Friday, July 17, 2009

We're all prosumers now ...

We’re all prosumers now and blogs are a form of what some are calling prosumption – we help produce what we consume …

My plan for most of the summer is to try and complete a book for MIT Press I’m co-writing with Martin Dodge entitled, ‘Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life.’ The book is basically complete bar the final chapte
r and quite a bit of editing and polishing. For the past week I’ve been trying to get a working, full draft of a chapter concerning how software is changing the nature of consumption and trying to think through and devise a taxonomy of different forms of prosumption. Prosumption is the idea that rather than simply purchase or consume a product, we take a more active role in how a product is delivered and consumed. Below is what I’ve written so far followed by some very brief comments relating to the prosumption of fiction.

Consumers have long been active participants in the production of the services or goods they are consuming – such as self-service in a restaurant or at a petrol pump or as members of an audience or sports event. Such participation has led to the notion of prosumption - that customers prosume rather than simply consume a service (Andrejevic 2007, Ritzer 2007) – they fulfil a vital role or add crucial value in the delivery of a service for which they are paying. In the main, prosumers do this additional work for little or no recompense, either getting enjoyment from the task, or a sense of empowerment, or they save money/time as the cost of the service is reduced and often becomes more flexible in nature (such as checking in to a flight from home). As such, a complex set of factors shape prosumption including ‘choice, coercion, enjoyment, false consciousness, manipulation’ (Ritzer, no date: 27). In return the service provider or retailer receives labour, talent, expertise, opinions, and gains efficiencies and valuable information (Ritzer, no date).

Code has deepened and diversified participation by enabling people to interactive with, customize, and accessorize ever more media and products; to move from being a consumer to a prosumer. The nature and level of contribution to the production of goods, media and services consumed by active participants variously enormously from simple feedback that shapes present and future outcomes to the highly involved production of key resources such as the supply of code to open-source projects. As such, for us, prosumption needs to be unpacked to think through the ways in which software re-shapes the relationship between patrons and what they prosume. Code enables at least six forms of prosumption: feedback, customization, content, architectural, market, and self-service.

Feedback consists of prosumers actively contributing information to producers that then helps shape the product being prosumed. For example, voting on reality television programmes actively shapes which contestants stay in the competition and which ones leave, and ultimately who will win. Such a process provides highly detailed information to producers as to which act(s) will succeed in the marketplace, especially since the voters have already invested capital, time and emotional energy into shaping the product. Feedback used to be largely limited to studio audiences, but automated phone services, texting and online voting now allow feedback from any viewer. As a result, huge numbers of votes can be cast. For example, over sixty five million people voted in the final of American Idol, series 3 (580 million over the series).

Customization allows prosumers to actively shape and configure the product they are buying selecting specification, components, colours, materials and so on. In other words, the product is not simply bought off the shelf but is tailored to meet the needs of prosumer. Such services have long been available, such as tailored clothes, but only to those with the wealth to be able to afford it. Now customization is available to cheap, mass produced goods such as running shoes and computers and peripherals, and can be selected at a distance and previewed through online ordering. For example, the Dell laptop used to write this sentence was custom built to the specifications chosen by one of us rather than simply designed and supplied by Dell.

Content prosumption refers to users actively supplying the substantive material for the service they are prosuming. For example, prosumers of social networking sites, such as Facebook or blogs, actively contribute material about themselves and their lives and or write comments in relation to other people or provide remixed content (such as new mixes of songs). Content is not supplied by service provider itself; their contribution is the infrastructure that enables prosumption. Similarly, information sites such as Wikipedia are both passively consumed (e.g. an individual reading an entry) and actively prosumed (e.g. adding, editing and updating entries). Commercial or proprietary sites also enable prosumption such as the adding of reviews to products on or submitting videos, photos, stories to news and entertainment websites. Such is the utility of user-generated content that companies now often run competitions for advert and product ideas taking advantage of free creativity and labour.

Architectural prosumption concerns the active contribution of prosumers to informational architecture that supports an activity or service. The mostly widely practised example is that of open source programming where scores of programmers work collectively to produce a software product that they themselves use. Linux, for example, is collectively produced by volunteer contributors who then use the operating system they have added to. Other examples include mash-ups that enable different capta to be spliced together to create new applications.

Market prosumption relates to the creation of online marketplaces to buy and sell goods. The goods on sale and their details are supplied by the users of the site. For example, ebay and craigslist enables people to sell a product and others to bid on the sale; to take an active part in the marketplace. In other words, the process is interactive with respect to selling and buying.

Self-service prosumption refers to the increasing use of self-service kiosks and online processes that enable a person to access goods or services autonomously. Here, individuals do the labour that was formerly done by others. For example, using an ATM machine to withdraw money rather than using a clerk in a bank, or buying a train ticket using a self-service kiosk rather than from a ticket agent, or using a self-service check-out rather one that is staffed. This transfer saves the supplier significant staffing costs, for example, a grocery store generally aims for one cashier to oversee four self-service registers, thus reducing staffing need by 75 percent whilst serving the same number of purchasers (Dean 2008). In some cases, such as checking oneself onto a flight either online or at a self-service kiosk, failure to act as a prosumer can lead to punitive penalties – for example, failure to self check-in online with RyanAir, Europe’s largest carrier, results in a €40 additional fee.

These six forms of prosumption are significantly altering the relations between producer and consumer, leading to efficiencies and savings for producers and empowering (or encumbering) consumers. Over time, these forms of prosumption – and one assumes new forms as new technologies and innovations are rolled out – will be become increasingly common. That is not to say, however, that such a rollout will be a simple process. As Walker and Johnson (2006, cited in Dean 2008) note, there are several factors that influence the extent to which people are prepared to become prosumers including:

  • personal capacity (ability and self-belief that they can use the prosumption technology successfully);
  • perceived risk (extent to which a user believes the technology is reliable and personal information is secure);
  • relative advantage (extent to which prosumption is believed to be more convenient, faster, efficient, and productive than the traditional mode of consumption); and
  • preference for personal contact (the degree to which the consumer prefers human interaction over interaction with technology).

As Dean (2008: 228) reports, these factors in turn are affected by a person’s:

  • optimism (the belief that technology offers increased control, flexibility and efficiency in daily life),
  • innovativeness (the degree to which the consumer is a pioneer and thought leader),
  • discomfort (perceiving a lack of control over technology); and
  • insecurity (a distrust of technology and skepticism of its ability to work properly).

What this means is that people will vary in the extent to which they embrace the practices of prosumption, and that any company who adopts such a model of delivery will inevitably be circumscribing its market until unsure and sceptical consumers become convinced of its merits (or they are forced to do so by the company offering no alternatives) or gain access to suitable technology such as a home PC. In both cases, age and class are important factors given their relationship to educational competence and likelihood of convenient access. In other words, prosumption will be subject to the same digital divides that have dogged internet adoption and usage.

Anyway, I’m sure that text will mutate a little with some further reflection and editing, but the concept seems to have some utility. I’ve no idea at the minute how the notion of prosumption will pan out with respect to publishing beyond readers being able to post reviews on retail website such as Amazon, or take part in online forums about books, or write comments in relation to blogs like this, but it’ll be interesting to see the ways and extent to which readers move from being consumers to prosumers of books.

Andrejevic, M. (2007). iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas

Dean, D.H. (2008) Shopper age and the use of self-service technologies. Managing Service Quality, 18(3): 225-238

Ritzer, G. (no date) Production, Consumption … Prosumption?

Walker, R.H. and Johnson, L.W. (2006), “Why consumers use and do not use technology-enabled services”, Journal of Services Marketing 20(2): 125-35.

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