Collective action, peer production, sociable media

By Howard Rheingold, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 11 years 1 week ago.

A long, rich, quote-spiced post by Trebor Scholz explains collective action theories in light of peer-based production methods (e.g. open source, Wikipedia) and social media (e.g. del.icio.ous). You'll learn a lot more from this than from the scattered and disingenuously titled "Digital Maoism" of a few weeks back:

The social bookmarking site del.icio.us is a suitable example for the debate over individual versus network value. On del.icio.us, contributors, myself included, save bookmarks not solely because they support an imagined "del.icio.us collective;" they don't primarily want to support the Yahoo-owned project: they contribute out of self-interest.

Adam Smith talked about individual action that benefits the collective as the "invisible hand;" every individual contribution to the general productiveness of society intends to foster individual gain and is "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

While Smith is controversial, his notion of the invisible hand is useful here. A closer look at the invisible hand reveals that it does not exclude a simultaneous conscious support of a collective. The number of frequent contributors to Wikipedia, for example, is relatively small and their motivations for participation are not completely non-agonistic (pure sharing; higher goals; help humanity). Hanah Arendt argued that people have a keen interest in contributing to something larger than themselves but most contributors to this free encyclopedia are, however, driven by authorship pride -- and -- an urge to contribute to the public good.

An additional variant of motivation for participation is “agonistic giving,” which Benkler sums up with the sentence "I give therefore I'm great." Benkler adds other types of motivations: “individualist and solidaristic” (teams; assertion of my individuality) and “reciprocity” (p2p networks). In the context of sites like CiteUlike, del.icio.us, and others, I suggest that contributors are driven by a hybrid mix of motivations. They are not exclusively in it for themselves but they are also not completely driven by the idea of the greater good.