The internet as a production platform and cultural space

In this post I’d like to reflect on some recent events in the online community, as a springboard for thinking about the internet as a publishing platform and cultural space more generally.

First: SOPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives in October 2011 with the apparent aim of expanding the ability of US law enforcement to combat the online dissemination of copyrighted intellectual property.

SOPA was met by vocal dissent from pretty much every worthwhile corner of the internet, and the public relations battle was on. Opposition to the bill could have been painted as an alliance between layabout internet pirates and Silicon Valley tycoons, all seeking to profit from the content made by others. But any efforts to do this were unsuccessful.

I opposed – and continue to oppose – SOPA. I am anxious about instituting effectively worldwide censorship without due legal oversight. I believe that the burden of proof is the wrong way round, with the establishment of innocence seeming to be of more importance than the obligation to reasonably prove guilt. Whilst criminalising links rather than content makes pragmatic sense, it’s troubling to see law enforcement focus on criminalising speech rather than the more substantive crime at its root. And with the shutdown of Megaupload (a popular location for legal and illegal file hosting), taking place at around the same time as the height of the SOPA controversy, it doesn’t seem as if law enforcement is particularly powerless to target hosts directly.

More importantly, perhaps, I have a strong feeling that the future belongs not to last century’s broadcast media industry – and its associated delivery and legal frameworks – but rather to the people who are not only forging the way into the wilds of the digital space, but who are also setting up a functional, safe and productive society there. Our best bet is to support them in this process, rather than ceding control to the tired and confused pioneers of yesteryear.

Part of this process is mapping property rights onto the digital space, or, alternatively, setting up new systems which sidestep the fallout of the infinite reproducibility of digital works. The lumbering enlightenment copyright model has to some extent at least been turned to the benefit of large media rights-holding organisations. Now is a good time to reconfigure how we support and fund content creators, and how we deliver content.

Large-scale production processes, such as the creation of Hollywood films, require a considerable investment. Organisations or individuals with the money to fund such ventures must shrewdly evaluate the potential of any such investment opportunity. They seek a return on their investments, rather than a loss, and as such are vigilant in declining to fund projects that do not seem likely to be successful. But these gatekeepers are a burden.

An overarching concern for profitability can hamper the pursuit of true creative success, and the commercial rewards that sometimes come with it. Sometimes the gatekeepers can  hold back the creation of something that content creators want to make, and consumers want to purchase. Whilst the internet has not yet been used to source funds for a creative venture on the scale of a Hollywood film, in some cases it does allow the middleman to be circumvented.

Kickstarter is an website for funding creative projects. A project explains its aims, sets an investment target, and requests funding from the community. If enough people pledge to invest in the project and it meets its funding target, the pledging users are then charged and the project receives the funding. Projects usually offer different rewards to backers for different levels of funding pledge. If the project does not meet the target, the users are not charged.

In the PC gaming community, Tim Schafer is something of a legend. As the creative force behind some of the great adventure games - Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, The Secret of Monkey Island and Psychonauts -he has a considerable amount of prestige and reputation. Fans have continually called for Schafer to make an ‘old-school’ adventure game, but no publisher has been interested. So Schafer went directly to the community through Kickstarter, and achieved the $400,000 target on the very first day. By the time the funding window closed, the project had obtained nearly ten times the funding target.

Similarly, the Code Hero project set a more modest target of $100,000. With 10 days to go, it didn’t seem that the project was anywhere near reaching its target. But a concerted mobilisation of people who believed in the concept and the project – particularly through Reddit, but also through established community hubs and blogs – meant that the project gained momentum and raised $200,000. Kickstarters for other projects have burst into  prominence – Wasteland 2 and Takedown are two funding success stories so far. Kickstarter is an American platform, but other platforms, such as indiegogo, are starting to make a name for themselves.

Whilst Kickstarter projects do not necessarily have the detailed specification or deliverables that other projects might have, this may aid creative flexibility. The target community is well placed to judge the merits of the creator and the proposed creation. Giving them a role in funding projects they want to see is a neat way of closing the circle.

I expect that such projects won’t always work smoothly, but that doesn’t undermine the potential of the platform as a whole. Indeed, over time I would expect its robustness and rigour to increase as these questions are worked out through painful experience. We need to see, for example, how much leeway an expectant community will give the creators, and how creators will impose order on the creative process with the buzz of the community in their ears. Will it help or hinder their work? I’ll be watching the Double Fine adventure develop with this question in mind. We also need to see how any over-funding is dealt with. If a game ends up with more funding than requested, how should the process of deciding what to do with that extra funding work, and how can existing funders consent to to or reject this? Certainly Kickstarter isn’t the solution to all the challenges of developing, promoting and publishing a creative work, but the online space as a whole has done an impressive job in these few examples.

Broadly speaking, the process of delivering a product to an audience entails creation, promotion, and distribution. Kickstarter has shown how creation can be funded. Furthermore, in both of the above examples, promotion was largely taken care of by the community, with social media and the internet’s impressive ability to talk to itself driving the process. The basic Code Hero public relations and communications work wasn’t particularly slick, but it communicated the vision and concept sufficiently well to win over the community, which then amplified the message more powerfully than any fancy piece of marketing copy.

So what about distribution platforms? How should these work in the online space; what does a good online distribution platform for digital content look like, and what about piracy?

The PC games industry gives us another good example here. Valve led the way into digital distribution and have made a real success of it. I would argue that this has not only been because Valve took a chance on digital distribution at a very early stage, but because of the strong conceptual underpinnings of their Steam distribution platform.

As Valve’s Gabe Newell asserted in a recent interview, too many people in the industry are misunderstanding piracy, leading them to implement ineffective draconian solutions:

“people always want to treat [piracy] as a pricing issue, [thinking] that people are doing this because they can get it for free and so we just need to create these draconian DRM systems or ani-piracy systems”. But from Valve’s extensive experience running Steam, this “just really doesn’t match up with the data.”

Rather, he argues, companies need to focus on delivering value to customers, and on maximising the opportunities afforded by the digital and online space to do this:

“You want to figure out how you can connect customers with the right collection of content and services and you need to get away from the sort of one size fits all broadcast mentality. Pricing is one of those things where a lot of people are still approaching it in almost a pre-internet fashion instead of seeing that there’s actually an opportunity to do a better job of delivering the right stuff to the right customer for the right combination of pieces.”

Whilst the Steam platform is secured by some formidable anti-piracy software, it feels more enabling than obtrusive as a platform. It is very effective at connecting the user with their games – wherever they may be – and at delivering valuable experiences (through the Friends service, Community and Achievements). There’s also a great deal of consumer surplus to be had through the Steam store, as its regular sales allow users to purchase games at impressively low prices.

From the perspective of the producer, we may be simply moving from one middleman to another (information on the how much a cut Valve takes from transactions is not public). But for consumers, this heralds an improvement from pre-online distribution. The platform is being used to increase value rather than to restrict the user. This is why the Steam platform has gained such positive consent in the community. Valve have been rewarded for empowering the consumer: people are prepared to pay if they are given a valuable experience.

Digital distribution may be a backwards step, however, in terms of content ownership and the persistence of a user’s access to material. If Valve were to go bust, what would be the fate of all users’ games? How would you be able to download anything, or even access the games already installed on your hard drive? This is a real and legitimate concern which has not yet been answered. Creating and distributing digital content allows for some incredible advances, but ownership of digital content is not as physical and permanent and secure as placing a new tome on your bookshelf. But digital content delivered through an online service can be more secure and permanent than any mere physical object, as long as the servers stay up and people are able to access them. I’m not sure what the long-run solution to this problem is, but I’m confident that Valve are a good organisation to be entrusting with the search for a meaningful solution.

I’m certain that the digital medium and online publishing allows for a more creative and connected world, with empowered consumers and producers. There are plenty of rough edges, but the examples reviewed here lead me to feel positive about the direction of travel.

The infinite reproducibility of digital content is the biggest free lunch in human history. Let’s work out how to use it to maximise the benefits to people, and perhaps to improve our society along the way. The digital pioneers continue onwards, forging new terrain and setting up new systems to allow us to reap the bounty of this fertile land. For the time being at least, it feels that the right people are in the driving seat.

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