August 6, 2006
@ 04:47 PM

I've seen Yochai Benkler mentioned twice in the past few weeks in blogs I read semi-regularly. It seems that he recently tangled with Jason Calacanis over his attempt to pay top contributors of social bookmarking sites like Digg to using his service. Jason Calacanis documents their encounter in his post entitled Calacanis vs. Benkler Round One. Yochai Benkler also posted a comment in Nick Carr's post which was then elevated to a post by Carr entitled . Below is an excerpt from Yochai Benkler's comment.

The reason is that the power of the major sites comes from combining large-scale contributions from heterogeneous participants, with heterogeneous motivations. Pointing to the 80/20 rule on contributions misses the dynamic that comes from being part of a large community and a recognized leader or major contributors in it, for those at the top, and misses the importance of framing this as a non-priced social process. Adding money alters the overall relationship. It makes some people "professionals," and renders other participants, "suckers." It is not impossible to mix paid and unpaid participants, as we see in free and open source software and even to a very limited extent in Wikipedia. It is just hard, and requires a cultural form that is definitely not "now at long last we can tell who's worth something and pay them, while everyone else is just worthelss." What Calacanis is doing now with his posts about the top contributors to Digg is trying to alter the cultural interpretation of what they are doing: from leaders in an engaged community, to suckers who are being taken for a ride by Ross.Maybe he will succeed in raining on Digg's parade, though I doubt it, but that does not mean that he will succeed in building an alternative sustained social process of peer production, or in replacing peer production with a purely paid service. Once you frame the people who aren't getting paid as poor sods being taken for a ride, for example, the best you can hope for is that some of the "leaders" elsewhere will come and become your low-paid employees (after all, what is $1,000 a month relative to the millions Calacanis would make if his plan in fact succeeds? At that point, the leaders are no longer leaders of a community, and they turn out to be suckers after all, working for pittance, comparatively speaking.)

I'm quite surprised to see Benkler mention and dismiss the example of Open Source software since what is happening between Calacanis and Digg seems to be history repeating itself. Back in the day, Open Source software like Linux was primarily built by hobbyists who worked on such projects in their free time without intention of getting financially rewarded. Later on, companies showed up that wanted to make money from Open Source software and there was a similar kind of angst to what we are seeing today about social bookmarking. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, go back and read all the comments on the various stories about the Redhat IPO on Slashdot to see the same kind of arguments and hurt feelings that you see in the arguments made by Benkler and from people such as the Backstabbed by Netscape blogger.

The fact is that since we are human, the 80/20 rule still applies when it comes to the value of the contributions by individuals. This means that it is beneficial to the 'community' if those that contribute the most value to the system are given as much incentive as possible to contribute. After all, I doubt that there is anyone who would argue that the fact that Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox are paid to work on Linux or that Miguel De Icaza is paid to work on Mono is harmful to the communities around these projects or that it makes the unpaid contributors to these projects "suckers".

I think where people are getting confused is that they are mixing up giving the most valuable contributors to the system more incentive with trying to incentivize the entire community with financial reward. They are not the same thing. Open Source projects wouldn't be successful if everyone contributing to a project did so with the expectation of being paid. On the flip side, Open Source projects benefit the most when the top contributors to the project can dedicate their 100% of their efforts on the project without having to worry about a day job. That's the difference.

Also it seems that Benkler seems to think that Whuffie (aka respect from the community) is a better incentive than money when it comes to influencing top contributors. I think that's a pipe dream that will only occur when we live in a world where money can't buy you anything such as the one in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.


Monday, August 7, 2006 5:27:14 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
Quick feedback on your recent blog post titles: "I agree with x" or "x is wrong" is really not very useful. It doesn't say what the actual topic is...
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