The Limits of Peer Production

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Summary: Peer production, to be effective, must include formal organization.

OSE Review - paper does not make a strong distinction between 'peer' and 'open source', thus in MJ's opinion confusing the analysis of peer production from the standpoint of open source history

  • "Conclusion

Many of us who study new media still proceed too often from the assumptions that peer production is radically participatory, egalitarian, efficient, and psychologically fulfill- ing. As a result, we all too easily echo the line that peer production is revolutionizing the way that we produce and consume information, democratizing culture, and fostering a robust public domain. And in that way, we join a long line of engineers and marketers of new technologies. The personal computer, the early Internet, and of course, the airplane, the railroad, and the telegraph before them, were all hailed as having much the same egalitarian potential. For these reasons, we believe that scholars need to revisit Max Weber. Although he wrote a hundred years ago, Weber raised a series of issues with strong contemporary implications. For example, Weber noted not only the dangers of bureaucracy, but also the social values the form upholds and the functions that it serves. Today, we need to consider peer production not only as a challenge to bureaucratic forms, but as a complement and, at times, even an extension of their missions. "


  • As Berry argues in his insightful review of The Wealth of Networks, if networks ‘are indeed so wealth-generating, they will be co-opted into mainstream “industrial” ways of production.
  • There is simply nothing to suggest that peer informational projects must be nonmarket and nonproprietary, that other economic forces cannot leverage what they produce, or that they will not become part of bureaucratic systems.
  • Indeed, many consensus scholars overlook the ways that a number of peer production efforts have institutionalized processes that were formerly defined by freely-associating individuals. As Loubser and den Besten (2008: 2) argue, Wikipedia has increasingly

turned to ‘administrators and bureaucrats’, along with a host of technical features, to help manage peer collaboration and ensure that the effort is sustainable.

  • Furthermore, as Duguid (2006) points out in the context of three open source cultural projects, peer processes that work well in the manufacture of software may work hardly at all in other domains.
  • Comparatively ephemeral peer networks simply cannot concentrate and consistently deploy the resources that bureaucracies can with their goal-oriented routines, professionalized staff, and stable operating procedures.
  • Weber was clear on this point, arguing that ‘precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, conti-nuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction, and of material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration’ (1998: 214). Indeed, it was these very qualities that Weber both admired and

feared as the inescapable implements of the rational-legal order. Yet, the noted absence of these qualities in peer production efforts suggests that informational projects may face serious limitations in some social domains, unless they adopt more formalized structures.

  • Rather, we wish to stress that peer production

is not as radically open in practice as it appears. Gatekeepers can subscribe to opaque governing norms and all too often these norms reinforce broader social patterns of dis- crimination and power.

  • Looking at peer production through the lens of Weber, however, suggests that these

peer governance mechanisms may not be as liberating as many theorists suggest. The absence of formal rules, for instance, allows charismatic individuals to determine who is appointed or dismissed according to fiat.

  • Yet many contemporary portrayals of peer production fail to account for the ongoing

importance of bureaucratic institutions in fostering and preserving knowledge that actually affords peer production. Indeed, Shirky (2008) argues for the power of ‘organiz- ing without organizations’ while ignoring the role that the university plays in his own analysis

  • Moreover, precisely because it is voluntary and

usually temporary, peer production may not support the institutions upon which its own continued success depends

  • Peer production in particular may undermine our private autonomy by extending

our professional lives into formerly private arenas.

  • For many scholars peer production enables individuals to achieve a form of psychological Wholeness unavailable in ordinary organizational life