[iDC] Interview with Axel Bruns

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Mon Mar 7 19:37:25 EST 2005

Share, Share Widely.
Technologies for Distributed Creativity

Interview with Axel Bruns (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz:  On the one hand weblogs are often criticized as being
somewhat narcissistic public diaries, often authored by individual
teenagers. But at the same time the blogosphere is increasingly important in
political campaigning, education, research, and content management.

Blogs became an outlet for new media research practices. Much of scholarly
research appears on weblogs.  'Edbloggers' use weblogs for collaborative
learning, as personal portfolios, institutional interfaces, personal
reflective journaling, peer-to-peer editing, annotated link collections,
coursework, and sharing of educational content. The word "weblog" had the
highest number of online lookups on Miriam Webster in 2004. Are blogs the
social software du jour?

Axel Bruns :

<background sounds of noise minor birds, and rainbow lorikeets>

Yes, and according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project blog
readership has shot up by 58% in 2004 alone (see reference). Should this
increased public interest over the last year be credited merely to a massive
interest in more information about the US elections, or is it due simply to
the hype about blogs? We are not sure -- but something is happening. The
narcissistic teenage use of blogs gets a lot of bad press but it is actually
not such a negative thing at all. People have written diaries for centuries:
for many folks this form of self-reflection is an important part of their
lives, a key practice in developing and maintaining their identity.


So, I do not have a problem with self-involved teenage diaries as such, but
I am certainly not arguing that the quality of the writing is always
particularly good or especially insightful. Even if this journaling would be
all that blogs are good for, they would remain an important outlet for
expressing the lived experiences of teens. What weblogs do enable, however,
is a significant amount of immediate, ad hoc *interaction* between
individual bloggers. They are in fact a tool for social networking. There is
a real interest by people in sharing information and in connecting to each
other. This interconnection of people with similar interests, with
comparable life stories, does not exist in traditional diary writing. With
blogs, individuals who have a particular issue in common can find each other
and build ad hoc networks.

The same people who today criticize blogs for being self-absorbed and
tedious  accounts of everyday life are possibly those who used to criticize
the TV generation for being isolated from one another. Such attacks may be
little more than knee-jerk reactions to the perceived evils of the next new
trend in telecommunications technologies. On balance, I would prefer
interaction between possibly self-centered journal writers to
non-interaction between couch potatoes-- it is a step forward. Suburbanites
who are socially challenged may remain so no matter if they act online or
off, while blogging offers them a way to connect.

TS: Social book mark tools like del.ioc.io.us and online social fora like
flickr are helpful in linking up people with similar affinities. They create
linkages between social networks. Both sites link 'users' based on topical
affinities, creating possibilities for social networks based on a very
particular set of interests.


AB: Yes, and they show that there is a profound shift currently underway.
People are very interested in creating their own content, sharing their
ideas online, putting their lives out there. And everybody has expert
knowledge of something -- from music and movies to politics and social
issues. Of course, putting the information out there does not mean that it
will actually be read. There is a tremendous information overload; an
enormous number of blogs are never visited. Alexander Halavais did a lot of
work about this. He is a big believer in the social power of neighborhood
blogs. How many of these millions of blogs are really being looked at or
linked to? If you go to a blog you probably looked for it based on a search
related to your affinities.


TS: This trend towards the uses of software tools in a site-specific,
"situated"  way has been much discussed recently. Some recent internet art
projects address the needs of a geographically specific group rather than
the anywhere and nowhere of the internet (devoid of political agency).

AB: What is interesting about blogs is that they are very scalable. They are
useful for collaboration amongst small, geographically co-located groups as
well as for distributed team work across a number of dispersed locales. The
are useful for facilitating ad hoc interconnection between complete
strangers based on shared interests - and sometimes perform all three
functions at the same time. This multilayered structure has always been a
promise of hypertext-based information structures. There is no longer a
mutually exclusive choice between catering for the 'here' or for the
'anywhere and nowhere' you speak of-- it is possible to have both at the
same time.

Importantly, too, blogs make it very easy for information to travel across
the network, and this is why we speak so frequently of the blogosphere now.
Ideas are picked up from one blog and republished on others, so that
blogging is not about single weblogs - their strength is in their numbers. I
am fascinated by the trend towards blog aggregation, through sites like
Daypop and Technorati. Broader trends across the blogosphere emerge:
individual words or topics suddenly show up as being in extremely high use,
sometimes from one hour to the next. This is a good way to track what
currently is on people's minds. It is less about the individual, local blog,
and much more about the travel of information across the
networks. Blogs enable this through commentary functions, TrackBack, Really
Simple Syndication (RSS), and other technologies. The widespread popularity
of blogging will most likely be amplified by the use of RSS feeds on mobile
computational devices, such as PDAs and mobile phones, which makes
information flows even faster.


For my book Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production, I focused on
the field of news blogging. Here (as well as in academia) copyright is a key
issue: there is so much re-use of articles, of text all over the
blogosphere. Information, responses to political events that appear on blogs
are often copied from the news feeds of other blogs (i.e. BBC News Online
now also offers RSS feeds). What we are moving towards as a result of this
constant repurposing of content is not so different from file sharing. A
shared file is diffused across the networks. It is becoming hard to identify
the author or owner of a piece of content because the files are changed in
the process of getting shared across the networks, and they are hosted on a
multitude of machines. Information in the blogosphere works in much the same
way: it travels in between blogs by way of RSS feeds and commenting.
Thereby, it diffuses into the blogosphere, and the originators and owners of
this information are now increasingly difficult to track, which naturally
raises issues about credibility as a result. In the case of news-related
blogging, for example, rather than encountering distinct news reports
readers in the blogosphere are more likely to encounter shared
themes, memes, dealing with current events that are diffused in many
variations across the network.

In areas where intellectual property is important, such as the academic
area, this is a real problem. Elsewhere, it is perhaps a moral rather than a
purely legal question: the originator of content, the person with the
original idea, should always be credited, of course. But in blogging it is
quite possible that the site of the original content creator will receive
fewer hits than the major blog which spreads the word. There is a need here
to engage with content in a morally sound sense which acknowledges the right
of the creator to be attributed appropriately, which is very much the way
that open source operates as well, and where projects like Creative Commons
(CC) also tie in. It is exactly what the CC attribution license requires.


Blogs are a very useful tool for researchers to float their ideas before
they are fully formed, to enable others to engage with these ideas, to share
them and build upon them. This returns to a more traditional form of
research, of academic, scientific work - a collaborative pursuit of
knowledge. There is a problem with this in a highly commercialized research
environment, of course, where people are unlikely to share their ideas
before they have been fully formed (and ultimately, patented). But even if
blogs are used only within a specific research team, without being
accessible to the wider public, they still provide a useful way of sharing
ideas within that group.

TS: The model of the artist as 19th century individual genius is still alive
and well.  Equally alive are models like the exemplary sufferer, the
self-absorbed individualist, and the innovator and visionary misfit. Yet
there is the overwhelming trend towards collaboration society-wide. How do
you view 
this development?

AB: I agree completely, there really is a wide societal trend moving toward
a more collaborative mode, using the Internet and cooperative social
software tools to enable that. Broadly, I see two competing approaches at
this point, which map very well onto the difference between closed and open
source approaches:

The *locked-down institutional approach* is characterized by this motto:
hang on to everything, keep it close to your chest until it is finally ready
to be exposed to a wider audience.

And then there is the *commons approach* with its motto: share, share
widely, in the belief that this approach will attract the best contributors
and collaborators to the project.

This latter approach is also crucially driven and supported by a need for
better communication, and it is no accident that since the advent of the
Internet we have seen a range of communication technologies emerge, from
email and newsgroups now all the way through to blogs, content management
systems and wikis. There appears to be an acutely felt need for better
communication which has driven such projects, and it is a matter of breaking
out of some of the more locked-down institutional environments, or of
changing these environments, to enable such collaborative approaches more

TS: What could lead to such radical institutional change?

AB: The software industry is a useful example here-- we are now gradually
seeing companies realizing that there is value in contributing to open
source, even if their main business is still in selling software packages.
This is a long slow change which will continue for some time to come until
it is fully accepted-- and it may never be fully accepted. In an academic
sense there are similar problems-- perhaps not so much related to questions
of commercialization but certainly concerns of competition between different
institutions or individual academics.

If you take an example of an open educational archive such as
MITOpenCourseWare this becomes obvious. It is easy to be open and
supportive of sharing all your materials if you are the market leader. The
use of these materials only furthers and re-enforces your leadership. MIT
benefits tremendously, of course. It is a bit different with other
institutions-- they may not benefit in the same way at all from
openly sharing their content, if these materials are seen as second-rate
in comparison to what MIT and others offer.


And the fact that a particular university is known as having originated an
important idea is of course helpful in the recruitment of, especially,
international students and staff.

TS: What would motivate universities to engage in open collaboration?

AB: Even though faculty are often eager to collaborate, the administration
may remain far more hesitant about that prospect and still have to work out
for themselves what it is that would drive them towards collaboration.

TS: Foucault asserted that knowledge is not something that is called up or
recalled from an originating source to be then transferred down from one
person to another. He argued that this reproduction of knowledge can only
reaffirm the existing social constructions. Cooperative technologies like
blogs or wikis allow for network knowledge structures that are based on an
Engaged collective working through knowledge. Australia seems to pioneer
much of the uses of social software in education. Do you know of reasons for
this eagerness of people to contribute to the public? Do you think it is
related to people's desire to contribute to something larger than

AB:  Definitely-- take Wikipedia for example, which today is a
fantastic resource and builds on the fact that anyone is an expert on
*something*, even if it is only baseball. This enables them to contribute at
least on that obscure bit of knowledge that they are most expert on, and if
you put all of these contributors together then you do get a vast resource
larger than themselves.


There is a real question of scale here, of course-- Wikipedia works in
this way because it has a massive number of contributors, and is therefore
able to cover truly encyclopedic territory; in smaller teams this is not
necessarily the case. So, if you have a much smaller collaborative project
of whatever form, it may take significantly longer to come to fruition. The
project in this case may not be larger than yourself, but simply help in
sharing the work load amongst that group - and perhaps you contribute to
this project only as a stepping stone to more lucrative commercial work,
using it to show your skills and knowledge and your ability to work
effectively as part of a team.

Why Australia is so prominent in this field, I am not entirely sure -
perhaps this has something to do with our remoteness, and therefore our
greater reliance on communication technologies in the first place. There
certainly has been a great level of involvement in collaborative systems for
a long time. Matthew Arnison from Active Sydney still is one of the key
advocates of open publishing, for example, and he and the Cat at lyst team also
developed the first open publishing system for Indymedia, just before the
Seattle protests. Australians have always had a healthy skepticism towards
authority, and promoted the idea of a 'fair go' for everyone - perhaps
that has something to do with it...

But as far as open source, open publishing, and open collaboration goes, we
must ask: will it work everywhere, or only in specific fields - are
there areas which are particularly suited or unsuited to open source-style
approaches? I do not think this has been fully answered yet - in open
source, for example, I am sure you can find some very successful projects
which were driven by a great need for them, while there are also many others
which never quite got off the ground because of a lack of contributors. In
areas like open publishing, which I have researched in detail recently,
there are some projects like Slashdot which have proven massively successful
- Slashdot has some 600,000 registered users - while others in a similar
vein are far less successful, perhaps because their topic area was simply
less interesting to a large number of users. Even open news sites that were
inspired by Slashdot, such as Kuro5hin or Plastic were less successful.

Plastic is a good example as it 'only' has some 30,000 registered users: it
is a site that has only just managed to establish itself and survive, but
has less of a topical focus. The common good or common interest in
contributing to the site perhaps wasn't seen as clearly by its visitors as
this has been the case in Slashdot.

There needs to be a clearly felt common need or common interest in such
projects; in addition, there are also obvious technical issues about the
ease of use, the ease of contributing, the ease of interaction. The
Wikipedia is an interesting example in this case - Jim Wales's first
venture, the Nupedia, largely failed, of course, because it made it far too
difficult for users to contribute content to the encyclopedia. The team then
developed the Wikipedia as a fully open-access site where anyone can
contribute, anyone can edit, and it took off.


Also, how do you manage contributions in these projects - there are real
differences in how open some of these sites are, how much the content that
is submitted is edited. These questions all contribute to the success or
failure of a site. Slashdot seems to have worked because in spite of the
clear presence of its editors they do not interfere all that obviously -
while they choose the initial articles which are published, commenting
remains open and anyone can have their say. Some sites like Kuro5hin and
Plastic even put the editing of articles themselves into the users' hands.

In sites where every article must be edited and approved first, this will
likely be seen by the users as yet another hurdle to jump through, and in
addition the process will take time, so that these sites are less likely to
respond quickly to current events. These setup options certainly affect the
success of a site, and in cases where users contribute or co-create content
these are key issues to be addressed.

TS: In a recent discussion Clay Shirky pointed out that "Wired" had to shut
down their entertainment and music online fora because users launched
anorexia and cutting support groups in these online spaces. People gave each
other moral support and hints on how to stay anorexic. There are many
similar examples. This raises interesting moral issues.


AB: There have been a number of interesting phenomena around the
relationships between such ad hoc social networks and the commercial
interests which put these networks in place. A similar issue I have recently
become aware of has played out in massively multi-user online role-playing
games (MMORGs); some of the things that groups of users get up to in these
games, while a clear example of distributed creativity on part of the users,
are deemed not to be 'in the spirit of the game' and are shut down by the
games companies. To give you a benign example, I have just seen a 'music
video' which was intricately choreographed, staged and shot entirely by
players for players within the Star Wars Galaxies online game (see
reference). These are very innovative, very creative uses of the technology,
totally against what the game is really about, and so there are significant
problems with the games companies not knowing what to do about them, not
knowing whether they want this kind of interaction to take place within
their games. 

http://furplay.com/swg/content.php?content.1 (Cantina Crawl videos)

TS: On a recent blog entry you quoted Ted Nelson saying that "the present
computer world is appalling - it is based on techie misunderstandings of
human life and human thought, hidden behind flash user interfaces."

AB: Indeed - at the very least it is important to make computers much less
intrusive, much less visible in the way that people work. This is partly
simply a technological issue, but particularly in academia it is also about
how we use technology. For example, at Queensland University of Technology
where I work there is an ongoing drive to make learning and teaching much
more learner-centered rather than teacher-centered, and teaching technology
has a very important role to play here.


We currently work on a project at Queensland University of Technology in
which we set up systems to support much more collaborative and creative
engagements with knowledge and information. How do you make it easy for
students to use systems like blogs and wikis? How can these cooperative
technologies improve their learning experience? It is not enough to simply
put these systems in place and to go through blogging and wiki exercises -
rather, the presence of such systems and the different conceptualization of
and engagement with knowledge for which they stand change the entire
learning and teaching experience. It changes the way lectures are (or should
be) delivered, and the way people engage with the material.

I have been using a wiki in one of my classes (using the MediaWiki system,
see reference) and I have come to the point of thinking, 'do I need actually
need lectures as such or can I change the delivery structure of the course
on the whole into something that is much more like a wiki, that resembles a
networked knowledge structure - rather than imposing a linear structure from
week one to week 13 which presents to students a supposedly unified history
of new media technologies?' Linear structures may be useful to some, but
they do not accurately represent the multifaceted field of new media studies
(or any other field of knowledge, really) any more; I need to find other
ways to present the whole width and breadth of information to students and
to work with them through this and move into their own areas of interest, in
a much more flexible network structure. In the course, students in each
semester both use the wiki as an information resource, and then
collaboratively build on and extend it. An encyclopedia of new media terms
and concepts, it is published to the Web as the M/Cyclopedia of New Media
(see reference).


We are also setting up a multi-user blogging system (using Drupal), with the
intention of ultimately being able to provide a blog for each student
throughout the duration of their degree. This would enable us to get away
from only using blogs in specific courses, which again would be a
teacher-centered approach, and rather to take a learner-centered approach
which enables students to log their own experiences throughout their time at
university, regardless of what course they might be relevant to.
In the university blogging is great especially for first year students who
find themselves in the middle of a new environment. Blogs allow them to
share reflective journals, and throughout their academic careers these blogs
are useful as they help students to self-monitor their academic development.
Additionally, of course, people can also share their information and
experiences, and collaboratively develop content. We are also looking to
develop peer-assisted study schemes in which blogs by second semester
students inform students in their first semester.

In the process students gain advanced information and communication
technology (ICT) literacies which empower them. This is crucial: the new
forms of interaction which are emerging across the board at the moment
require some very different skill sets, and as teachers we must make sure
that students are able to gain these skills. Students need to adapt to
participate in these collaborative open content systems, and to become
familiar with notions of distributed creativity - especially in the current
environment where information, knowledge, and creative industries are
accounting for an increasingly large share of the economy in most Western

In this environment we are seeing a general trend away from pure
consumption, and towards participation - from shows like Big Brother where
audiences are actively involved in directing further developments, to games
like The Sims, where now some 90% of all in-game content has been
contributed by its users, or to the involvement of fans as quality assurance
in the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We witness a blending of
consumption and use, of using and producing which has begun to happen in
recent years. I call this new form of active content co-creator a

But this ability to be an active participant or produser is not only
necessary from a career point of view: it is also increasingly a
prerequisite to being an informed and active citizen.

TS: Thank you for being with us today.

Axel Bruns gratefully acknowledges the help of Peta Mitchell, who provided
him with an iSight camera and laptop for the WebCamTalk 1.0 presentation.

'Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality' by Clay Shirky

Axel Bruns, "Community Building through Communal Publishing: The Emergence
of Open News" published in Mediumi 2.1 (2003)

Axel Bruns, "From Blogs to Open News: Notes towards a Taxonomy of P2P
Publications" presented at ANZCA 2003 conference in Brisbane, 9-11 July 2003

Bibliography on Blog Research


Edublogs Weblog Award

Open source content management platform

VoiceOver IP (free, cross-platform)

Association of Internet Researchers

Axel Bruns works in the Media & Communication Discipline at the Creative
Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane,
Australia). His main research areas cover collective authorship, online and
peer-to-peer publishing, online communities, and new patterns of production
in the creative industries. Axel is a member of the Fibreculture team and
General Editor of M/C - Media and Culture. His book Gatewatching:
Collaborative Online News Production will be published by Peter Lang in



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