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Internet & user-generated contents By Laurence Allard - Transcription by Alain Monrigal

Laurence Allard is Sociologist and Lecturer (Communication and Information Sciences University of Lille 3 – Department of Arts and Culture).

The law on Internet and creation was voted by the senate on October, 31st 2008. It plans to turn off the Internet in case of a too massive number of downloads, but it brings up more problems than it resolves, especially in terms of public liberty and cultural expression. I’d like to contribute to this debate by presenting the stage of my research on user-generated content. These user-generated contents obviously present a great number of legal problems. They were brought up through the IDATE (The Institute of audiovisual and telecommunications in Europe) report presented in January 2009 at the European Commission. Important traditional companies such as Disney or Google took were there.

Even though they cannot be considered as mass productions, these user generated contents have however their place within a massive context. In 2007, it was estimated that 22 billion user-generated contents were produced by users. Today 4 billion faces are shared on Facebook, 5 billion streams on YouTube, 13 hours of user generated content are sent every minute on YouTube and the statistics on Dailymotion are just as impressive. 10 million skybogs have been listed in France, 6 million accounts on the site Copains d’avant (friends reunited) 4 million profiles on Facebook – not as much as one tends to hear – and 14 million online players for one game, “The World of Warcraft.”

Downloading methods (Napster was created in 1999) are still well in use, but it is gradually being taken over by stream sites which enable one to watch films and to listen to music. A survey carried out by CREDOC (Research centres of habits and customs in France) in 2007 estimated that 11 million people, out of which 60% are between 12 and 24 years old, resort to downloads.
18 million skyblogs represent 40% of the listed blogs in France and 80% of these bloggers are between 15 and 25 years old. The majority of the creators of these user-generated contents are young Digital Natives. They’ve grown up in a digital environment and are better equipped, for example, with mobile phone technology than the average French person (between 71% and 97% of the 12-24 year olds have a mobile phone) and are much more articulate with Internet and mobile phone technology.

In 1999, some students who were music lovers created Napster, a sharing system offering the possibility to download music titles onto other web users’ computers. Napster is a bottom-up and horizontal technological innovation. Its content is provided by the users and meant for the users. In the history of technological innovation, Napster is quite typical of what is called user-turn, the logic of its use primes in the process of technological innovation. Today, this kind of logic rules a major part of the processes of technical invention.

It does not all begin with Web 2.0, the users Web. In my opinion, peer-to-peer (p2p) was the key moment with the breakdown occured, the shifting of cultural mutation we’re actually going through, moving from the old industrial society of marketable distribution to a culture of one-to-one exchange. A whole new issue stems from this. An economical issue arises with the “free of charge” economy – and false “free of charge” because it is obvious that Internet is paid off by companies who use space for advertising, even if this is more subtle than, for example, a television channel like TF1. An aesthetic issue, with the reversibility of roles – we’re not only spectators, we can also upload and become ourselves an Internet broadcaster. We are seeing a rising number of amateurs in creation - a cultural reversibility with the change in relationship in this classical notion of author/spectator (modernity is somewhat disrupted). And finally the peer-to-peer development, the sharing and exchanging of communication via cultural content, is something that is emerging and is related to the sociological problematic.

The fansub or “amateur subtitling”

Following on from Bernard Steigler, we can analyse fansubbing as singularisation technologies for cultural consumption. The fansubber puts his/her signature on the film that he/she subtitled which means the receiver instead of watching anonymous copies, has an interpretation of a film carrying some trace of another receiver and this is what makes them unique, signed, cultural objects. This is no longer part of a digital cloning issue, as tendency would generally have us think of peer-to-peer.

A whole corpus exists on Manga and American TV series fansubbing. The Manga fansub teams literally feature in the credit titles and the subtitling score is signed. In a research that I carried out in 2005 on Manga fansubs, I found that the techniques used by fansubbers are a lot more sophisticated and refined than the codes and routines used by professional subtitlers. The animated manga “Ghost in the Shell” for example, hit the cinema in 2005, and its p2p version is far more comprehensive than the one screened. A large part of this film was built on quotations from famous authors and in the fansub version ; a tremendous amount of research had been done to find the sources of these authors’ works. The subtitles show how the film was perceived. They’re placed on the screen according to the position of the person talking and can be seen anywhere on the screen. Fansubbers also play with the police and/or the explanatory notes. It involves an interpretative and cultural mediation aspect ; “mangafansubbers” provide an extremely precious work of interpretation and cultural mediation.

The subtitling files come in the form of codes that can be synchronised with VLC. In the fansubbed version of “Fahrenheit 9/11” (Michael Moore’s film), we can find, besides the film’s file, another file entitled “Read-me” signed “Mamadou from the 93rd” that comes with a warning : “Please do not delete this file so as to keep a trace of my work because this is what sharing is for. Made by Mamadou”. With these lines coming next : “For you, my friend from Gaul, use this subtitle file and don’t be so cruel next time”. Which allows us to conclude that there are immigrants living in the 93 (Parisian suburb) who do not steal and who master French and English. I swear they do exist ! And this fansubber made the most of it by sending a little personal message to George Bush : “Bush, you’re an idiot !”

This is therefore a signed film, a spoken and interpreted film. I find that the metaphor of the “Man-Books” developed by Truffaut in “Fahrenheit 451”, is appropriate and could be used here as Man-Films. These are perceived films and not copies or clones of films.

All these methods are extremely inventive and creative. It’s difficult to consider them as amateurish since compared to them, professional codes seem, considering these examples, a tad shallow. It would seem that in order to describe these methods we would need to renew the grammar of cultural methods to avoid the risk of using a “professional/amateur” categorization device – a device called “asymmetrical” in linguistics because both categories are opposed, depending on what one or the other has or has not. Cultural methods considered amateurish are implied to be unprofessional ; they are analysed by their shortcomings and not simply for what they are. The horizon of professionalism is not, moreover, the aim of manga or television series fansubs.

Exploration of digital space and its inhabitants

My work consists in describing cultural practices using the appropriate terms, since it is often necessary to find alternative categorizations. The notion of “digital natives” which I talked about at the beginning of my speech comes from an article written by Marc Prensky in 2001. It points out what each one of us may observe in students, for example : digital natives naturally speak the digital language of computers and Internet games. Those who were not born in this digital world are digital immigrants. This notion is still in use, through opposition between the digital natives and digital immigrants, but in my opinion this makes sense.

Historically, Marc Prensky proposed this idea, but it really comes from John Perry Barlow, one of the oldest Internet practitioners. In 1996, John Perry Barlow published his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace in which he developed the theme of digital immigrants : “Our children terrify us since they were born in a world in which we will always remain immigrants and because we are afraid to delegate our parental responsibilities to bureaucrats.” I find the origin of this idea very interesting and it should be taken seriously if we don’t want to be scared of these methods and wallow in debates about “moral panic”, which the Internet and creation law is a sign of. It would be of greater interest to observe the expressivity and creativity of these digital natives. I also think that, from an epistemological point of view, and from a researcher’s point of view, this concept holds heuristic virtues, for in the sociology of cultural practices, it takes into account the variable age bracket, the variable generation, while still taking into account groups of people.

Once these epistemological precautions taken, I began research on user-generated content within the 12-20 year old age bracket – video games particularly. I don’t see this as “narcissistic expression”, but what I call “expressive individualism”, a capacity of expressing their tastes and interests via small expressive multimedia objects. All this expressive work, typical of the contemporary individual is performed through video games created by amateurs, blog pages, Facebook profiles, online remixes on YouTube, and all these small multimedia objects created by the viewers or players expressing their preferences. To the question “Who am I ?”, there is no apparent ready-made answer. There’s a minimum of reflexivity, a minimum of answers to be found on one’s own. We are no longer a blind reproduction of social and personal identities but we are in the process of being “un-traditionalized”. The family, wage system and other great institutions that used to operate as identity suppliers are undergoing a crisis which is a long way off from being solved. Answering this question now comes about through developing one’s subjectivity, knowledge of oneself and the exploration of one’s tastes and interests. And it appears that all the mobile technology and internet – both interplugging more and more - can be defined as a medium for this mode of contemporary individualisation which is the reflection of subjectivation. And I do insist : we’re not talking about narcissism. It is obvious that knowing one’s own self is important and these technologies help explore this question, to experiment with the answers and to test them. These technologies open a field of possibilities. The expressive digital individualism does not at all lead to solipsism and it can be seen as something very enlightening, from this point of view, since there are many commentaries, votes and exchanges involved in these user practices, and since there are many social forms which are being invented and reinvented in this Internet space.

The American anthropologist, Mizuko Ito noted, in “Living and Studying With New Media”, a study ordered by the MacArthur Foundation and put online in December 2008, that the geeking of digital natives is a committed attitude, and is considered as intense and autonomy-providing towards medias. For this anthropologist, all these practices make room for investments, skills and for forms of sociality. These are not dissocialising and fringe activities. They are to be taken seriously for all their exciting qualities and not be seen as some kind of pathology.

User-generated contents are typical of the poetic of mixed media. Let’s use the example of an online court case editor set up by fans of the games Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice and Ace Attorney (about a young lawyer having to resolve crime enigmas). Normally, with a console, when the game is over, it’s over ; but its fans now manage to create new court cases moulded after Ace Attorney so the game can be continued indefinitely. This mixed media logic comes from the possibilities to use elements of an existing video game within other forms and with other media devices. Online and not on the console, amateurs of these games can create their own court cases using the same computer codes as the commercial game. They obviously have to choose pre-established profiles but they can create their own story.

It’s an interesting concept because it means remixing the characters and the stories in a personal way in order to invent a new script. This presumes that the players are using different media and are interacting by navigating between different cultural and media genre – because it’s obvious that the kids playing Ace Attorney are inspired by television series based on court cases and the scientific police. The MacArthur report also underlines the transmedia literacy skills that this kind of practice generates.

But beyond this media remixes recreated by fans of a game, one also finds games created from A to Z by amateurs using RPG Maker – an XP game engine. Users (working in a team, aged in average between 12 and 20) can send their characters via Dailymotion and have them moved around on the cards, backgrounds and maps that they themselves have created. The RPG Maker’s particularity is its graphic editing program used for creating backgrounds and a script language with a customised menu of computer programs allowing for different ways of moving around and personalising characters, cars, battles etc. - programmed on Ruby, a recently developed language program.

These scripts are exchanged on specialized forums used by the 12-20 age bracket of script teddies, sometimes highly skilled. Analysing this corpus, I realised that these children aged around twelve years old who’d never learnt how to program with Ruby, were quite capable of deciphering the small scripts, of copying and pasting them and testing them to see what they’re capable of. They really are in this exploratory mode of experimentation, using the same learning process that is required to learn one’s mother tongue : these kids want to express themselves, they don’t know the program’s grammar, but they can decipher it, copy it and paste it. They manage to express what they want to say, just as a small child makes use of the three words he knows in order to have his wishes understood. The idea of digital natives is very heuristic within the frame of these methods because it uses the same learning process : first we want to speak, then we start to read, find a few words and then we learn how to read French, but we never begin the learning process with French grammar rules in order to express ourselves in French.

What lessons can we learn from these expressive, playful, entertaining practices ?

We realise that these game players are fairly ‘blasé’ (bored). We are astonished and impressed by the musical, graphic and social skills of these twelve-year-old children who run these forums from A to Z and organise their group projects. This leads us to reflect on language apprenticeship and these new media languages. It would seem that lessons are to be learnt in terms of contextualisation and articulation between old and new media. The wide and expressive variety of these children who are both spectators and players, game fans, amateur programmers, prove, in my opinion, that the great switching of cultural roles is made possible by peer-to-peer technology. This is quite typical of the logics that Henry Jenkins defines as the “technical convergence”. We often hear about technical convergence but the cultural convergence is the deepest, meaning that the audience have been given the power to express itself thanks to new technologies. “Nowadays this audience holds”, says Jenkins, “a place at the crossroads of old and new media”, and this audience want to participate in this new cultural.

The problem is that this convergence is taking shape in a climate of conflict and divergence – particularly over problems of authors’ rights – and Jenkins reminds us that the battles and compromises which will come out of this cultural convergence, a little divergent for the time being, will define tomorrow’s public culture.

This texte is under Licence Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Laurence Allard’s website : www.culturesexpressives.fr