Libre Graphics and the digital Potlatch

The Libre Graphics Research Unit is a traveling lab where new ideas for creative tools are developed. The Research Unit is an initiative of four European media-labs actively engaged in Free/Libre and Open Source Software and Free Culture. This cross-disciplinary project involves artists, designers and programmers and is developed in dialogue with the Libre Graphics community.

The Libre Graphics Research Unit works around four interconnected threads:

Around each thread we organise Research meetings and commissions. Next week, in Medialab Prado Madrid, it will take place the next international meeting. Medialab-Prado will hosts the international Libre Graphics Meeting in Madrid (April 10-13, 2013). The event will bring together developers and designers from all over the world to work on the many different tools in the Free, Libre and Open Source toolbox. This 8th edition focuses on (re)inventing a libre graphics workflow that supports collaboration and exchange.

On Wednesday, April 10, I will have the pleasure to give a lecture about The digital Potlatch and the collective forms of governance in the digital realm. The organisation ask me to reflect about what Karl Fogel alredy wrote in his book Producing open source software:

Why do volunteers work on free software projects?

When asked, many claim they do it because they want to produce good software, or want to be personally involved in fixing the bugs that matter to them. But these reasons are usually not the whole story. After all, could you imagine a volunteer staying with a project even if no one ever said a word in appreciation of his work, or listened to him in discussions? Of course not. Clearly, people spend time on free software for reasons beyond just an abstract desire to produce good code. Understanding volunteers’ true motivations will help you arrange things so as to attract and keep them. The desire to produce good software may be among those motivations, along with the challenge and educational value of working on hard problems. But humans also have a built-in desire to work with other humans, and to give and earn respect through cooperative activities. Groups engaged in cooperative activities must evolve norms of behavior such that status is acquired and kept through actions that help the group’s goals.

As Felipe Ortega wrote in his own blog after publishing our common book, The digital Potlatch. The triumph of the commons and shared knowledge, we are persuaded we found a kind of solution to this enigma. I use the text written by Felipe: The Wikipedia Editor Survey 2011, published last April, emphasized the importance of explicit acknowledgement and recognition of effort among Wikipedia editors as an instrumental factor to sustaing and grow its community over the next years (page 4):

Positive Reinforcement: Acknowledging the effort of editors is important to reverse the editor decline. It is a commonly held view that editors just want to see their articles improve and read by lots of people and they don’t care about the opinion of their peers. This is false. The survey finds that acknowledgement of peers via a nice note or a barnstar (or kitten) is valued even more highly than achieving featured article status. To sustain and grow our community, we need to provide each other with positive feedback, and we should create tools to make it easy to do so.

In fact, this is the central argument of “El Potlatch Digital: Wikipedia y el Triunfo del Procomún y el Conocimiento Compartido” ["The Digital Potlatch: Wikipedia and the Triumph of Commons and Shared Knowledge"], a new book that I have written along with Joaquín Rodríguez, vice-dean of EOI. The book has been published in Spanish by Ediciones Cátedra, and now it should be available in your favourite book shop.

Participation in Internet communities has been a fascinating topic for researchers, practitioners and members of these communities. A previous study by Michlmayr, Robles and González-Barahona showed evidence of lasting volunteer participation in Debian. In this work, they defined the half-life of contributors as the “the time required for a certain population of maintainers to fall to half of its initial size”. Their estimation for the half-life in Debian was 7.5 years. In other words, after 7.5 years of project evolution we can still find 50% of the initial Debian maintainers participating in the project. Enough said about commitment of Debian developers.

In the case of larger online communities like Wikipedia we need to account for the effects of casual contributors versus more active and experienced editors. In any case, our study on the inequality of contributions to Wikipedia, published in 2008, shows that the balance between casual and very active contributors has remained stable since many years ago (2004). Even more interesting is the fact that this balance did not experimented any variation from 2007 onwards, despite the well-known “plateau effect” in the monthly number of edits to the largest Wikipedias starting that year.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to infer possible causes behind this behavioral patterns from observational studies like these ones. What does it make participants to stay in online communities? What factors motivate them to contribute? Why do they stop participating? This book is an attempt to shed some light on this, mixing empirical results with qualitative investigation (interviews to editors in the Spanish Wikipedia).

Our conclusion is clear: meritocracy and effort recognition has a central role in the motivation of contributors in collaborative habitats like Wikipedia. This resembles the Potlatch, an example that let us understand how in certain contexts we need to give away our capital (material or intangible) so that the community can give it back to us as acknowledgment, recognition and renown. As a result, in these collaborative habitats the working capital does not have a monteray but a symbolic nature, under the form of reputation and popularity, and the logic of its accumulation demands unselfishness to create antoher form of social value. We don’t claim that this example is valid for all kind of Internet communities, but some of the best-known cases (such as Wikipedia) exemplify the triumph of shared knowledge and Commons over other individualistic strategies.

Wellcome and I hope you enjoy the lecture.

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