By Jonathon Hutchinson and Axel Bruns
Recently, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation made the decision to close one of its audience engagement platforms, ABC Pool. This move could be seen as an attempt to redirect limited economic and human resources to more productive areas of the ABC, or as a blow to grassroots participation in media production at the national broadcaster. Or it could be seen for what it is: the conclusion of an experiment in user participation that needed to evolve into other, more sustainable user-engagement projects at the ABC.
From its earliest conception in 2003 by co-founders Sherre DeLys and John Jacobs, the idea of ABC Pool was to host media that audiences could stream online: something then entirely foreign to the ABC. Couple this with the concept that, in a pre-YouTube era, the content would be generated not by professionally trained ABC producers but by audience members themselves. The mixed emotions – from curiosity to fear to genuine excitement – which this initiative drew especially from ABC staff perfectly foreshadowed the rocky road that the ABC Pool project would take for the following ten years.
Fast forward several years through the development and refining of the concept, and during 2008 ABC Pool emerged as a space that invited users to contribute their writing, photography, audio and video productions. It was the first site at the ABC to use Creative Commons content licences to attribute authorship to the original content creators while enabling the movement of that content across multiple platforms; it was the first project at the ABC to release Aunty’s archival material under Creative Commons licences for remix and reproduction by the public; and it was the first project at the ABC to employ community managers in intermediation roles to facilitate co-creative productions.
Typically, users contributed their media to themed projects that would then be reworked and produced into 53-minute radio features, and broadcast on RN’s 360documentaries. The Street Stories (produced by Claudia Toranto), New Beginnings (produced by Mike Williams) and City Nights (produced by Gretchen Miller) programs are some of the finest examples of feature-length documentaries that were produced in co-creation with ‘Poolies’ and 360documentaries audience members.
ABC Pool was also one of the few areas within the ABC to collaborate with multiple Australian universities and co-create media with the country’s emerging media professionals. My Tribe (produced by Kyla Brettle) is an outstanding example of what innovative, collaborative production methods can create when a simple theme – stories about my tribe – is facilitated by a combination of academia and industry.
Being innovative is part of the public service remit, and being experimental is expected of public service media (PSM). When public service media fail at experimentation, it is hardly catastrophic. However, when they succeed, and thereby provide real innovation to the market, PSM often come under harsh criticism for crowding out the profitability of their commercial counterparts. ABC Pool can be considered a successful PSM innovation in that it has demonstrated the potential of pro-am cultural facilitation for Australian audiences. But it was time to move past the experimental stage.
ABC Pool improved the social and cultural capital of its contributors by drawing in local stories from everyday Australians, connecting those contributors together, and matching their creative skills to the professional expertise of ABC producers. It was a stellar example of publicly funded media innovation that avoided accusations of crowding out by offering opportunities for audience participation that the commercial media still haven’t even attempted to match. And its focus on giving everyday Australian creativity a space to thrive in sat squarely within the ABC’s public service remit.
So what does ABC Pool leave behind?
ABC Pool was an outstanding community and cultural development exercise that explored new ways for the broadcaster to listen to its audience and collaborate with them. Understanding the interests of the users and addressing them within the operative framework and editorial policies of the ABC allowed the broadcaster to gain valuable experience in cultural intermediation – that is, in negotiating the needs of diverse human and non-human actors to successfully produce cultural artefacts. At the ABC, cultural intermediation now takes place through community managers, social media producers, online moderators and many other roles – many of them based on the lessons learnt through Pool.
Such cultural intermediation is at the heart of ABC Open as its 50-odd Open producers throughout regional Australia work with the locals to develop their digital storytelling skills. Again, we see an outstanding example of innovative, co-creative storytelling practices which continue the experiments in user co-creation begun with ABC Pool. Improved production methods used by ABC Open producers generate creative, hyper-local stories that not only inform and educate, but also entertain. This is most obvious through the latest ABC Open / triple j collaboration, Road Trip Relay.
But Pool and then Open are just one part of the user engagement story – what the ABC learnt about cultural intermediation through the Pool experience is now put into practice wherever its presenters, journalists, and producers directly engage with their audiences. It’s no surprise that the ABC has one of the country’s most progressive policies for using social media – the days of custom-made, stand-alone content creation sites like ABC Pool may be over, but the move towards comprehensive audience engagement through social media platforms has only just begun. And whenever you see a Soundcloud post from Triple J, whenever ABC3 uploads a clip to YouTube, whenever Mark Scott himself takes to Twitter, there’s a little bit of ABC Pool in all of that.
“Live Fast, Die Young”, some people say. ABC Pool certainly did – in ten short years, it went from wild experiment to thriving online community and kickstarted plenty of other ABC initiatives along the way. And it even left a goodlooking corpse behind - in another first, the ABC has archived the now defunct project at www.abc.net.au/pool. There’s even an afterlife: the artists engaged in it have moved their creative activities over to a Facebook page and can be found at www.facebook.com/groups/poolgroup/.
Jonathon Hutchinson is a researcher at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, QUT. He is currently located at the University of Sydney where he researches Mobile Internet Policy and lectures in Online Media. He has a background in social media and its production and has worked at the ABC as the Community Manager of ABC Pool.