Peter Bloom, Miriam Mecky, Ory Okolloh, Abraham Taherivand & Stefano Zacchiroli
In 2021 the Handbook of Peer Production, edited by Mathieu O’Neil, Christian Pentzold and Sophie Toupin, was published as part of Wiley-Blackwell’s Handbooks in Media and Communication series. This landmark volume mapped the origins and manifestations of peer production, discussed the factors that are advancing and co-opting it, and considered peer production’s potential consequences for the social order. Many of its thirty chapters were written by members of the Journal of Peer Production‘s community of authors and editors. The Handbook adhered to the Journal’s definition of peer production: a mode of commons-based and -oriented production in which participation is voluntary and predicated on the self-selection of tasks. It explored topics familiar to Journal readers such as biohacking and makerspaces, but also broadened the scope by including chapters on blockchain, peer learning, post-colonial perspectives, and cartography.
Chapter 28 of the Handbook of Peer Production, ‘Making a case for peer production,’ presented interviews with peer production practitioners. The following excerpts from this chapter focus on the transitions their diverse projects experienced: Why did they start? What challenges did they face? How did these challenges change the projects? What transitions does the future hold?
The full chapter 28 preprint, as well as chapter 7 (‘Prophets and Advocates of Peer Production’ by Dafermos) and chapter 29 (‘What’s Next? Peer Production Studies?’ by O’Neil, Toupin and Pentzold) can be downloaded from the Journal of Peer Production page devoted to the Handbook of Peer Production.
Other preprints can be found by searching on Twitter for the following hashtags: #beyourownpeer and #preprinthopp.
‘Through efforts around the world, we use new information and communication technologies to facilitate well-being, community organization and personal and collective autonomy. Our approach combines regulatory activism and reform, the development of decentralized telecommunications infrastructure, direct community involvement and participation, and critical engagement with new technologies.’
Interview with Peter Bloom, Founder of Rhizomatica, Oaxaca, Mexico, 21 February 2019.
Sophie Toupin (ST): What is Rhizomatica?
Peter Bloom (PB): Rhizomatica began in 2009 as a quest to make alternative telecommunications infrastructure possible for people around the world dealing with oppressive regimes, the threat of natural disaster, or the reality of living in a place deemed too poor or isolated to cover. Currently, only very large, powerful companies have access to the mobile spectrum and the concessions to provide cellular service. But their business model and the technology that these traditional providers use have proven unable to solve the problem of connecting much of the world. Rhizomatica set out to break this oligopoly and allow communities to become network owners and operators, as well. Thanks to a variety of open-source efforts developed in the last few years, it has become technologically and economically feasible for a community or an individual to provide cellular service to thousands of people. Rhizomatica was amongst the first groups in world to embark on actually making this technology something that could help people.
ST: According to you what has changed in the world of peer production?
PB: What we are trying to do at Rhizomatica is to allow more people to access information and get online. These simple things are much more problematic and difficult positions to hold compared to a few years ago when we were not totally and fully conscious about what was going to happen. I think that the peer production model is based on a series of assumptions about there being a neutral platform on which to do that. This description does not encompass the whole of peer production, but it is an important dimension. Let’s think about when we started doing this mobile mesh network in Nigeria it was totally a peer to peer infrastructure. But those experiences did not scale up partly because of the ways in which the internet has evolved over the last ten years. If you look at the layers of the internet (fiber optic, Internet exchange points (IXPs), etc.) you see massive consolidation. What you see is that these companies, the global platforms like Facebook and Google, are actually the ones building fiber cables and installing them. I think we are very close to losing the peer to peer model of the early internet. Pretty much all traffic on the internet is going through these platforms and then you have the internet turning into a content delivery network, rather than a sort of flat peer to peer network. From the actual architecture standpoint, the industry has dramatically changed how the internet used to be. You can still do peer production on top of all of that, but it’s harder and harder. Like you and I right now we are having a conversation on Signal, right? Which is kind of like oh we like Signal because it has good cryptography. All of us who believe in the good part of peer production, the peer to peer aspect of it I would say we have more or less given up on it. The tools that we were building five or ten years ago like XMPP this is kind of gone. I would say we more or less have lost a lot of ground over the years. We are talking about the largest corporations in the world, Facebook, Google and the like, the most valuable corporations in the world, who have found a way to suck a ton of money out of essentially nowhere. So they get to build their own fiber-optic networks, because they have the money to do so. They have created a completely separate internet on which all their services run and that’s why their stuff works better! You can get a YouTube video to work with a pretty crappy connection. It’s not only a money thing obviously, but when it gets down to it, then you can run all of your traffic through your own data centers and over your own network. You can control it a lot better. But more so, the issue is that the internet has become an unsafe space in a bunch of ways and I don’t think it was like that before or at least it wasn’t evident. There is a lot of garbage, of misinformation and surveillance on the internet and a number of years back it didn’t feel like that. I think the actual infrastructure itself was better, it was fairer, it was more balanced and it was more decentralized. Is it still a tool on which peer production happens? Sure, I mean you can still get your Wikipedia, but it feels less and less like a – I do not want to call it neutral – but it feels less and less like a safe space to be able to do things. I think a lot of the people that we work with including us, are now looking at how do we do a lot of what we want to do by circumventing the internet, how do we do local servers, how do we do local services, how do we tunnel through the internet to meet each other in some safe way? So now the internet itself has become the thing to circumvent, which is interesting. I think a lot of cool stuff is going to come out of that, but again we are talking about really small projects, with not a lot of money. I guess the hackers are not always the most organized group of people and I feel like we are dealing with something that’s highly, highly organized and which has unlimited funds. In this context what do you do? Do you fight back? Do you just completely avoid it? Do you engage with it at all? It’s good that people such as hackers and others are building the kind of services, the kind of tools they want. I just also think, we need to engage, to be more aware of what’s happening with the internet of things for instance. That might potentially reshape not just the way we get information, but how we interact with the world. I feel there is not enough of political engagement with where things are going and that troubles me. What are we actually going to be able to do in the future?
ST: That’s a grim picture. My last question is about imaging the future of peer production. What will it look like in ten years, twenty years?
PB: Well, I mean at this point I am very pessimistic about where things are going. So, again how much of that affects peer production? I mean we will still be able to talk to each other over great distances. We will be able to collaborate and build things. There will still be a thriving Linux code base. But the question is how well that is going to be able to respond to what people need and what people need in a network in a shitty world. I do not know how else to say it. I mean one of the things that we are talking about internally at Rhizomatica is how to rethink our networks for basically the collapse of civilization? I do not want to get too dramatic about it, but the place that we are working in now in Oaxaca, they are getting killed by climate change. Their roads are being washed out in ways they have never before. Their coffee is being killed by these bizarre molds that never grew on them before. People’s lives are being seriously affected, so the question for us if we want to try to help them in their communication is: what does the network need to look like to be able to continue functioning when a bunch of other systems start failing? The simple answers are: we need to put solar energy, we need not to rely on satellites, or fiber-optic. I think that this peer production space needs to probably recognize the fact that people’s lives are becoming more difficult. That is the central piece of the matter. I think the theoretical part needs to be as grounded as possible in praxis and practicability to continue to be useful. What does peer production look like when you know we are living inside this crazy internet network where we are spied on and surveilled? I don’t know exactly what forms it will take but I hope it will allow us to maintain some level of freedom and economy for communities to satisfy their needs. Capitalism and the current state of things is doing the opposite, taking that away from us.
‘HarassMap is working to build a future in which neighborhoods, schools, universities, cafes, restaurants, shops, workplaces, and eventually all of Egypt are all safe spaces that never tolerate sexual harassment and always help people when they are harassed.’
Interview with Mariam Mecky, Communications Unit Head at HarassMap, Cairo, Egypt, 13 March 2019.
Sophie Toupin (ST): What is HarassMap? And how do you think it is linked to peer production?
Mariam Mecky (MM): HarassMap, a volunteer-based organization, was launched in December 2010 by a founding group of four women together with tech partners, advisers, and volunteers. The four founders were prompted to launch after experiencing sexual harassment in their daily lives, and that almost everyone we knew, witness it on a daily basis. They have also been working against it since mid 2000s. HarassMap focuses on working against the social acceptability of working harassment where its vision is to engage all of Egyptian society to create an environment that does not tolerate sexual harassment. Part of HarassMap’s work is to highlight the prevalence of the issue to work against it. To be more specific around HarassMap scope of work, HarassMap is an information and communication technology (ICT)-based participatory action initiative that serves multiple functions: It highlights the gravity of the problem by providing an outlet for testimonies from those who have suffered or witnessed sexual harassment; it provides data that improve understanding of how sexual harassment is evolving in Egypt, which in turn provides HarassMap with information to create relevant communication campaigns and research programs; and it serves as a tool for community outreach teams to motivate the public to stand up against sexual harassment. In this manner, the idea behind HarassMap is directly linked to peer production; where the four founders were self-organized, collaborated, and coordinated on this project with a shared outcome relying on voluntary engagement. Capitalizing also on the idea of crowdsourcing, in which I elaborate more on in further questions, this project very much utilized the internet for this shared outcome.
ST: According to you what is the impact of HarassMap? In what way does it make a difference?
MM: The main successes of HarassMap work is that we use the reports received on the map to draft and publish studies and build campaigns on this data that counter social acceptability and normalization of sexual harassment debunking stereotypes and raising awareness. One of HarassMap’s early successes with creating a zero tolerance anti-harassment policy is its partnership with the biggest public university in Egypt, Cairo University. In that process, HarassMap provided a draft of a recommended well-rounded policy that encompassed definition and types of harassment, enforcement mechanisms and penalties for harassers. We, then, worked with stakeholders from the university, NGOs, and activists to tailor and implement it in the university. This policy is now used as a guideline and reference for 15 other universities in Egypt. HarassMap also assists businesses with adopting and enforcing anti-harassment policies. As a result of our work, we have received requests from hundreds of activists and organizations in other countries to assist them with replicating our model. The founders made the HarassMap concept completely open-source. Since its launch, although it was not its mission until 2016, HarassMap has advised and supported over a hundred activists and NGOs from around the world on setting up HarassMap-inspired initiatives. Independent groups in at least eighty different countries have been advised on how to launch similar projects. The countries include Jordan, Libya, Turkey, South Africa, US, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Cambodia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Kenya, Sudan, UK, India, Nigeria, and some groups in South America. The groups and activists from these countries received advice, and other succeeded in setting up local versions of HarassMap.
ST: What are the main drivers of HarassMap?
MM: At the time of HarassMap’s launch in 2010, legal recourse for people who experienced sexual harassment was limited by several barriers. Victim-blaming and negative effects on reputation were powerful deterrents keeping many silent, and away from police stations. Moreover, the law required bringing the harasser to a police station, where additional harassment often occurred, providing witnesses, and convincing police to report the crime. While not denying that legal reform was needed, the co-founders believed that in a context in which existing laws were not enforced because sexual harassment was not seen as a crime, advocacy for a new law would have little impact on its own. Therefore, they decided to tackle what they believed to be the source of non-enforcement – social acceptability. This idea remains at the core of HarassMap’s work also today. In fact, there are strong social roots and an established history in Egypt for rejecting sexual harassment. We believe that bringing back social discouragement needs to come from within, and we consider ourselves to be ordinary members of the public. We see crowdmapping as a way to decentralize activism on the issue away from experts and policymakers, who often view society as a passive beneficiary, and restore an active role for society in addressing the problem on its own behalf. For the first time in Egypt, HarassMap’s crowdmap offered a free and easy tool for providing a direct means to voice sexual harassment experiences safely and anonymously. And speaking out, HarassMap’s co-founders had learned during their work on the issue prior to HarassMap, was very often the first step to activism. Crowdmapping has, however, been only one element in our approach since the beginning. More than “just a map,” HarassMap simultaneously launched a community mobilization program to train and coordinate anti-harassment activism in neighborhoods, interactive social media outreach and media relations, all designed to build off of each other and the crowdmap to convince people to stand against sexual harassment and deter harassers. The system also bridged a gap, sending victims an auto-response about existing but little-known services like legal aid and psychological counseling. Finally, the reports and map provided evidence for volunteers to mobilize bystanders to create neighborhood “safe areas” in which sexual harassment would not be tolerated.
ST: In your view, what are the main advantages of this approach for the generation and dissemination of a specific type of knowledge?
MM: As previously mentioned, the main driver for HarassMap was working against the social acceptability of sexual harassment. Part of the work against sexual harassment, HarassMap worked on highlighting the extent of the problem initially through the map and expanding into other programs and means. As one of the founders Rebbeca Ciao put it “We can’t say today how bad the problem really is and that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do with HarassMap.” Crowdsourced data collected from the reporting system helps document facts about the issue, counter stereotypes that blame the harassed and make excuses for the harasser, challenge previously held views about who harassers are and what their motivations are, and emphasize the criminality of sexual harassment in Egypt. HarassMap uses an integrated approach to creating zero-tolerance for sexual harassment and assault that includes reporting and mapping harassment incidents to document the problem; public campaigns to spread accurate information and mobilize the public to take action; and anti-harassment policies inside institutions such as universities, NGOs, corporates, and schools, to establish consequences for harassers. These policies are easier to implement and monitor within an institution, empowers their own leaders, and are an important step to spreading a culture of zero-tolerance.
‘Ushahidi is a global not-for-profit technology company that develops integrated tools and services to enable people to generate solutions and mobilize communities for good. We build our open-source software with the intent of strengthening communities and improving lives, empowering users to rapidly and purposefully gather, analyze, respond and act on data and information. Since our founding in 2008 as a tool to monitor and map post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi’s crowdsourcing tools have been used by thousands of groups and millions of people to raise voices, inform decisions, stop suffering and influence change.’
Interview with Ory Okolloh, Co-founder of Ushahidi, Director of Investments at Omidyar Network, Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 June 2019.
Christian Pentzold (CP): If you think about your time with Ushahidi, what was the project about?
Ory Okolloh (OO): At the time, in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential elections, the project was about collecting information from citizens about the post-election battles, what was going on then. It was intended both as a workaround to government censorship at the time, but also kind of a recording of what happened or what works best, which is why the name is Swahili for testimonial. That is how the name came about.
CP: Looking back, what do you think, was the impact of Ushahidi on society or how did it make a difference?
OO: I think in the situation then and even later, it was certainly a gamechanger at first. It relied on the crowd early on, in 2007 or 2008, when the web was a lot more open and things weren’t concentrated on platforms. It was a great model of using the crowd, the people, the peers and all their information. Relying on peers is about correcting wrong information. Folks could report errors other had send in or report what was false. I think this was an opportunity and it was later used in other incidents for crisis response during natural disasters when people were not able to get to the ground immediately. So why not use what people already have known on the ground, carry together what they need? The idea was to rely on the crowd and provide a way for people to share important affairs in a simple manner. I think that had an enormous impact.
CP: What are the main advantages of such an approach for the generation and dissemination of knowledge?
OO: You just have to look at the history of Wikipedia and what were back then called message boards and news boards. This idea of learning from others is still transformational. When you talk about peer production it’s about generating knowledge and being able to learn from people who share information even you were sitting in Nairobi. We never had access to, you know, just knowledge. I think it’s about breaking down the barriers around knowledge by sharing it. I think it also is about the breaking down the boundaries around information. It is this ability to get instant information, not always quality information, but the idea that you don’t need a whole bunch of intermediates who filter information. And finally, I think if you look at how peer production, the idea of language diversity becomes important. How do you share information that makes sense for people. Still, there is much in English but peer production allows you to add generate content in other languages, too.
‘Wikimedia Deutschland is part of a worldwide movement that advocates for free knowledge. As a non-profit organization, we support Wikipedia and its sister projects by promoting volunteers, developing free software, and advocating for the human right to access knowledge and education at all levels of society.’
Interview with Abraham Taherivand, Executive Director of Wikimedia Deutschland, Berlin, Germany, 18 March 2019.
Christian Pentzold (CP): I would like to start with a basic question: What is your project about and how do you think it links to peer production?
Abraham Taherivand (AT): First of all, I would like to highlight that Wikimedia Deutschland itself is an organization that supports a variety of projects around Free Knowledge. There are fifteen different Wikimedia projects, but of course the most known or well-known project is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, which is used by millions of people every day. Wikipedia collects the knowledge worldwide and makes it accessible to everyone at any time. However, I would say encyclopedic knowledge cannot only be represented. It needs to be constantly discussed and negotiated to avoid that there are personal opinions in an online free encyclopedia, because that’s all about. It’s about knowledge and not opinions. And for a project like Wikipedia it needs the intelligence and of course also the joy of the discussion and by the end of the day also the diligence of all the people involved in the project. The major success factor of Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects is, that everybody can participate. This is one mayor point: to be able to contribute and to be part of that. Wikipedia is the world’s largest example for collaboration in a volunteer project and the best proof that it works. The German version of Wikipedia just turned eighteen on Saturday.
CP: Bringing it down to some core points, what would you say are key benefits of this kind of collaboration and production vis-à-vis more bureaucratic or hierarchical systems?
AT: I would say it’s the thousands of volunteers. The volunteers that build our community are working together to create the world’s largest collection of knowledge. Before I joined Wikimedia I came from the business world and you think about what drives the volunteers to contribute. Wikipedia thrives on the participation of as many people as possible. You can say that if we have a monetary incentive model, we could increase the quality of content. But that was exactly the opposite of how Wikipedia started. The idea Jimmy Wales initially had, was to have a bunch of very high professional experts payed to write something. And it did not really work out. The moment at which the system was opened to everybody where you can build on what someone else already put in as content and you can extend that content and keep that content up to date is, I would say, definitely a main driver within Wikipedia. That applies to all Wikimedia projects I would say. It’s clearly the engagement of the volunteers, the passion and the willingness to invest their time to contribute to the projects. And we are coming back to the point that technology is also a driver that enables people to easily collaborate and build on content which is already there.
CP: Speaking about benefits – if we look at the flip side of it, would you also be able to point to costs associated with this kind of openness and information freedom?
AT: From a cost perspective, you can always bring the argument of efficiency. But that’s not how nonprofit organizations are managed or run. Usually we are focusing on the impact we have. I see that the environment is changing around us. The political environment is changing and we want to provide information that is proofed and viable. With a vision of free knowledge, we need to have a free licensing framework around us. Content needs to be available under creative commons and this needs to be addressed constantly. Because if you are not, all of the sudden there could be push backs. Besides that, the digital transformation is something we need to be aware of. Our software did not really change during the last fifteen years, so the base software and the user experience for authors is nearly the same. Of course, during the last ten years the mayor change was there that people are not needed to know really a kind of a programming language to provide content for Wikipedia. So now we have a what-you–see-is-what-you-get attitude, that the people have a more sustainable or easier user experience. Nevertheless, if you don’t have that and everything comes together, then also a project like Wikipedia is under threat and this is at least what we see in Germany where the number of editors is decreasing. There are several reasons for that. On one hand there are technical hurdles. On the other hand, we now have more than 2.2 million articles. The knowledge, has increased and new topics for are not so easily found by new editors. Nevertheless, in general the most important asset – and don’t get me wrong when I use the term asset – is the volunteer base, the community. And of course, we need to take care that the existing community has the ability to grow healthy and to be stable within their own created rules and processes. The argument you usually get from people who are working in a more closed system is that we can either ensure quality or we can ensure that no one is hijacking the project. I personally don’t see this predicament because that’s exactly the point that when a system is open you have the possibility to identify if there is a hijacking process going on or not. In a non-open system, I don’t see that this is possible. Of course, there are always bugs and security issues but at least there is a possibility to be transparent about that.
CP: Looking back: What do you think has changed in a world of peer production and in Wikimedia’s world since you started?
AT: I would definitely say, the awareness and the recognition from the science field. Ten years back, or fifteen years back, you would have been really, really threatened in academia if you would cite from Wikipedia and look there for references. Today, that definitely has changed. Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects are really seen as a trustworthy source of knowledge. That’s definitely something that has changed, especially within the science field. Leaders from the science field reach out to us. This is also due to movements around open science which changed the entire perspective of how Wikipedia works and what the benefits of it are. In terms of awareness, Wikipedia has been among the top-five websites in the world for the past ten years. Only search engines are usually under the top five if you take a look at Alexa. Among the majority of normal users or readers, at least in North America and the Western world, Wikipedia is very, very well known.
‘It was in August 1993, when Ian Murdock started working on a new operating system which would be made openly, in the spirit of Linux and GNU. He sent out an open invitation to other software developers, asking them to contribute to a software distribution based on the Linux kernel, which was relatively new back then. Debian was meant to be carefully and conscientiously put together, and to be maintained and supported with similar care, embracing an open design, contributions, and support from the Free Software community. It started as a small, tightly-knit group of Free Software hackers and gradually grew to become a large, well-organized community of developers, contributors, and users. There are a lot of reasons to choose Debian as your operating system – as a user, as a developer, and even in enterprise environments. Most users appreciate the stability, and the smooth upgrade processes of both packages and the entire distribution. Debian is also widely used by software and hardware developers because it runs on numerous architectures and devices, offers a public bug tracker and other tools for developers. If you plan to use Debian in a professional environment, there are additional benefits like LTS versions and cloud images.’
Interview with Stefano Zacchiroli, former Debian Project Leader, 17 June 2019.
Mathieu O’Neil (MO): So, in a few words: what is your project about and how does it relate to peer production?
Stefano Zacchiroli (SZ): Right, so the project is Debian, making a free software operating system. It’s allowing you to run your computer from down to, you know, making the hardware, up to applications, like Libre Office and productivity tools and games and what not. It is one of the oldest self-organized free software projects, dating back to 1993 and it’s also one of the largest in term of its volunteer base, we estimate that there are still today about one thousand Debian members or Debian developers, we call them, who self-organize to work together and create this operating system. So, it’s kind of historical and also a paradigmatic example of peer production in the context of software and especially free software and open source software.
MO: How do you organize collaboration in your project?
SZ: Debian is pretty much a self-organized project. The creator of the project, Ian Murdock, decided that there was a granularity, that isolated and defined areas of collaboration and in Debian those are our organized packages. A package is a piece of software you can install on Debian. A package can have a single person who is a maintainer of the software, usually it’s a group of people, up to a dozen people. And within a package, maintainers are autonomous. They can do whatever they want, as long as they respect some baseline quality requirements that applies to Debian. To give you an idea of the scale here, Debian is composed of something like tens of thousands of packages. So, when you volunteer, you usually start by noticing that the package you use yourself has some issues. Maybe it is not up to date, maybe it has some bugs, that you want to fix. You start by picking a bugtracker against that package and if you know how to code, the maintainer looks at your patch and may accept it or not. This is the initial step, then you got hooked in, if you keep having an interest in that package you may become one of its co-maintainers. So, this is the site of collaboration and then you can step up the ladder if you wish. Not in terms of authority, but in terms of becoming more interested in Debian as a project, for instance after maintaining many, many packages, I became interested in the infrastructure of Debian projects, so working on quality assurance services, like checking in an automatic way if packages have bugs, and then I also ended up being Debian Project Leader as a kind of ultimate coordinator of activity into the Debian project, but it all starts from packages, which are separate sites of collaboration and then you can move to more cross-cutting responsibilities.
MO: So that would be one of the benefits of peer production, when compared with more hierarchical systems, that there are less barriers to improving the content, but what are the costs?
SZ: This is something which is felt very deeply in Debian, when you want to make a decision, if the decision is within the realm of a specific package, well then it’s clear who has the authority to make the decision. But when you want to make a decision that affects the entire Debian operating system, like changing the way something is done that affects many, many packages, taking the decision might be very challenging, because you end up having a discussion with hundreds of people, who all have their own opinion and who all think that they are very good at making that specific decision, even when they are not. So, how do you organize this discussion, where you have a thousand people? This is a well-known challenge in social movements. Debian has a way to fix that: we try rough consensus, what are the pros and cons of what is being discussed, but in the end if you cannot reach an agreement we have a technical committee, a sort of tribunal, which can settle technical disputes within the project.
MO: What would in your view characterize a successful peer production project, and why?
SZ: This is quite broad and of course my experience of different projects is limited. So, something we have learned recently is keeping disruptive personalities at bay is important. Back in the days in the 1980s and 1990s, in the early days of the Internet, we had this tradition of accepting disruptive personalities in communities, people that will kill discussion and overwhelm every discussion. It is well known now that that will keep new volunteers far from your project and create very toxic environments. So being able to say no and then actually banning those kinds of personalities from your project is something that is needed in every kind of peer production project. Initially you will get some kind of pushback because, you know, “freedom of speech” and that kind of concern, which is actually not really relevant, but it is the typical argument you hear against keeping your community sane. You cannot tolerate intolerance and people who will keep others away from your community, that’s something we have learned and which is very, very important. Keeping a nice, friendly environment is fundamental. It’s a basic requirement. Another one is being clear on where you want to go. Where is the roadmap of your project, where are we within the spectrum of what we are trying to achieve, and then also having easy entryways into your project. The structure of contribution in most peer production projects is well-known now, so you start from people that are contributing very small things. You know, it can be a collaborative writing process, it can be adding bold type, it can be adding a reference or that kind of stuff and then those potentially hopefully high numbers of volunteers on the periphery, some of them become more involved and even fewer of them will become your next leaders. So, you have fun in the process, which starts with a lot of people coming to a group, less people contribute important stuff and very few people contribute very important stuff and you need to reduce the barrier for any sort of contribution along the way. So, having clearly documented ways to make your first contribution and then hooking people in, by making it as simple as possible to contribute something, anything at all. In a software project for instance, it should be very easy to make your first bug report. It should be very easy to make a fix, which is just a typo or something like that, and then everything from there, all the way to becoming an official maintainer of the project, it should be as easy as possible.
MO: What has changed in the world of peer production in general and/or in your project in particular since you started?
SZ: The Internet of course. When Debian started, collaboration over the internet was just beginning. Right now, it’s everywhere. Your potential public of contributors is huge these days. To have tools and to have a number of people with access to the internet, is just incredible. That’s a huge potential. It comes with threats as well, trolls and this idea of clicktivism, the idea that people can contribute something useful by just talking about something, is something that wasn’t really true back then. Back in the day most people connecting over the internet were tech people, so for our software project, they were almost all potential contributors, while these days that’s no longer the case. Anyone can comment on anything. Anyone thinks they are entitled to an opinion, while in a project like Debian the governance model is very much based on who did the job, gets to have a say. People that are not willing to put in work don’t really get a say. Wikipedia and any sort of collaborative project has this kind of issue.
MO: Imagining the future of peer production, what could it be like in ten years’ time?
SZ: That’s a good question. I don’t see any huge change in the tools we are using or the way of contributing we are using today. What I wish is that it would be more possible for people to be activists full-time. Finding a way to do their activism and producing things together, without getting into conflict of interests and so on. So it’s really related more broadly to the question of how do you finance in a socially responsible way to uphold the collaboration and the activism that people are doing. But other than that, I think that in terms of tools, in terms of structure, it won’t be much different from what we have today.
MO: In case you got the chance to engage in a new peer production project, what would it be?
SZ: These days I think it would be very much about open hardware. So essentially, we have opened up a lot of peer production knowledge in software, in arts, in writing, etc. Something which remains relatively segregated is the world of hardware, which is something that is very much controlled by whoever owns the firms, right? These people who own the means to produce physical stuff. We have some improvement there with 3D printing, but I think that’s something that we really care about and are not really involved in any of that today. I know what it is, people are involved in those areas, but it is something I would love to see very much more democratized than it is today.