Commons based peer production in the information economy

Intro by Michel Bauwens:

P2P Value is a landmark study because it is the first long (3-year) scientific study of 300+ peer production communities, and it largely confirms the ten years of empirical observations that form the basis of P2P Theory and the documentation in the P2P Foundation Wiki. Our team was also one of the 8 partners in the consortium.

Here are some interesting findings, which I would like to highlight:

1. These communities are also ‘imaginary communities’ with specific values, i..e. they want to make the world a better place, i.e. they are ethical communities not just profit-maximising entities, and their identification is in global networks, not just the locales they are embedded in. This is historically important since it echoes the birth of nation-states as imaginary communities (see Benedict Anderson’s landmark book on this topic)

2. A majority of 78% of these communities are practicing, preparing and/or looking into open value or contributory accounting systems; again, this is significant since changes in accounting practices and philosophies have accompanied the great value regime transitions in the past

3. Reputation capital is a fictitious commodity that has an effective capacity to drive and allocate resources to these common projects.

This document is therefore a must-read for the P2P and Commons community.

This paper summarizes three years of ethnographic work on Commons Based Peer Production (CBPP) communities within the research project P2PValue, funded by the European Commission. By Adam Arvidsson, Alessandro Caliandro, Alberto Cossu, Maitrayee Deka, Alessandro Gandini, Vincenzo Luise, Brigida Orria and Guido Anselmi.

Key insights:

  • CBPP is part of a broader transformation in the information economy whereby collaboration and common knowledge have come to play an ever more important part in value creation. This development has roots that go back to the industrial revolution in the 19th century and it has been greatly accelerated by the diffusion of digital media. CBPP or CBPP like modes of production have become a core component to the contemporary information economy as a whole.
  • CBPP occurs in highly particular kinds of communities. They are not kept together by frequent interaction or a tight web of social relations. Instead they are kept together by sharing a common imaginary that posits a transformative potential on the part of the particular practice to which these communities are dedicated.
  • Contributions to this potential through technical skills and/or virtuous conduct is rewarded with reputation. Reputation is the form of that exchange value takes in CBPP communities, it is the ‘fictious commodity’ typical to CBPP.
  • Reputation is also the most important value form that structures transactions between CBPP and other institutional logics, such as that of markets, capitalism and the state.
  • The value of reputation lies in its ability to give a proximate measure to risk.
  • The fact that value is principally related to risk means that CBPP communities operate a value logic that mirror that of financial markets.
  • Most CBPP communities envision commons based markets as alternatives to capitalism. Such commons-based markets build on the construction of imaginaries that are able to transform insecurity into risk in ways that mirror communitarian principles.


“The publication of Yochlai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks in 2006 introduced the notion of Commons based peer production (CBPP) to the theoretical vocabulary of the social sciences. Similar issues had been debated for some time, mainly within the disciplines of computer science and management, and within the mainly non-academic debates that constituted what Richard Barbrook and Andrew Cameron (1996) called the ‘Californian Ideology’ of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, hackers and computer enthusiasts (for an overview see Turner, 2010, Romele and Severo, 2016). However, Benkler’s work, along with the contemporary writings of Michel Bauwens (2005), gave a coherent definition to the phenomenon and placed it within the tradition of mainstream social theory.

Benkler makes explicit the implicit suggestion already current within exponents of the ‘Calfornian ideology’, that CBPP should be understood as a new mode of production, alternative to markets and networks, which is emerging in digital environments. Departing from the perspective of transaction cost economics Benkler suggests the most important determinant of this development is the ability of digital media to greatly reduce the transaction costs involved in large-scale collaboration among strangers. These new forms of productive collaboration are marked by three central features: First, decentralization: in CBPP “the authority to act resides with individual agents faced with opportunities for action, rather than in the hands of a central organizer, like the manager of a firm or a bureaucrat” (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006:400). (In Michel Bauwens’ (2005) words CBPP communities are self-organized ‘adhocracies’: organizational structures and hierarchies emerges as a consequence of practice and members invest significant time and energy in developing organizational forms and governance systems as they go along.) Second, “a frequent use of common resources and public goods” (Benkler & Nissenbaum, ibid.). CBPP communities are commons based: they make use of shared resources, mostly immaterial as in the case of Open Software or other knowledge commons, but sometimes also material resources as in the case of Fab Labs, where machinery and other resources are shared among members, or within the ‘Sharing Economy’ more generally (Benkler, 2004). Within most communities, what members make out of such common resources is itself made common, put back into the commons pool, as when a line of open source code is deposited back into a common archive. The common nature of such wealth is sometimes extended beyond particular communities, as when Creative Commons licenses make it publicly available, in whole or in part. Third, CBPP is marked by the prevalence of non-monetary motivations. Here Benkler makes two apparently contradictory points. On the one hand he suggests that participants in CBPP are driven by a plurality of diverse motivations. This is because declining transaction costs and easy connectivity have made it so that enough interested talent will somehow find its way. There is no need to posit any common driver for participation in order to explain the functioning and sustainability of initiatives like Wikipedia or Seti@Home. At other times Benkler suggests that there is indeed such a common driver for participation. This common driver consists in the ‘common decency’ manifested in the kinds of social sharing that goes on, and that has gone on for a long time in the ordinary social relations that make up everyday life. CBPP is simply a technologically enabled extension of the forms of ‘social sharing’ that have been a feature of human life throughout history. They have been extended into the domain of high-tech digital production. That is, ‘sharing nicely’ has become a feature not just of neighborly relations, but also of ‘creative labor’ more generally (Benkler, 2004).

We need to assume no fundamental change in the nature of humanity. We merely need to see that the material conditions of production in the networked information economy have changed in ways that increase the relative salience of social sharing and exchange as a modality of economic production. That is, behaviors and motivation patterns familiar to us from social relations generally continue to cohere in their own patterns. What has changed is that now these patterns of behavior have become effective beyond the domains of building social relations of mutual interest and fulfilling our emotional and psychological needs of companionship and mutual recognition. They have come to play a substantial role as modes of motivating, informing, and organizing productive behavior at the very core of the information economy (Benkler 2006: 92).

At times Benkler suggests that such ‘social sharing’ is able not only to motivate but also to coordinate the productive practice that unfolds in CBPP communities. “Participants to social production use social cues and motivations, rather than prices or commands to motivate and coordinate the actions of participating agents” (Benkler & Nissenbaum, 2006:400). Throughout Benkler’s writings the possible contradiction between these two points of view is never addressed: Is participation in CBPP driven by a plurality of different motivations? Or is ‘social sharing’, ‘sharing nicely’, ‘social cues and motivations’ the one overwhelming factor that motivates participants and coordinates their actions? This omission is probably explained by Benkler’s reluctance to identify a theory of value for CBPP. To Benkler CBPP is primarily a civic, rather than an economic phenomenon. As such it is driven by virtues, which he understands to be beyond calculation (Benkler, 2006:109). And although he concedes that it is sometimes possible to construct economic explanations for participation in CBPP communities (as in the early work of Lerner & Tirole, 2002), this, he suggests, somehow does violence to the phenomenon:

Although it is entirely possible that the persistent and pervasive practice of spending time and effort producing something of value and giving it freely to be used by others for no compensation can be explained as self-serving behavior in pursuit of, say, reputation, a more efficient and direct explanation in many, if not most cases, is the pleasure or satisfaction of giving – generosity, kindness, benevolence (Benkler & Nissenbaum, 2006:408).

This non-economic nature of CBPP is central to Benkler’s whole theory. Not only does it serve to separate CBPP from markets and hierarchies, but it is also key to the civic and political potential of this movement. CBPP, he claims ‘offer not only a remarkable medium of production for various kinds of information goods, but serve as a context for positive character formation ‘(Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006: 396). CBPP fosters particular kinds of collaborative virtues, and the motivations of participants are related to the realization of such virtues. Michel Bauwens goes even further and sees CBPP as the seed form of a new human civilization based on collaborations and self-organization (Bauwens and Kostakis, 2014).

Benkler’s early work was innovative and visionary but, at the time, little in terms of empirical studies were available to substantiate his ideas (Benkler, 2006:410). As a consequence, most of his theory development occurred with a few highly successful cases on mind, like chiefly, Wikipedia and Seti@home. Today this has changed, as the decade that has passed since the publication of Benkler’s magnum opus has seen the accumulation of a massive corpus of empirical studies of various aspects of CBPP (for a partial review, see Benkler et al., 2013). In the light of this material, and in particular, in the light of our own contributions to it within the research project P2PValue, we would like to revisit and discuss some of Benkler’s key ideas about peer production. In particular we would like to focus on and explore the question of value in CBPP trying to reconcile Benkler’s focus on the virtuous nature of participation with more sociological explanations that are able to account for the actual and potential relations between CBPP communities and the overall economic ecology of the information society.”

The full article is available here.

Photo by ai3310X

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