.

The enthusiasm for the new order is understandable, and its ideals are worthy, but in the rush to celebrate Web 2.0’s potential, some perspective has been lost, suspects Turner. The political empowerment promised to consumers is largely based on the expansion of consumer choice, the provision of interactivity and the corresponding rise of the ‘produser,’ he reasons. “In practice, these have remained limited developments.”

Hence, Turner calls for a more modest and evidence-based set of claims for the cultural and industrial effects of Web 2.0, so as to arrive at a more realistic understanding of what is currently the case, as well as to provide the basis for properly thinking through cultural and media policy issues for the future. “There really hasn’t been much of an historical dimension to the cultural and media studies accounts of new media – despite the fact that each new development is usually described as if it is of historic proportions.”

In the space of participatory media and user-generated content, too, the author is dismayed that the academic treatment has been inordinately preoccupied with predicting the future. “Often without the support of empirical data or accounting for historical trends in the relevant locations, digital optimists move into futurologist mode at the drop of a hat,” reads a chiding remark.

It is not enough to note the rise of user-generated content online; one has to predict where it will end up, which technologies will rise or fall, and what media formations will disappear, the author instructs. He reminds readers of history’s lessons, that the predictions coming from early adopters are notoriously poor indicators of how new media technologies will actually be taken up.

“There is more than simple arithmetic involved here. We are going to require a lot more than the aggregation of a bunch of figures (often, themselves of dubious validity because of their commercial origin) noting the rise and fall of audiences and the take-up of various technologies.”

Sobering study.

**

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