Theory Teacher's Blog

The Economy of Wikipedia — Prosumer, Contripreneur, or Amateur

A coincidence of two events is inspiring this blog post today. One of the events is a recent discussion I had with several of my colleagues about the value of Wikipedia. Every year, Wikipedia has a fundraising drive so that it can continue to exist on the internet. Their goal this year is $16 million, and as I am writing this blog, Wikipedia claims [here] to have raised $8.5 million so far. (It is almost like the fund drive for National Public Radio.) I casually suggested to my colleagues that perhaps our university’s library ought to financially support Wikipedia just as it supports so many other useful internet programs such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Early English Books Online. However, my colleagues pointed out to me that these other internet tools are produced by professionals, not by amateurs as Wikipedia articles seem to them to be. I have a different understanding of Wikipedia that I will explain shortly.

The other event is my fellow blogger Topspun’s wonderfully audacious creation [here] of a new concept — contripreneur — over at the Seven Red blog earlier this month, and indeed when I googled this word, the only search result that came up was his blog. (And after I finish writing this post, of course, then my blog will also come up, heh, heh, heh. I’m getting in on this venture early.) Topspun’s argument stems from a dissatisfaction with an older neologism coined in 1980 by Alvin Toffler — prosumer — a dissatisfaction that I share. Topspun and I both blogged extensively about our dissatisfaction way back in April 2009, [here] and [here] from Topspun and [here] from myself. Basically, the word prosumer (which you can read all about in Wikipedia [here], but not, significantly, in the Encyclopedia Britannica.com) is a combination of the words producer/professional and consumer, and it is meant to suggest a new economic relationship in which consumers don’t just consume value but actually produce it. The most obvious examples of the prosumer relationship would be open-source software, blogs, YouTube, the recent and highly controversial WikiLeaks, and of course Wikipedia. On these websites, valuable information and entertainment are produced and distributed not by salaried professionals but by consumers/users.  These consumers/users are not paid for their labor, but presumably get satisfaction from the enjoyment or from the social connection or from the usefulness for the common good of society that it possibly facilitates. Consequently, one might call them “amateurs” in contrast to “professional” except that many of them will have expert knowledge and skills (e.g., the specialized information that appeared on Wikileaks.) A less obvious example of a prosumer would be Amazon.com, which makes use of consumption patterns and input from consumers to help other consumers find the books they want. As many of my colleagues have noticed, sometimes (though certainly not always) Amazon.com is a better tool for finding books than the library databases.

But the concept of the prosumer is a problematic concept. If I can boil down Topspun’s highly sophisticated argument down to one sentence, I’d boil it down this way — all the punditry and hype about the prosumer concept usually fails to take into account the financial relationship. And of course, in my view, the ambiguity of the financial relationship implies a political situation that the word prosumer conceals and mystifies. Therefore, Topspun suggests the word contripreneur, which combines the words contributor and entrepreneur, is both more precise and broader in its application. I’m looking forward to Topspun’s future blog posts in which he promised to explain his concept further.

So, the task for my blog today is to assess the value of Wikipedia by thinking about it in terms of the concepts prosumer and contripreneur and to assess the value of those concepts by thinking about them in terms of the exemplary example Wikipedia. Do you catch the double movement of that sentence? And of course, as you can tell from my blog post’s title, I’m also wondering whether the neologisms “prosumer” and “contripreneur” are really any different from a rather ordinary old word, amateur.

My starting point for this inquiry will be a very simple question, the sort of simple question with which Adam Smith began his famous Wealth of Nationswhat is the value of Wikipedia really? Apparently, its directors need $16 million, but that figure is not a measure of exchange value on the open market. It is a measure primarily of cost (i.e., capitalization, energy, time, labor, machinery, land, etc.). What if we turn to one of John Locke’s concepts from his Second Treatise of Civil Government, use value? It is widely recognized that Wikipedia is something that both faculty and students use a lot. Therefore, it is useful, and in fact, in this case, the more it gets used, the more it grows, and consequently the more it grows, the more it costs to maintain. Such is the nature of the internet. So, is the $16 million an accurate and pure reflection of its use value? I don’t know. What I do know is that faculty use it when they need quick information, and students use it when they are beginning a research project. In some ways, it is superior to the older kind of encyclopedia or technical glossary because it requires its writers to cite their sources and it covers a far wider range of topics. (The older encyclopedias and glossaries usually don’t have citations because they bank on their reputation, and we’re supposed to trust their editors.) Most of my colleagues seem to allow that Wikipedia might be an acceptable starting point for their students’ research papers so long as the students focus on the works cited at the end of the Wikipedia article and don’t cite Wikipedia itself. In other words, so far as this reasoning goes, Wikipedia only has use value insofar as it leads one to “real” sources.

This reasoning is misguided, in my view. It misunderstands that the “real” sources (e.g., newspapers, press releases by politicians, websites, etc.) might be more likely to contain factual errors and biases than the Wikipedia article. It also fails to recognize the real intellectual labor in which Wikipedia articles often do a better job than newspaper and television journalists at checking for bias and factual accuracy. (If only Americans had looked up “Iraq” on Wikipedia — or any encyclopedia really — instead of trusting CNN and the NY Times, for instance, perhaps we wouldn’t have started that war. See, for instance, this article in which the NY Times recognizes its own failure.) My speculation is that few teachers trust Wikipedia as a source because they don’t fully understand how Wikipedia works. The “wiki” is a very specific kind of computer technology designed to maximise the efficiency of collaborative work. It was originally invented for large businesses, but was quickly picked up by some educators as a teaching tool. In any wiki, the entire history of each draft is accessible, so anyone who wants to add content or revise content can see the myriad of drafts written before. There is also often a discussion board so all the people contributing to the writing of an article can debate content. Therefore, it is wrong to think of Wikipedia as just another website. In a sense, Wikipedia is truly an open and accessible “public sphere” — almost in the idealistic Habermasian sense of the public sphere — where reasoned debate can take place. In this way, Wikipedia can be thought of in contrast to newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet in general which are supposed to be public spheres but are so often beholden to the profit motive of their stockholders (i.e., hype and entertainment) and the political biases of their owners (as Habermas himself complained, though not as bitterly as did the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer). Hence, many young people today rightly recognize Wikipedia to have a real social value, and not just a quick and easy source of information. In addition, the prejudicial notion that Wikipedia’s contributors might be mere amateurs (and not professionals) is clearly false, since even a cursory glance at most Wikipedia articles will reveal that the writers have considerable expertise. In other words, one might call these writers prosumers because they are both users and producers, or one might more accurately call them contributors… or one might even call them concerned citizens, some of whom are amateurs and some of whom are experts. However, in response to Topspun, I’m not sure how “entrepreneurial” any of the activity on Wikipedia is. It might depend on how we are understanding the word entrepreneur — beyond a simple business sense of the word, and towards a more socially contextualized sense of it as an agent of meaningful innovation.

Significantly different from what I see as the incorrect understanding of Wikipedia apparently held by most teachers is the perspective of libraries (or “information commons” as so many college libraries are being re-branded nowadays.) Many librarians now recognize the democratic potential of Wikipedia as an encyclopedia of the people, by the people, and for the people (a truly common “information commons”), but Wikipedia is not a priority for library budgets. Instead, since the university is itself an academic institution (often publicly owned), libraries prefer to support the more institutionalized academic and public projects. This affiliation seems very natural and sensible to me, and I think the library’s position is both wise and on target. Clearly, however, this is a political affiliation, not an affiliation based in the quality or value of the product. In other words, academics know how their bread gets buttered, and the public recognizes that there is more to knowledge and teaching than mere “information”, so we make the obviously intelligent political decision to devote our somewhat meager educational budgets to the support of the various professional institutions and associations we are members of.

In conclusion…. I don’t know if I have a conclusion. I’m tired of writing this blog today, and I have other work I need to do (i.e., the professional work I get paid for, get it? Not my contripreneurial work for which I get nothing.) And also, I’m not entirely sure yet where Topspun is going to take his contripreneur concept…. Stay tuned!

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December 12, 2010 - Posted by | finance, media, Theory--capital T

2 Comments »

  1. Nice post, Steve.

    Comment by Moura | December 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] to facilitate prosumption activities by creating better tools for the Prosumers to use. The blog A Teacher’s Theory emphasizes in an article about the economy of Wikipedia how open-source software, blogs or […]

    Pingback by Kiss of Death or Gift from Heaven? – Managing Prosumers « Curiosity Killed The Consumer | June 9, 2012 | Reply


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