Why I Hate "Value Co-Creation"

This essay is a criticism of the phrase "value co-creation," and comes out of a discussion with Scott Walker. When you're done, be sure to read his counterpoint over on his blog. We may well wind up agreeing to disagree, but we're hoping to get an interesting conversation going. 


 

There are a few words and phrases in the lexicon for the business of storytelling that give me hives every time I see them. "Branding" is one of them. So is "innovation." But the one that makes me wince the most is "value co-creation."

In theory, co-creation is a beautiful thing, and in theory, I love it to pieces. It's generally used to describe structures where a storyteller and an audience work together to make a story and world richer and more compelling than either could make on their own. The creator gets low-cost content and a way to keep fans even more engaged; the fans get to become stakeholders in the thing they love and even profit off of their work in someone else's creative sandbox. Everybody wins!

But as with communism, the reality is a lot less clear-cut. You can describe these structures another way, too: it's monetizing fanfic and other fan-created art works.

Let's take a little bit of a detour here and think about why people make fan works in the first place. I posit that they are, by and large, expressions of love. Fans reach a point where there just isn't enough of the world they care about, and to solve that problem, they make more of it themselves. They explore alternatives, they peer into unexplored nooks of canon, they write themselves into the story world. It's driven entirely by love.

From a business perspective, it might seem only sensible to offer fans the opportunity to profit from their work. It's fair, it's just, it's even generous. But as with other acts of love, the very fact of bringing money into the equation suddenly transforms it into something sordid and cheap. Now you can't be sure why someone is really doing it. Is it because they love your world so much they want to be a part of it? Or is it because they see a way to cash in?

The creator might not have any readily apparent reason to care exactly why people are helping to build out their world or engaging with their content. The proof is in the result, right? But it matters to fans very much, and that's because of the second reason fans make fan works -- a sense of community identity. 

If you're someone who loves a story, then drawing it or writing about it are ways to connect with other people who love the same things as you. The work is a shibboleth for what you care about. But if a story world is attracting a significant group of alleged fans who are actually in it to try to make a buck, that becomes toxic to the fan culture overall. Suddenly you're not in a community of people who love the same thing and are collaborating for common cause. In a worst case, you're instead thrust into a community of freelancers all doing spec work in direct competition with one another. 

It's easy to ask questions and raise problems. It's hard to solve them. So the question arises: Is there a way to allow fans to profit from fan works without creating an unpleasant community culture? 

Oh, of course there is. It remains a great idea -- though the implementation has to be handled carefully. MS Paint Adventures, for a start, incorporates quite a lot of fan art and music into the canon web comic, and the musicians' works are sold as albums. And I have rarely seen a healthier and more active fan community. But fans aren't being sold on "value co-creation" as their purpose for participating. They perform their acts of love, and sometimes -- often -- the best of those are raised to canon status.

The problem I have, really, comes down to the language used to describe this structure. And that leads me back into the actual phrase "value co-creation," and why I find it problematic. It glosses over what it actually is, and worse, it misleadingly implies an equitable balance of power where there is none. 

At the end of the day, the core owner of the property in question is the one with the power to choose who profits and how much, or what becomes canon and what doesn't, and can pull the rug out from under the population of fans-turned-spec-creators at any time. 

I can see one of two possible solutions. One is to never make promises to your audience about who can profit and when, as with MSPA; raise an idea or a work to canon (and pay for the privilege) as a random act of benevolence. This keeps fans from developing a profit motive for participation, and preserves the tone and culture of your community.

Or if you have your heart set on making sure your fans know you plan to share and share alike, remove yourself as a gatekeeper, so no fan is doing spec work for you. Instead, create a structure where fans who play in your sandbox profit only to the extent that they develop their own fans. Make the criteria completely objective. You may not be able to develop a clear mainline of canon out of fan works this way, as rival story lines develop and gather their own audiences. But this isn't such a bad thing, really.

And what would I call these structures, if not "value co-creation"? Something more immediately descriptive; something that doesn't dance around the point. Fan-curated profit-sharing would do for the second; that is, after all, what you're doing. And for the first? Call it creator-curated audience collaboration, perhaps.

The idea behind co-creation is beautiful, and the motives for doing it are truly magnificent. I'd like to see the idea succeed in the marketplace. But I'd really hate to see the terminology get in the way.


 

Got that? Now go read Scott's counterpoint