Designing Systems That Work
Decentralized peer production environments hold more promise in directing participatory systems towards collectively intelligent outcomes than the traditional approach of using centralized authority to drive individual behavior. The success of open source software development and wikis suggests that production environments based on autonomous individual action have the most potential for large-scale, enduring participation. These systems provide individual freedom and choice for interacting with resources and projects without any single authority dictating individual behavior or focus. It is precisely the individual's response to the freedom inherent in a decentralized system that triggers the desire to participate.
Words like “harness” or “leverage” used to describe value produced through individual participation signals a misguided perspective of centralized authority controlling participants. Seeing individuals as a ready resource to be wheedled and mined for value is, at best, a misunderstanding of how distributed production operates, and at worst, a setup to failure. Individually-motivated activity is the cornerstone of successful participatory environments, and presuming participation while undervaluing the individual causes contributions to evaporate. Cajoling effective production, dictating behavior, and exploiting contributions is inherently counter-productive to participatory environments. Empowering the individual creates beneficial outcomes and cultivates an environment where these contributions are most valuable. Since the best participatory environments exist to serve individuals and address their interests first and foremost, the heavy-handed, centralized actions or exploitation of participants corrupts an online collective environment irreparably. Ideally, participants develop a feeling of ownership over the environment, and providing such an atmosphere is indispensable to ensure the environment’s continuance.
Want more? Read the whole chapter Empowering Individuals Towards Collective Online Production, now freely available online.
Solving Problems Collectively
The widespread proliferation of online participatory systems such as wikis and blog networks helped popularize the idea of collective intelligence. Value that emerges from these systems shows that a whole system can appear more intelligent than any individual contribution. As these online participatory systems continue to broaden in application and increase in sophistication, they take on a more targeted and significant role as tools to accomplish focused, productive work. More specifically, online environments will be constructed to collectively solve complex and multifaceted problems. Imagine the possibility of adjusting aspects of an existing, productive online community in order to stimulate the ideal resolution of specific problems, much like a marketplace might be arranged over time to produce the most efficient and valuable transactions.
I am a contributing author for the book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace. Today, it arrived on my doorstep and finally feels real. My chapter is entitled Empowering Individuals Towards Collective Online Production, and focuses on the paradoxical role of individual motivation in effective online collaboration. Works from several of my heroes appear in this compendium, including Yochai Benkler, Doug Engelbart, Pierre Levy, Thomas Malone, Howard Rheingold, and David Weinberger. I feel incredibly fortunate and remarkably unworthy sharing a book jacket with the likes of these folks, but there it is.
On Thursday, the MIT Center for Future Civic Media as part of the MIT Communications Forum and Civic Media Series hosted a talk between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein, moderated by Henry Jenkins and entitled "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly."
The premise, of which I was skeptical, was to get Cass and Yochai to duke it out over whether internet participation was headed anywhere good. I was dubious of MIT staging a scholarly drama, but Benkler, Sunstein, and Jenkins have written three of the (arguably) most important recent works on the participatory internet, and for that fact alone, attendance was mandatory.
Many great arguments were articulated, all of which can be heard here.
Can the motivations that drive individual behavior towards online collaborative production be explained entirely by enlightened self-interest? More generally, in this new culture around collaboration and online participation, what motivates people to share? This was (essentially) the question posed by a research associate of Yochai Benkler at Clay Shirky's talk at Harvard last week. Enlightened self-interest can be defined as individual motivations that are neither purely selfish nor altruistic, but are ultimately based in the knowledge that helping the group might ultimately help oneself. This is exemplified in the shopkeeper who is only generous to customers so that they might ultimately profit in the long run through future business. Can this alone explain why people cooperate online?
I had the good fortune to hear Clay Shirky speak last night at Harvard Law School. The event was hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center as a lead-up to their 10 year anniversary celebration. The event also coincided with the release of Clay’s new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Clay spent the majority of the discussion outlining the book. He began by pointing out that the book is not necessarily targeted to just the folks in the room (various flavors of webophile), but rather to a wider and more generalized audience. His argument for this was that "the web is no longer a decoration on society, but a challenge to it," meaning that usage and adoption of the Internet has become ubiquitious and integrated into how we do things to the level that for many of us, the Internet has become "the dashboard for our lives". So, theoretically, the book should have more universal readership.
I attempted to Twitter the presentation. I tried to capture his sound bites and cogent points, but Clay is a veritable font of wisdom and one-liners. I ended up with a serious case of twitterrhea. Below is a slightly cleaned up transcript of my tweats over the course of about an hour. Shirky direct quotes are in quotes. Everything else that isn’t labeled as my own thoughts [Ed:] can be attributed to Clay Shirky.
From Clay Shirky website: "If I had to describe what I write about, it would be "systems where vested interests lose out to innovation."
Historically, media innovations that allow two way communications produce active groups. Broadcast technology... not so good at this.
If Clay had to boil the book down to one bullet point = "Group Action Just Got Easier"
"Groups get complex faster than they get large" [Ed: i.e. the network effect, Reed’s Law, etc.]
The Internet acts as a prosthetic for existing group activity.
New social tools on the Internet make group connections ridiculously easy to form
Email was an afterthought of the Internet
"Reply all" was the Internet's first social feature
Curiously, once the technology gets boring, the social effects get interesting [Ed: by this, he means once the technology gets out of the way, becomes commonplace, and slides beneath the radar of awkward attention, then it becomes integrated into how we function as social creatures and the most interesting social effects of a technology begin to emerge]
"Me First Collaboration" = social effects that emerge from self-serving behavior, e.g. del.icio.us lets me store my bookmarks, but ultimately becomes useful to all [Ed: Or Google extracting social relevance from individually created links]
The annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade is an example where amateur photographers leveraged ad hoc online sharing (via flickr)
HDR photography as an example of using a flickr group to accelerate innovation through a community of practice (what used to take 8 years for a technology/process to emerge from lead users to professional process to documented practice to trade magazines to amateurs to shared understanding now takes weeks)
"every URL is a latent community"
"Sharing + conversation leaves a residue of instruction"
A comparison of a Buffy discussion board moving to a new platform is like a hermit crab changing its shell
Sharing -> Conversation -> Collaboration -> Collective Action are things that require increasing amounts of synchronization of group action.
"Thinking is for doing" [Ed: by this, he means that the purpose for human thought is so that we can then take action; quote attributed to someone I’ve forgotten] => "Publishing is for acting"
"Flashmobs are the Flagpole sitting of 2003"
"Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream"
Ridiculously easy group-forming improves sharing, conversation, collaboration, and collective action
Behavioral economics states that social behavior online is more than just enlightened self-interest, for example, see the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game ">ultimatum game and the self-defeating individual act of punishing defectors
Irrational individual behavior spent towards generating social cohesion cannot justifiably be explained away by enlightened self-interest
Social technology can be used for more than just good… case in point, YM magazine shutting down their discussion boards because pro-anorexic girls were swapping practical tips
What’s the future of investigative journalism and its impact on smaller cities that can’t afford newspapers who have historically played this role? "I don't yet see a way that blogs can create sustained observation that stops civic corruption"
There are no good examples of long-term collective action - institutionalization becomes a problem over time
What works with collective action right now [to stimulate participation and worldwide attention] are surprises... but they are a wasting asset
Where individuals change their behavior BECAUSE they're members of the group is the key definer of collective action
"Immersive games get us out of the hell of continuous partial attention"