The citizen-user of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) has different characteristics from those of mass media consumers: the reader, the listener, the TV viewer, etc. The possibility of communicating, producing, and exchanging using ICTs invites us to define the people who use them, underlining the active, symmetric, and participative aspects of their techno-commitment. A definition of citizen-users appears particularly pertinent in the world of new technologies in order to distinguish them from the mercantile characterization of the consumer and the passive receiver of mass media. Referring to the citizen-user rather than just the user also helps to highlight the fact that the relationship of people with technical tools cannot be simply reduced to the exploitation of the functions provided by their designers, for the appropriation of technologies is a fully-fledged social, cultural, economic, and political phenomenon. Indeed, now that the use of ICTs is deeply rooted in the social life of our citizens, it would be over-simplistic to consider that their impact is just a question of cost, functionalities or simplicity of interfaces. This is why the notion of appropriation by usage plays such an important role in the analysis of the transformations that new communication tools are bringing to our societies.

In this article, we propose to take a new look at the origin of this notion of citizen-user, paying particular attention to an essential characteristic of ICT usage: innovation derives as much from the practices of citizen-users as from public and industrial research. Indeed, some of the landmark changes in ¬communication ¬behaviour - open-source software, collaborative publication tools, Wi-Fi, P2P, blogs, and others - were not initiated “top-down” (i.e. industrial development exploiting the latest work of research laboratories) but tended to develop “bottom-up”, the fruit of a cooperative process involving networks of volunteer citizen-users. We shall define innovation by usage (also referred to as bottom-up or horizontal innovations) as technological or service innovations derived from the practices of citizen-users and spread via the interchange networks adopted by these users. Horizontal innovation, which develops independently of vertical innovation cycles, has become an essential (though non-exclusive) feature of Information Society development.

Usages and citizen-users of media and ICTs

The notion of “use” appeared in the sociology of media with the functionalistic “Uses and gratifications” theory in American research work of the 1960s and 1970s [1]. The proponents of this approach were attempting to distance themselves from the then dominant paradigm that the action of the media could be analyzed exclusively in terms of their effect. Whether they concluded that there exist “strong effects” (e.g. the Frankfurt School: Adorno, Horkheimer) or “limited effects” (Lazarsfeld), the first studies of communication tools all raised the same question: what effect do the media have on the people exposed to them? The “Uses and gratifications” trend sought to move away from this mediacentrism by transforming the sense of the question asked by founding communication researchers. They no longer asked how the media influence people, but what people do with the media. This change of paradigm opened research to a different perception of the relationship between citizen-users and communication tools. In a functionalistic perspective, the “Uses and gratifications” specialists consider that users do not receive messages passively but actively employ the media to acquire specific satisfactions responding to their psychological needs. Although this school has been criticized for often reducing the attraction of technologies to psychological compensation mechanisms, this work nonetheless opened the way to an analysis of usage free of unilateral determinism of technology on society.

In France, the collective work of Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) (1980) [2], played a founding role in the study of usage. Historian and psychoanalyst, Michel de Certeau recognized right away the ability of individuals to assume their autonomy and freedom. His approach consists in looking at the mechanisms by which individuals become subjects by displaying forms of autonomy in a very large variety of practices: daily habits, consumption, reading, lifestyle. With his fine descriptions of citizen-users’ “art of doing” and “ways of doing”, Michel de Certeau shows how citizen-user practices mark a deviation, a certain refusal of the systems that seeks to impose technocracies and cultural industries on them. Ordinary people, he affirms, display creative capacities - using tricks, makeshift methods, misappropriation, etc. - unimagined by industrial companies. De Certeau proposes to unite all these schemes under the term “poaching”. Users are capable of inventing their own ways of dealing with the world imposed by cultural industries and communication technologies. By setting in motion a subtle game of tactics (ensuring control by time) opposing the strategies of the major technocracies (controlling space), citizen-users in fact display a form of moral and political resistance.

The work of Michel de Certeau has strongly influenced French usage studies and the British cultural studies movement. It has helped to enlarge our viewpoint beyond the individual relationship of people with technological interfaces. It has introduced learning time and mechanisms as key factors in the appropriation and stabilisation of usages in habits or routines. Finally, it has helped to highlight the fundamentally unpredictable character of citizen-users who constantly transform and reroute services and technologies proposed to them, as brilliantly illustrated by the success of the text messages that the telecoms industry failed to anticipate.
The notion of appropriation goes back to the initial preoccupations of core researchers in the first studies of ICT usages. Close to Marxist-inspired ideas on social autonomy, proponents of the notion of appropriation, in Quebec and France in the 1970s and 80s, wished to develop a socio-political theory of usages paying ¬attention to the conflictual aspects of technology appropriation in the production and reproduction context of the capitalist economy. The notion of appropriation enables us to describe the process of progressive interiorisation of technical and cognitive skills employed by individuals and groups using these technologies on a daily basis. Serge Proulx suggests that four conditions are required for social appropriation of a technology:

1) Technical and cognitive control of the artefact; 2) Substantial integration of the technical object in the daily practices of the citizen-user; 3) Repeated use of this technology opening creative possibilities (i.e. actions that add new facets to social practices); 4) Finally, at a more collective level, social appropriation supposes that citizen-users are adequately represented in the public political establishment and are taken into account in the innovation process, including industrial production and commercial distribution.” [3]

This succinct reconstitution of the history of the notion of usage in the ICT field illustrates that the ultimate aim is a reversal of perspective in which people are given the power to act, to adapt, and to create even when faced with technologies that prescribe ways of doing and acting.

Creative usage

The history of recent successful technologies confirms that citizen-users are often essential players in the innovation process. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to isolate innovation processes taking place within research centres from the social dynamics that associate very closely citizen-users, technologists, innovators, and militants whom together constitute a confortable environment for ICT development. For example, the conception of peer-to-peer (P2P) systems originated with students who enjoyed tinkering with computers and were passionate about music; today these systems encourage massive and popular adoption of broadband Internet. American activists in voluntary organizations sought to exploit an unused frequency on the radio spectrum to develop the 802.11 standard, now known as “Wi-Fi”, driving the emergence of wireless broadband communication on which the telecoms industry was dragging its feet. Computer scientists ¬fascinated by general knowledge initiated the collaborative design of a universal, multilingual encyclopaedia called ¬Wikipedia, which now rivals traditional printed encyclopaedias. Activists in international civil society developed the most original communication and multilingual coordination tools for interchange around the planet. Although very different, these many innovations all have aspects revealing a logic of innovation by usage: they originate with citizen-users then spread through their networks, organizing cooperation between many users.

Although this process of innovation by usages is not restricted to IT and telecoms world, the development of the open, cooperative production model of open-source software remains the most emblematic and the most efficient form of bottom-up innovation. The wide availability of communication tools and the digitization of information provide a context particularly in favor of distribution of these innovations which escape, at least partially, the market, when the innovators consider it necessary to keep the innovation open and ensure free access to it. Today we are seeing the organization and spirit of open-source software expanding and spreading to other sectors. First, to the production and sharing of content: alternative media in open-publishing mode (Indymedia, OurMedia), open encyclopaedias (Wikipedia), sharing of scientific knowledge (the Telabotanica and Gutenberg projects, the Public Library of Science scientific publication system). By making communication infrastructures a shared resource, following the example of certain defenders of Wi-Fi, the ingenuity of users is now turning to ways of developing connectivity sharing services. This proliferation tends to fragment the entire ICT sector, which is bound to have major impact on the industrial models of big players.

The notion of innovation through usage is inspired by an intuition on “horizontal innovation” developed in the work of Eric Von Hippel [4], Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He presents the citizen-user not simply as “crafty” or a “poacher”, as in the cases of unexpected misappropriation of technical tools made popular by the sociology of usages, but as someone who goes a little further than this, participating directly in the tailoring of innovations from technologies and services at his disposal. Among all the citizen-¬users Eric von Hippel isolated a sub-group, the ¬user/¬self-manufacturers, and concluded from surveys made in a wide variety of industrial segments that, depending on the market, 10% to 40% of users reshape or adapt the products they buy [5]. This implies that horizontal innovation players are not necessarily those “advanced”, “intensive” or “high-tech” citizen-users who serve as a “reference group” in marketing studies intended to identify the distribution dynamics of new products and services. Neither their economic situation, nor their technical level, nomadism or professional status incite, more specifically than other variables, these lead users to become producers of innovations or new services. In fact, what characterizes a vanguard group of citizen-users involved in horizontal innovation is above all its pragmatic concern for finding solutions adapted its needs, alone and with its own resources - a strategy that the players in a favourable economic position rarely do, often because they lack time, not money. Bottom¬-up innovation therefore starts from usage and it gains its momentum through the multitude of explorations undertaken by some citizen-users by means of ingenious low-tech adaptations and modifications or assemblies of existing products.

Adapting products and services to one’s own needs by transforming them is by no means exclusive to the world of open-source software and new technologies. This manner of generating innovations through the inventive practices of users is in fact very common in many mass market segments where it has even been taken into account in advanced marketing methods. Von Hippel takes as an example the world of surfboarding which was revolutionised by an innovation that appeared in Hawaii in 1978: a group of young surfers improvised straps to hold their feet on their boards when jumping the waves. This small technical adaptation requiring a bit of webbing and glue made it possible to attempt complex acrobatic figures formerly restricted to a super-trained surfing elite. The formerly elitist and restrictive surfing scene was swept aside and a succession of innovations made by surfing devotees to keep the board in contact with the rider opened up this sport to a new population. While industry rapidly seized some of these micro-innovations brought to the surfboard, this was only after observing on the beaches and in small workshops nearby the many makeshift adaptations that surfers share with passion.

Trusting the wisdom of users helps to pinpoint functionalities that meet directly to their needs. Advanced citizen-users are always the best interpreters of their needs and the expression of these needs is sometimes so strongly incorporated in specific usage contexts that it is difficult and costly for industry to understand and extract them from their environment. For this reason, when a need “adheres” strongly to the usage context, it may be easier for citizen-users to develop solutions themselves. Citizen-users more easily spot new functions matching their needs, formerly poorly identified or not at all. Indeed, the factors that drive citizen-users and industry to innovate are different: the citizen-user is looking for the best functionality to meet his need, an industrial company will try to exploit its generic processes to build a solution in order to reduce the cost transferring customers’ specific need. The result is that because they have asymmetrical information, citizen-users and industry tend to develop two different types of innovation. A study of developments in scientific instruments by citizen-users and by industry reveals that users tend to develop instruments that do new things, whereas industrial companies develop new instruments doing the same things as before, but in a simpler or more reliable manner [6]. When both the need and the solution are within the scope of the user’s experience, this can create a user’s low-cost innovation niche, a veritable small personal laboratory generally developing very original ideas.

Open and share

Whereas in the industrial innovation model new ideas are protected by intellectual property clauses and are destined for a segment of individualised and atomised customers, in the innovation by usage model new developments are open and circulate in a reticular manner between citizen-users. There exists a close relationship between the act of revealing an innovation and the fact of sharing its development with other citizen-users. Von Hippel explains that when an innovation is carried by citizen-users, they all are interested in revealing it to others rather than keeping it secret or trying to protect it through intellectual property clauses. Many arguments support this hypothesis. The first are contingent: it is indeed very difficult for private citizens to find sufficient resources to service a patent and licence an innovation. And, anyway, these legal protections are often easy to circumvent, especially since new ideas by users often emerge in several places at the same time. The second argument is more fundamental: many precedents, to which the adventure of open-source software has given a new scale, confirm that open innovation improves the collective support it receives and enhances its ability to integrate improvements brought by others by means of successive adjustments. Innovation is achieved through a process of learning through usage, which means that attempting to protect and control its utilisations in fact lowers its quality and its chances of attracting the attention of industry. This “law” of open cooperative efficiency has been promoted notably by the proponents of open-source software, waving Eric Raymond’s famous banner: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. “More users find more bugs because adding more users adds more ways of stressing the program... Each [user] approaches the task of bug characterization with a slightly different perceptual set and analytical toolkit, a different angle on the problem. So adding more beta-testers... increases the probability that someone’s toolkit will be matched to the problem in such a way that the bug is shallow to that person” [7].

The heterogeneity of the abilities and needs of intensive citizen-users explains why innovation can benefit from the diversity of points of view and their solutions to find a stable and generalisable form. While industrial innovation attempts to produce a generic solution from specific skills and well-controlled fabrication processes, targeting an average or standard expression of the need, innovation by usage, on the other hand produces innovations by converging the specificities of users’ solutions. Instead of top-down development of generic solutions satisfying average needs, innovation by usage proposes a different form of genericity constructed by progressive adjustment of a multitude of solutions found by users; it encourages integration of differences rather than a reduction towards average needs. “When users’ needs are heterogeneous and when information drawn on by innovators is sticky, it is likely that product-development activities will be widely distributed among users, rather than produced by just a few prolific user-innovators.” [8] Clearly this process is more “creative” in that it allows more easily the integration of unorthodox ideas and points of view in the design stage.

The three circles of innovation by usage<br />

In the process of innovation by usage we can identify three circles of different players: the core innovators, the nebula of contributors, and the circle of reformers. Most observed processes operate according to this concentric circle model (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The three circles of innovation by usage

1. A limited core of innovators

Innovation-by-usage initiatives originate with a very small group of people, like the Minirézo collective behind the SPIP publication system, or even often with a single person who will usually strive to maintain tight control of the outcome of the initiative, as in the case of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Despite the ideas often spread by defenders of cooperation-based innovations, the “technical” development of these innovations is in fact rarely a broad collective production. It often hides a rather small group of founders and a true participative hierarchy involved with the innovation - even if this hierarchy is sometimes masked in order not to appear in contradiction with the egalitarian discourse of the proponents of this approach.

First initiatives are often very closely associated with the resolution of a practical problem encountered personally by the initiator. One good example is Col Needham who, in 1989, decided he was fed up with forgetting the titles of films he had enjoyed. So he created a personal database on a Usenet newsgroup to record the film titles, directors, and actors. Ten years on, the Internet Movie Database, more widely known under its acronym IMDb, has become one of the “10 essential sites” according to Time Magazine: 25 million people connect to it every month to consult a database of 6.3 million films built up cooperatively by its users. In their personal or leisure activities innovators exploit the technical skills they have acquired and developed at university or through their job. This “learning through usage” effect acquires great importance in cooperative innovations since it endows them with an essential “stickiness” in the context of the collective usage that originated them. Moreover, this makes it difficult to transfer them into the confined framework of laboratory research.

2. The strength of the nebula of contributors

A second feature common to such innovations relates to the fact that these personal projects gain strength and consistency through the mobilisation of social networks of close contacts who not only encourage the initiator but contribute to the project too. For example, Col Needham’s friends added their favourite films to the database he had just created; Jimmy Wales’ contacts rapidly contributed the first articles to his Wikipedia; the reputation of SPIP and its first uses followed, during its initial phase, its distribution via networks of friends and militant proponents; and so on. Innovators therefore find their projects being boosted by the force of the commitment they inspire. Contributors are encouraged by the reputation of the innovation spreading across the network. User innovations are rarely supported by means of commercial distribution techniques or large-scale promotional strategies. The nebula of contributors rallying round the core of innovators is less involved in the technical aspects than in simply interchanging content. There is a separation of roles between technical participants and content contributors. Indeed, this difference in the nature of the commitment proves to be essential in the method of distribution of cooperative innovations and often determines their ultimate fate.

3. The ecosystem of reformers

In the interactions between the core of innovators and the nebula of contributors, a second circle of reformers - more committed - forms progressively. These people become involved in the technical project, helping to strengthen and improve it. This second circle notably appears when scale effects oblige a modification and an intervention on the initial technical design in order to guarantee its durability by producing a set of variants, add-ons, and specialized functionalities that ¬progressively reinforce the invention: for example, RSS feeds are used to enhance blogs, the Wikimedia foundation capitalizes on cooperative projects for Wikipedia, and so on. In fact, horizontal innovations form ecosystems which sometimes operate according to a kind of “market competition” logic which sanctions the inventions by usage but which also enables each of them to benefit from the externality effects acting between them. Queries on IMDb, for example, have acquired a new dimension with the development of P2P software to which they bring a high-performance, universal searching system. In short, the “reformers” help to make innovations more generic by extracting them from their local context and by spreading and standardizing them.

Tensions and debates around innovation by usage

When the number of contributors multiplies, this change of scale raises a number of challenges for horizontal innovations.

1. The container/content dialectic

The extension of the voluntary development systems in the ICT world depends closely on the way in which investments made in “containers” (the technical innovation) relate to those made in content (production exchanged by the nebula of contributors). Although these two driving forces often function in parallel, they represent two different components of cooperative projects. The success of bottom-up innovations often depends on the tolerance shown by their initiators as regards the diversity of the forms of commitment to their project. The originators of open-source software, a veritable technical aristocracy, had to agree - not without difficulty - to open their software to uninitiated users by simplifying the interfaces of their tools as, for example, with Open Office and Firefox. Contributory sites also tolerate the same diversity of participations, ranging from IT development to simple correction of spelling mistakes. Indeed, this diversity is often seen as beneficial: the people animating Wikipedia attempt to enlarge the social environment of their contributors so that articles about Middle Ages, for example, are not written exclusively by computer buffs keen on gothic culture but also by history teachers, cathedral adepts, and ¬readers of Chrétien de Troyes. Cooperative innovation is therefore marked by its ability to detach itself from the technical culture in which it is born, yet without abandoning the principles of open, collaborative behaviour it has borrowed from the IT world.

2. Politicization and depoliticization

In the course of their development, innovations by usage often face a stage of redefinition of the initial project. The initial investments in the project often reflect clear militant objectives, notably when the proponents appropriate technologies as a means of resisting the mercantile world and conceiving alternatives. However, by accepting new forms of contribution and tolerating a broad diversity of commitments, cooperative projects sometimes become colonized by usages closer to consumption of free services than to a commitment to “citizen IT”. Examples include downloading using free P2P tools and “opportunistic” access to Wi-Fi networks. The change of scale appears to dilute the initial vocation of the innovations and generates a series of dilemmas for the core supporters, as we saw with the first Wi-Fi communities. Such normative tensions affect most innovations by usage. On a more positive note, they do stimulate innovative abilities by encouraging numerous counter-initiatives and correction effects. Despite the fact that this opposition between “pure” and “impure” can be a mortal danger for cooperation-based innovations, it appears that the establishment of pluralistic governance, tolerant of the diversity of peoples’ reasons for becoming involved, is often indispensable for their success.

3. The risks of break-up

Innovation by usage is constantly threatened by a break-up of the initial collaborative structure. The first cracks appear when the founding core expands to accept newcomers, a critical moment in the development of all cooperative projects when tasks must be shared between the old and new members and the founders try to maintain their symbolic authority over the collective steering of the process. The greatest risk of break-up comes with the proliferation of complementary innovations made by the circle of reformers which bring new specifications to the original innovation, but sometimes cause its splitting into parallel project. This break-up tendency appears to be a permanent feature of the world of bottom-up innovations: multiplication of open-source licences, distributions of Linux, content management (CMS) tools, the development of AGORA on the basis of SPIP, etc. These centrifugal effects are a consequence of the necessary diversification of services that lead innovation by usage to seek adjustments to optimally satisfy a multitude of needs. Moreover they also oblige the supporters of innovations to maintain interoperability standards between the services they generate.

4. Fitting in with the market world

The development of the technical infrastructure of voluntary projects rapidly becomes critical when the nebula of contributors expands. It becomes necessary to find financing to cover project technical management (hosting, bandwidth, etc.), and sometimes the salaries of website animators, in order to move away from voluntary systems which become burdensome as the volume of contributions grows, as experienced by IMDb. Innovation by usage projects must then turn to institutional donators (universities, government support programmes) and private ones (foundations, sponsors, private contributions). They also develop more complex relationships with the market world, while restricting it to the periphery of the project with adapted services and personalization of the innovation, as in the case of the services companies exploiting open-source software (RedHat) and the system of remuneration by paid services through which they generate positive externalities, as illustrated by the recent partnership between Google and Wikipedia.

5. Recognition of citizen-user creativity

As Eric Von Hippel has underlined, innovation by citizen-users constitutes a positive externality for the market world and a factor driving social well-being in general. It helps to identify needs and discover low-cost usages; it constitutes a space for exploring new social needs in a way that is probably more efficient than the creativity groups that upstream marketers attempt to develop, asking dubious guinea-pig consumers to envision their usages of future technologies. Innovation by usage encourages creativity and brings socially useful services covering specific needs that industry does not know how to (or wish to) satisfy. For these reasons, the creativity and inventiveness of citizen-users in the ICT field deserves greater recognition. We need to improve the conditions that make this possible, while ¬preserving the flexibility, openness and non-appropriability of Internet technologies. Innovation by usage, which has greatly contributed to the dynamism of the Internet, is today threatened by a reinforcement of a “property” logic, as evidenced by a hardening of intellectual property rules and the rigidity of certain closed technical solutions (DRM). So far citizen-users have always managed to find ways of circumventing technological constraints and commercial dictates. It would be a pity if this breeding ground for Internet innovation and creativity was to disappear.

8 May 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

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