Miriam Conteh-Morgan

 Seminar on African Cultural Production and the Challenges of Digital Technology

a response to the Seminar’s Provocation

Miriam Conteh-Morgan

Literary Map of Africa

One of Miriam’s projects at the Ohio State Universities Libraries.

New technologies always bring with them hope, apprehension, predictions and unintended consequences. They reshape old practices, open up new possibilities and compel us to revise our mental maps. Like others before them, new information and communication technologies and the tools built on them have been characterized as “disruptive,” “r/evolutionary,” “dystopian,” or “democratizing.”

One of the major shifts enabled by ICTs is in the rise of amateur production — the sidestepping, and sometimes subverting, of gatekeeping and intermediating structures — and the resulting blurring of the lines between credentialed expert and amateur, and consumer and producer of content. These amateur efforts are upending received norms and giving traditional commercial ventures and expert services stiff competition. A case in point is that of Wikipedia which, when compared to the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica, was found to measure favorably in the accuracy of its content. This was a major coup for crowdsourcing and somewhat conferred higher status to the neologism.

So what is it that motivates amateur producers? They donate their time for free, (co-)create content and give it away for free, perhaps for the fun of being part of a larger effort or simply the joy of sharing their ‘cognitive surplus’1 so others do not have to invent a new wheel every time. This turn toward free, collaborative effort in building content in which high premium is not placed on individual contribution nor is there an expectation of financial gain, the turn toward an open sharing and remix/generative culture that encourages derivative works, have called into question fundamental assumptions about reward systems that privilege individual effort and contribution. This is not to say, however, that there are no content creators who participate in this open space without profit motives; they tend to be professionals, or aspiring ones.  But in general, in this new and open community, “money ruins everything” 2 and everyone is encouraged to share the fruits of their labor in a communal way that harks back to pre-industrial times.

This is classic “commons” thinking, and it is hardly surprising that the metaphor has found its way into expert knowledge-producing circles. Commons thinking is expressed in open access (OA) initiatives on university campuses through institutional repositories, and in the publishing world via open access journals or free access to proprietary content. Examples of the latter include JSTOR and Indiana University Press granting free journal access to certain African institutions. A new scholarly communication model is born!

So far, close to 40 African universities have embraced open access and developed repositories to share the research output of their academics.3 Most are archives of already published articles, for which individual authors would have had to renegotiate the agreements signed with publishers for rights to have the works included in freely available resources, and graduate students theses and dissertations. As Cornwell and Suber (2008) state: “what makes [OA] possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.” 4

With regard to OA journals, only eight sub-Saharan countries are registered in the Directory of Open Access Journals and they account for eighty titles, with about 50% from South Africa and 30% from Nigeria.5 While OA publishing vastly increases the visibility and impact of scholars and their institutions, Africa still lags behind in the uptake, even though it is almost certain that researchers there make heavy use of what is easily available through free search engines.

There is a wide array of research materials available from many other free outlets such as personal web sites, blogs and social media platforms where scholars form self-organized communities. In spaces such as Academia.edu, academics share their content and can form personal networks with others with related interests; others share presentation slides on Slideshare6 or unpublished papers on Scribd;7 academic institutions have YouTube channels for sharing videos of lectures, talks and lab demos; others post podcasts and exhibits on their web sites. Elite universities such as MIT have opened up some classes to the world for free (and there is an army of folks who translate them into different languages), and Google Books is digitizing millions of books. Every profession it seems is on the OA bandwagon now and the overabundance of information from multiple streams has spawned an even bigger issue: filtering and curating information, and the imperative for some sort of information and media diet.

So, with a raft of platforms offering abundant and free content, does free access always go with free use? How is the free-sharing culture impacting claims to ownership? The case between AFP and a photographer whose Twitter picture about the 2010 Haiti earthquake was appropriated by the French media agency brought this issue in stark relief.

Many people posting creative works to, for example, sharing sites such as Flickr may not be aware that they can put restrictions on how their content can be used. Many do not seem to be aware that they can apply Creative Commons licenses to their work, nor do they bother with the fine print on the hosting sites.  But do they even care to know? For many content creators, simple attribution, just as a courtesy, may be enough for them. For others it is about search engine optimization, as in the case of the food blogger who felt “pinning” the entire text of her recipes would potentially drive traffic away from her site to Pinterest’s. This certainly gives a new twist to the traditional proprietary model.

Sharing photos and other creative works is one thing, but what about opinions and ideas? People knowingly share these on social media sites and by default contribute to global conversations on varied topics. So when, for example, the Library of Congress (LC) announced its intention to archive tweets, should they have asked individual Twitter users for their permission and could they possibly have been able to reach everyone?  Twitter’s Terms of Service covers that ground, so users have already given tacit consent for this. But the move did not raise alarm bells because tweeters knew LC was not doing this for commercial gain, nor was there public outcry over search engines’ use of user-generated content because everyone benefits from the content.  If the motive behind the dissemination and use of user-generated content is perceived as for the general good, then there does not seem to be a problem.

The story seems to be changing as sites and services begin to translate to non-marketing financial gain for the owners. There are rumblings from commentators that the “serfs” — the fruit of whose labor (the content they generate) had added value to a site — are being shortchanged because they have not been compensated for the content they produced.  Recent examples have been the acquisition of The Huffington Post by AOL, and about Facebook going public. True, bloggers who contributed content to The Huffington Post may not have gained financially for their work, but could they not have enhanced their reputations by contributing ideas and opinions to an influential site? What seems to suggest itself is that it is those who seek to profit monetarily from their content, and those whose professions have been profoundly transformed by the ready availability of free content, who are crying foul over these commercial transactions and perceived infringements. I want to believe that the financially unmotivated will continue to generate content until, perhaps, crossovers for financial gain become more frequent. It will be interesting to watch if this trend gains traction.

Like the commons, the metaphor used to describe this emerging development, “digital feudalism,” also has echoes of the pre-industrial world. There is some merit to the term. Digital feudalism is just another manifestation of the old unidirectional order where power was concentrated in the hands of a few; where authors (or workers) produced knowledge and signed much of their rights away to (especially journal) publishers who in turn made money off their work through sales and repackaging deals, and where the public was seen only as consumers of information. But the metaphor breaks down when one starts to think that now in the digital world, serfs do hold power. They can vote with their feet and undercut the value of the site they helped populate with their content. But more importantly, they too have access to the overlords’ technologies of production and dissemination and can create new and competitive services. In the dispensation, the “prosuming” (i.e. producing/consuming) public has forced the hand of proprietary producers and created alternative — and free — choices for everyone; they have pressured publishing giants into rethinking their business models, sometimes by threatening to withhold their intellectual output and services. A good example is the global debacle with Elsevier over its support of the SOPA and PIPA bills which scholars feel are so broad that they threaten online community platforms that have made sharing so central to research and scholarship.8 The coordinated pushback against these bills was unanticipated by their supporters. In today’s terminology, this can be viewed as the revolt of the 1%. It is also a clear indication that free content sharing has become truly embedded in social, cultural and professional cultures and will continue to shape the production and dissemination of content.  This open culture and the ensuing creativity it has unleashed is too pervasive to be reversed so it can only be tweaked and primed as we move into the future.

By reconfiguring their roles to include that of producer, the people formerly known as consumers and audience have created a quilt, albeit sloppily, of varied content representing multiple perspectives in multiple languages and formats that flow from disparate geographies, a quilt whose patches are stitched together by new technologies and a shift in consciousness toward openness, agency, inclusion and empowerment. Africa is part of these shifts, and it can only be to its advantage. By creating and sharing content through the global information channels, Africa is telling its own stories and producing counterpoints to dominant narratives about it.


  1. See Daniel Pink. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2009; Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin, 2010.
  2. John Quiggin and Dan Hunter. “Money Ruins Everything.” Hastings Communication and

Entertainment Law Journal 30 (2008): 203-54

  1. Directory of Open Access Repositories, http://www.opendoar.org/countrylist.php, 25 Feb., 2012
  2. R. Cornwell and Peter Suber. “Perspective on Open-Access Publishing: An Interview with Peter Suber.” Innovate: Journal of Online Education 4.4 (Apr-May) 2008
  3. Directory of Open Access Journals, 27 Feb, 2012
  4. Slideshare, www.slideshare.net
  5. Scribd, www.scribd.com
  6. For more discussion, see The Cost of Knowledge, http://thecostofknowledge.com/.

This paper is circulated by the author under the terms of a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license. For details, see: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en_US

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