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Earlier this year at the StoryWorld Conference, Andrea Phillips approached me and proclaimed, “You know, I really, really, really hate the term, ‘value co-creation!'” It was not the first time a female had approached me unsolicited and delivered a scathing remark, but it was the first time anyone had directly attacked this phrase.
I know Andrea and her work. I like her, and I respect her creative instincts. Hearing her trash a term I’ve embraced and promoted for two years was a bit of a shock. Bruised my ego a bit, even. Why did she hate the phrase so much?
I replied, “Well, you know, I’m really, really, really going to keep using it, but I’d love to know why you think I shouldn’t!”
We had a quick chat about our different opinions on the term but ran out of time. Then I suggested we take the conversation to the streets (and by streets, I mean the Interwebz), as I thought it would actually be a constructive experience worth sharing with others. Might even encourage other creatives to weigh in.
As I told Andrea, I’m working with the best models and vocabulary I can, and I’ve spent a long time searching for the just the right phrase and just the right words (as proof of how far I’ve come I submit the following abandoned phrases: “renewable entertainment properties,” “collaborative property model,” and “evergreen entertainment models”). I don’t claim “value co-creation” is ideal in every case, but it’s the best I’ve come across so far.
Andrea was kind enough to take up my challenge, and she wrote an eloquent, thoughtful post about her objections to the term.
I still disagree with her conclusions, but she raises valid points about the issues surrounding frameworks where fans, UGC, and money mix. In fact, I acknowledged this thorny situation in a post earlier this year at Shared Story Worlds.
So where, precisely, do we disagree?
Andrea’s post takes aim at two things. The first is the phrase, “value co-creation,” and the second is the question of whether you can allow fans to profit from their UGC without creating an unpleasant community culture.
First, the phrase.
Andrea says value co-creation “glosses over what it actually is, and worse…misleadingly implies an equitable balance of power where there is none.” She suggests either of the following as better alternatives:
- Fan-curated profit-sharing
- Creator-curated audience collaboration
I disagree that the first option accurately describes what I mean when I say “value co-creation,” as it implies fans are doing all of the curation, which is not the case. Furthermore, it explicitly includes the phrase profit-sharing, which is not a requirement for all value co-creation scenarios (some do not involve money changing hands or are non-commercial – see my post here).
I reject the second one because it’s clunky and not much more accurate. As I read it, “creator-curated audience collaboration” doesn’t explain the role the creative has, and it doesn’t differentiate whether the audience is collaborating together or with the creative. Besides, others have been using value co-creation for a while (C.K. Prahalad wrote an entire book on the topic), and it nicely conveys what I mean when I use the term. I could have called it “super awesome audience play time” and defined it how I preferred, but I thought it best to build on an existing term.
As for value co-creation implying an equitable balance of power, well, that’s Andrea’s opinion, not an objective fact.
“Co” doesn’t mean or imply “equal.” Together, jointly, mutually – yes. But it doesn’t imply equal (if it did, why would we need the word “coequal?”).
I still don’t see a compelling case to abandon “value co-creation,” though Andrea is making me aware that I maybe haven’t done a good job of defining the phrase.
Fans are perfectly capable and willing of co-creating value. They already have the power to do so, and they exercise it every day. Each fanfic story, each fan art piece on Deviantart.com, each mashup, video, etc. based on someone else’s IP *is* value co-creation, whether the intellectual property (IP) owners acknowledges it or not.
Said actions do not, however, translate to commercial rights (ever had your YouTube-hosted video remix taken down via a DMCA notice?).
I see the concept of value co-creation as recognition that fans can create things of value based on others’ IP. The shared story world model I advocate builds a bridge between fans and IP owners, with value co-creation being a cornerstone of that model. It acknowledges the critical role fans play in commercial entertainment, and it offers a non-traditional way for fans to contribute to commercial entertainment (by recognizing certain UGC as official/canonical work and/or monetarily compensating fans for their UGC).
But we can quibble over terminology ad nauseum. Vocabulary alone is rarely the final stumbling block, and it isn’t Andrea’s underlying contention.
Andrea’s post reveals her true concern to be this: introducing a framework where fans can make money from someone else’s commercial IP and where the IP owner retains full commercial control over the IP will automatically result in an “unpleasant community culture” that becomes “toxic to the fan culture overall” (the implication being this kind of culture will have a fatal effect on the success of the IP).
Andrea then offers two solutions to avoid this situation: (1) never invite fans to contribute, but if you do select UGC for inclusion, do not pay fans for it; and (2) remove the IP owner as commercial gatekeeper (essentially stripping the owner of all rights to limit others’ commercial exploitation of the IP).
I agree with Andrea that these two options would limit what she calls “a community of freelancers all doing spec work in direct competition with one another.”
I disagree with her view that value co-creation models where fans are paid for their work (i.e., commercial shared story worlds) automatically create a toxic community which will necessarily lead to the failure of the IP.
Could it happen? Sure, just ask the people behind Fanlib’s spectacular demise. It’s sooooo easy to screw over your fanbase and reap the rewards of eternal derision and mistrust. So easy.
But not inevitable.
The kind of train wreck Andrea warns about isn’t a foregone conclusion due to some inherent flaw in the value co-creation concept for commercial shared story worlds. I just haven’t seen that to be the case. In fact, with the exception of Fanlib, I haven’t seen a fractured fan community destroy a value co-creation entertainment IP (and Fanlib’s failure is arguably a result of their disrespectful and tasteless handling of their target audience).
Andrea applauds the co-creation concept but hates the idea of seeing it fail due to terminology. I fear failure, too, though I suspect it takes a very different form.
Failure of value co-creation in a shared story world model is more likely to be a result of poor execution (mediocre storytelling, bad world design, ineffective marketing, missing legal components, etc.) or inappropriate community outreach. To paraphrase Whitman, “fandom is large, fandom contains multitudes.” Creatives should, indeed, tread lightly when dealing with large multitudes.
I guess my glasses are a bit rosier than Andrea’s when it comes to value co-creation and shared story worlds. I see shared story worlds surfacing in increasing frequency over the next few years, and no single phrase or injection of money into the mix is going to stem this tide. My optimism is buoyed by new projects like Angry Robot Books’ Worldbuilder project, where fans will be compensated for their creations.
How did the fans react to this news? Well, if the comments are any indication, the fans find the concept anything but toxic.
And notice how Angry Robot doesn’t mention shared story worlds or value co-creation? They don’t label it at all, actually. Just like when a new ARG is launched, it’s not plastered or marketed as an ARG? The people playing in these spaces don’t care that the rabbit hole they fell in to is an ARG any more than fans care about whether their favorite transmedia property is explicitly marketed as a “transmedia” experience. They just want to have fun.
We can have the internal debate over value co-creation just like we’ve been having for transmedia (and hasn’t that turned out wonderfully?), but our efforts really ought to be channeled towards creating cool, fun experiences for audiences. I doubt Andrea would disagree on that point.
So, yeah, I’m damn optimistic on value co-creation and shared story worlds. Color this typing monkey very optimistic, indeed.