3. Peer Production and Sharing

From Yochai Benkler - Wealth of Networks
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Table of Contents
Chapter 2 | Chapter 4



It is not intuitive that thousands of volunteers could beat big companies. Yet they do.

Coase argues that corporations exist because the transaction costs of using the market are too high. Yet GNU/Linux, Apache, Perl and others use neither markets nor hierarchies.

I call this commons-based peer production. Commons (as opposed to property) because no one person controls how the resource is used, they are either open to the public or a defined group. Peer production because it is done through self-selected, decentralized individual action.

Examples: Free software, NASA Clickworkers, Wikipedia, Second Life.

Relevance and accreditation technology can ensure the results are good: Open Directory Project, Slashdot (karma).

Distribution tech too: Project Gutenberg.

Sharing tech: SETI@Home, Napster


Sources cited in the chapter

Other relevant readings

Case Studies

Supporting examples

Amazon Mechanical Turk
Could be considered micro-outsourcing, allows API access to human effort. Also see Turkwatch for an overview of recent MTurk projects


Robert McHenry, former editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, criticized Wikipedia as being an unreliable source of information. McHenry cited the Wikipedia entry on Alexander Hamilton which fixed Hamilton's birth at 1755 instead of describing the controversy over Hamilton's birth being in either 1755 or 1757. McHenry concluded that Wikipedia was unreliable because it was not professionally produced. However, he failed to note that other major online encyclopedias such as Columbia or Encarta also incorrectly described Hamilton's birth. Within hours of the publication of McHenry's Web article, Alexander Hamilton's Wikipedia entry was corrected, all references were confirmed, and the rest of the entry was cleaned up. (71)

In On "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism", Jaron Lanier warns against the collective consciousness, which he dubs the "Hive Mind," as a dangerous trend in contemporary media "that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force."

Indeterminate Examples (in progress)

UCB iSchool research project, a generalization of ClickWorkers by utilizing a few seconds of web surfer's abilities to collaboratively solve large problems, without leaving the page. Currently focusing on Wikipedia image tagging and Project Gutenberg.

Key Concepts

Commons-Based Peer Production

Commons- An institutional way of structuring rights to access, use, and control. It is understood as the opposite of "property" in that property law gives one particular person the authority to decide how a resource is used.

Commons Parameters

  • 1. Open to anyone or only to a defined group
  • 2. Regulated or Unregulated

Peer Production

Peer Production- Production systems that depend on individual action that is self-selected and decentralized, rather than hierarchically assigned.

Decentralization- Conditions under which the actions of many users work together effectively despite the fact that they do not rely on reducing the number of people whose will or authority counts to direct the action.

Contemporary society is witnessing an emergence of more effective peer production that does not rely on the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.

The Act of Communication

  • 1. The Utterance- writing an article or drawing a picture
  • 2. Relevance & Accreditation- Rendering the utterance as worthwhile
  • 3. Distribution- How one takes on an utterance, and distributes it to other people who find it relevant and credible

All three acts of communication can be created and governed by peer production. For example:

Sharing Processing, Storage, and Communications Platforms

Sharing computational power is similar to peer production of information in its radical decentralization and reliance on social relations and motivations. Yet it is different in that users are not sharing their innate and acquired human capabilities. Rather, they are sharing material goods that they privately own, and are producing economic, not public, goods. Distributing computational power in this way, created and maintained by large numbers of disparate users, are in fact more powerful and efficient than those built by centralized, financed corporations. Examples:

  • SETI@home- Uses the power of personal computers in peoples' homes to search for extra terrestrial life.
  • FightAIDS@Home- Uses the power of personal computers in peoples' homes to screen compounds for drugs that fight the AIDS virus.
  • Genome@Home- Uses the power of personal computers in peoples' homes to generate useful protiens
  • Peer-To-Peer software like early Napster and BitTorent user protocols that allow tens of millions of computers users around the world to cooperate in producing the most efficient and robust file storage and retrieval system in the world.
  • Skype uses FastTrack-like architecture to share their computing and communications resources to create a global telephone system running on top of the Internet.