The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press

Copyright 2006, Yochai Benkler.

Chapter 3
Peer Production and Sharing

This online version has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license - see www.benkler.org - and has been reformatted and designated as recommended reading - with an accompanying Moodle course - for the NGO Committee on Education of CONGO - the Conference Of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - in conjunction with the Committee's commitment to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World and related international Decades, agreements, conventions and treaties.

Epigraph

"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

"Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Chapter 3
Peer Production and Sharing

At the heart of the economic engine of the world's most advanced economies, we are beginning to notice a persistent and quite amazing phenomenon.

Industrial organization literature provides a prominent place for the transaction costs view of markets and firms, based on insights of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson.

"Commons" refers to a particular institutional form of structuring the rights to access, use, and control resources.

Commons can be divided into four types based on two parameters.

The term "peer production" characterizes a subset of commons-based production practices.

What we are seeing now is the emergence of more effective collective action practices that are decentralized but do not rely on either the price system or a managerial structure for coordination.

Free/Open-Source Software

The quintessential instance of commons-based peer production has been free software.

Free software has played a critical role in the recognition of peer production, because software is a functional good with measurable qualities.

The story of free software begins in 1984, when Richard Stallman started working on a project of building a nonproprietary operating system he called GNU (GNU's Not Unix).

The next major step came when a person with a more practical, rather than prophetic, approach to his work began developing one central component of the operating system - the kernel.

It took almost a decade for the mainstream technology industry to recognize the value of free or open-source software development and its collaborative production methodology.

So what is open-source software development?

The most surprising thing that the open source movement has shown, in real life, is that this simple model can operate on very different scales, from the small, three-person model I described for simple projects, up to the many thousands of people involved in writing the Linux kernel and the GNU/Linux operating system - an immensely difficult production task.

Peer Production of Information, Knowledge, and Culture Generally

Free software is, without a doubt, the most visible instance of peer production at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Uttering Content

NASA Clickworkers was "an experiment to see if public volunteers, each working for a few minutes here and there can do some routine science analysis that would normally be done by a scientist or graduate student working for months on end."

The clickworkers project was a particularly clear example of how a complex professional task that requires a number of highly trained individuals on full-time salaries can be reorganized so as to be performed by tens of thousands of volunteers in increments so minute that the tasks could be performed on a much lower budget.

While clickworkers was a distinct, self-conscious experiment, it suggests characteristics of distributed production that are, in fact, quite widely observable.

Encyclopedic and almanac-type information emerges on the Web out of the coordinate but entirely independent action of millions of users.

The shift in strategy toward an open, peer-produced model proved enormously successful.

Table 3.1: Contributors to Wikipedia, January 2001-June 2005


Jan.
2001
Jan.
2002
Jan.
2003
Jan.
2004
July.
2004
June
2005

Contributors* 10 472 2,188 9,653 25,011 48,721
Active contributors** 9 212 846 3,228 8,442 16,945
Very active contributors*** 0 31 190 692 1,637 3,016
No. of English language articles 25 16,000 101,000 190,000 320,000 630,000
No. of articles, all languages 25 19,000 138,000 409,000 862,000 1,600,000

* Contributed at least ten times; ** at least 5 times in last month; *** more than 100 times in last month.

The first systematic study of the quality of Wikipedia articles was published as this book was going to press.

Perhaps the most interesting characteristic about Wikipedia is the self-conscious social-norms-based dedication to objective writing.

First and foremost, the Wikipedia project is self-consciously an encyclopedia - rather than a dictionary, discussion forum, web portal, etc.

The point to see from this quotation is that the participants of Wikipedia are plainly people who like to write.

The important point is that Wikipedia requires not only mechanical cooperation among people, but a commitment to a particular style of writing and describing concepts that is far from intuitive or natural to people.

A very different cultural form of distributed content production is presented by the rise of massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) as immersive entertainment.

By 2003, a company called Linden Lab took this concept a major step forward by building an online game environment called Second Life.

Relevance/Accreditation

How are we to know that the content produced by widely dispersed individuals is not sheer gobbledygook?

Amazon uses a mix of mechanisms to get in front of their buyers of books and other products that the users are likely to purchase.

The most prominent example of a distributed project self-consciously devoted to peer production of relevance is the Open Directory Project.

Perhaps the most elaborate platform for peer production of relevance and accreditation, at multiple layers, is used by Slashdot.

First, it is important to understand that the function of posting a story from another site onto Slashdot, the first "utterance" in a chain of comments on Slashdot, is itself an act of relevance production.

Filtering and accreditation of comments on Slashdot offer the most interesting case study of peer production of these functions.

Relevance, as distinct from accreditation, is also tied into the Slashdot scheme because off-topic posts should receive an "off topic" rating by the moderators and sink below the threshold level (assuming the user has the threshold set above the minimum).

The primary function of moderation is to provide accreditation.

Together, these mechanisms allow for distributed production of both relevance and accreditation.

The primary point to take from the Slashdot example is that the same dynamic that we saw used for peer production of initial utterances, or content, can be implemented to produce relevance and accreditation.

Value-Added Distribution

Finally, when we speak of information or cultural goods that exist (content has been produced) and are made usable through some relevance and accreditation mechanisms, there remains the question of distribution.

Project Gutenberg entails hundreds of volunteers who scan in and correct books so that they are freely available in digital form.

Distributed Proofreading, a site originally unaffiliated with Project Gutenberg, is devoted to proofing Project Gutenberg e-texts more efficiently, by distributing the volunteer proofreading function in smaller and more information-rich modules.

Sharing of Processing, Storage, and Communications Platforms

All the examples of peer production that we have seen up to this point have been examples where individuals pool their time, experience, wisdom, and creativity to form new information, knowledge, and cultural goods.

As of the middle of 2004, the fastest supercomputer in the world was SETI@home.

SETI@home and Folding@home provide a good basis for describing the fairly common characteristics of Internet-based distributed computation projects.

Most of the distributed computing projects provide a series of utilities and statistics intended to allow contributors to attach meaning to their contributions in a variety of ways.

Like distributed computing projects, peer-to-peer file-sharing networks are an excellent example of a highly efficient system for storing and accessing data in a computer network.

Imagine for a moment that someone - be it a legislator defining a policy goal or a businessperson defining a desired service - had stood up in mid-1999 and set the following requirements: "We would like to develop a new music and movie distribution system.

What is truly unique about peer-to-peer networks as a signal of what is to come is the fact that with ridiculously low financial investment, a few teenagers and twenty-something-year-olds were able to write software and protocols that allowed tens of millions of computer users around the world to cooperate in producing the most efficient and robust file storage and retrieval system in the world.

Again, there is nothing mysterious about why users participate in peer-to-peer networks.

As with distributed computing, peer-to-peer file-sharing systems build on the fact that individual users own vast quantities of excess capacity embedded in their personal computers.

In addition to computation and storage, the last major element of computer communications networks is connectivity.

Most dramatically, however, we have seen these techniques emerging in wireless communications.

By this time, however, the century-old engineering assumptions that underlay the regulation-versus-property conceptualization of the possibilities open for the institutional framework of wireless communications had been rendered obsolete by new computation and network technologies./11

The reasons that owners would share the excess capacity of their new radios are relatively straightforward in this case.

This technological shift gave rise to the fastest-growing sector in the wireless communications arena in the first few years of the twenty-first century - WiFi and similar unlicensed wireless devices.

I hope these detailed examples provide a common set of mental pictures of what peer production looks like.

Notes

1. For an excellent history of the free software movement and of open-source development, see Glyn Moody, Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source Revolution (New York: Perseus Publishing, 2001).

2. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

3. Josh Lerner and Jean Tirole, "The Scope of Open Source Licensing" (Harvard NOM working paper no. 02-42, table 1, Cambridge, MA, 2002).

4. Netcraft, April 2004 Web Server Survey, http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html.

5. Clickworkers Results: Crater Marking Activity, July 3, 2001, http://clickworkers.arc.nasa.gov/documents/crater-marking.pdf.

6. B. Kanefsky, N. G. Barlow, and V. C. Gulick, Can Distributed Volunteers Accomplish Massive Data Analysis Tasks? http://www.clickworkers.arc.nasa.gov/documents/abstract.pdf.

7. J. Giles, "Special Report: Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head," Nature, December 14, 2005, available at http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html.

8. http://www.techcentralstation.com/111504A.html.

9. Yochai Benkler, "Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm," Yale Law Journal 112 (2001): 369.

10. IBM Collaborative User Experience Research Group, History Flows: Results (2003), http://www.research.ibm.com/history/results.htm.

11. For the full argument, see Yochai Benkler, "Some Economics of Wireless Communications," Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 16 (2002): 25; and Yochai Benkler, "Overcoming Agoraphobia: Building the Commons of the Digitally Networked Environment," Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 11 (1998): 287.

12. See Benkler, "Some Economics," 44-47.

13. Spectrum Policy Task Force Report to the Commission (Federal Communications Commission, Washington, DC, 2002); Michael K. Powell, "Broadband Migration III: New Directions in Wireless Policy" (Remarks at the Silicon Flatiron Telecommunications Program, University of Colorado at Boulder, October 30, 2002).