Playing on the Edge: Facilitating the Emergence of a Local Digital Grassroots
The importance of the creative industries to national economies is by now well recognised, and governments around the world have instituted programmes at local, regional, and national levels to foster the growth of their creative industries (Hartley, Cunningham). However, such programmes tend to focus mainly on what is already visible: creative industries entrepreneurship from established individual practitioners through small and medium enterprises, to larger corporations. By contrast, the amateur and pro-am (Leadbeater & Miller) level remains under-researched, even though the growing impact of user-led, vernacular creativity is by now well established (Benkler; Burgess; Bruns). Indeed, at least as far as creative industries policy is concerned, it may be appropriate to speak of a ‘missing grassroots’.
In 2006, the Australian Research Council funded a three-year project to develop edgeX – the ‘emergent digital grassroots eXpo’ – in collaboration with the City Council of Ipswich, a regional town southwest of Brisbane. edgeX is conceived of as a Website which allows users from the Ipswich region to blog and upload text, audio and video, as well as engage deeply with one another’s content; it combines functionality found in Web phenomena such as Blogger, Flickr, and YouTube with a strong geographically local focus. In particular, in the process of publishing their content users are able to add geographical tags for the Ipswich region, allowing their peers to browse the site by way of a Frappr-style map in addition to more conventional text-based searches.
edgeX will run regular competitions based around selected topics and media forms which will highlight themes of importance to the Ipswich community. The use of competitions is designed to generate initial site content and drive awareness and uptake of the site. The competitions and exhibition space of the eXpo are also part of an attempt to create pathways into the commercial sphere for some participants. Judging will be carried out by professionals from appropriate commercial areas. Observing such content play, and engaging with participants through a programme of ethnographic action research, researchers will be able to document the current state of the digital creative industries grassroots in Ipswich, and chart the impact of edgeX on its development. An essential part of the project is working with existent offline creative community groups and facilitating opportunities for them to create online presence and exhibitions. The research seeks to understand the impact of such processes on local sense of identity and community and on group communicative ecologies.
A progress report, this paper outlines the initial development process for edgeX and documents the outcomes of the first stage of ethnographic engagement with participants. It provides direct insight into the potentials and pitfalls of a joint Web-based research and development project which works with state-of-the-art Web2.0 technology, details approaches to community engagement in online content creation, documents the methodology for ethnographic action research in this context, provides first results of ethnographic studies of the grassroots creative community in Ipswich, and showcases the first creative outcomes of the edgeX project. Above all, it will identify the potential social and economic benefits for the local community of a playful approach to content creation at the grassroots.
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