The Journal of Peer Production - New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change New perspectives on the implications of peer production for social change
Review (Free Software trajectories) image

Review A

Review by Mathieu O’Neil, Université Paris Sorbonne / Australian National University

1) Is the subject matter relevant?
Yes, the factors which make free projects succeed or fail is an important topic for JoPP in general and for an issue on FLOSS in particular (though I’m not sure it conforms exactly to the epistemological angle of this special issue).

2) Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations of bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?
I very much appreciated the connection made to earlier participatory forms and analyses.

In my view there are a few additional points which could be included:

Yana Breindl and others have pointed out that in projects structured as informal concentric circles there is a contradiction between a democratic discourse and the reality of control by a tiny elite. [See Breindl, Y. The Dynamics of Participation and Organisation in European Digital Rights Campaigning, JeDEM]

Indeed Jo Freeman classically wrote in the Tyranny of Structurelessness about what often happens when there are no explicit rules – cliques emerge and manipulate communication and decisions behind the scenes. In this case what happens when there is no official procedure for appeals as for example on Dyne? When the authors write that what is important in Dyne is “maintaining transparency, cooperation, exchange”, a bit more detail on how this is practically achieved would have been useful since these values are dependent on the whims of the core members, absent oversight or redress mechanisms. At least make a reference to an actual conflict and how it was resolved;

The authors do not pay sufficient attention to the technical means used to communicate – Debian has dozens of email lists which are used to debate issues and also serve as a constantly evolving archive of debates and decisions. Those who control the lists and those who remember past discussions and can refer to them play a special role, and this contributes to maintaining a barrier between the project and outside institutions;

A related question is that some participants have unofficial authority. In Debian ex-DPLs or members of the (unelected) Technical Committee pull a lot of weight;

By the same token there is often an unofficial hierarchy based on technical competency from the inner core (those who oversee infrastructure which spans across several modules or the whole project) to the periphery (users);

In general the authors do not deal with the informal dimensions of control. Rules are often complemented by unspoken norms which are enforced by the community. It would have been useful to see how this applies in the various configurations they study.

3) Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s mean of validating assumptions or making judgements?
There are many works referenced in the text which are absent from the bibliography (Riehle, Kaufman, Lynd, Carpentier etc), others are spelled wrongly (“O’Mahoney” instead of “O’Mahony”).

4) Is the article well written?
There are minor issues which are too numerous to list here, particularly mistakes with the singular/plural. I am happy to copy-edit a revised version.

5) Are there portions of the article that you recommend to be shortened, excised or expanded?
The foundations the paper is built on – the characterisation of OPs and FSEs initially laid out in Fish et al (2011) – intuitively appears as accurate and productive. However in this paper the “trajectory” of a project seems less relevant to participation than where it sits in the end, e.g. what form of ownership is eventually available to participants. We are essentially told that the more commercial a project is, the less options for free participation there are (and the less attractive it is to the “crowd” of volunteer labour). While not incorrect, this can hardly be called a novel or surprising discovery. The extent to which the trajectory / journey historically impact the ownership structure is not really apparent – rather than movement, we have statis: this project works like this, this one like that. This is because the article spends too much time describing how each project works in great detail, and not enough comparing the projects according to the five categories they outlined at the beginning. These categories need to be put to work analytically. Perhaps the last part of the article should be structured by category and not by project: how do allies act in this configuration or that, etc.

Another possibility would be for the authors to examine more precisely the strategies actors use to deal with the constraints they face during conflicts, decisions, appeals: did these evolve over time?

Review B

Review by Anonymous Reviewer

The topic of the paper is clearly relevant for the journal and for the special issue. It is overall well written and the discussion is structured in a logical way. I would recommend it for publication with minor changes as an middle-of-the-road paper, though, I think that there is more potential in the research question being asked, if the authors do some substantial reworking of their argument, the paper could make a novel contribution to the debate.

It is implied that there is original empirical research in the article, and the chief contribution is a description of four cases resulting in a classification of different types or tendencies of projects. However, the empirical work mentioned under ”method” is not discussed in any detail. The authors should specify what has been done, if indeed, they want to put stress on this. My hunch though is that there has been one interview with Jaromil, and for the rest, it is a literary review of previous research of the four mentioned cases. Nothing wrong with that, something interesting can be brought to the table with a litteraray review, but then one has to be up-front with what one has been done and want one seeks to achieve.

Seen as chiefly a theoretical piece and a litterary review of previous research, as opposed to presenting novel empirical results, the theoretical discssion could be deepened, as well as it could benefit from clarifying some more analytical distinctions. There is a massive theoretical litteratury which the article touches on, and which could brace up the discussion (buraucracy à la Weber, recuperation/capitalism, or incorporation and whitewashing, extensively discussed in social movement theory, or, with Castoriadis, already present in Kelty’s book, the distinciton between instituting and instituted). I dont propose to the authors to give an extensive overview of these debate, but they could choose one of these perspectives and dig deeper into such a theoretical discussion.

As for the analytical distinctions, a major one when trying to answer the question (i.e. ”why initially FOSS tend towards formalisation”) is between factors endogenous to the project (power laws, coordination of effort, etc) and external (demands from clients, hostile corporate take-overs, etc.). A very similar problematic, which the authors might want to have a look at, has been studied by George Dafermoes as concerns FreeBSD (see article: ”Authority in Peer Production: The Emergence of Governance in the FreeBSD Project” in #1 of Journal of Peer Production and Phd dissertation: Governance Structures of Free/Open Source Software Development. 2013).

The potential I see in this paper lies in the gestures the authors make to a historical comparison between FOSS organisation and earlier experiments with direct democracy. The mention two, the civil rights movement and the idea of industrial democracy. This could be a very interesting road to travel, few such historical comparisons have been made before. It remains a gesture, though, because the paragraphs with the historical overview is too short and schematic. My primary suggestion is that the authors choose one of these fields (because the litterature is vast), read into it more thoroughly, and then situate their four cases in that historical context.

The tradition of direct democracy within the civil rights movement is a hugh topic to enter into. It would make sense going in this direction, and make a comparison with the four cases discussed by the authors, since the historical conneciton with the civil rights movement and the American computer scene is very direct. To mention one example, Fred Moore, the founder of Homebrew Computer Club.

If the authors choose instead to focus on the connection to Industrial Democracy & Scandinavian school, then I have a bit more to say, as I know this litterature better. There are some odd claims made in this paragraph by the authors. I reacted to that the authors mention John Stuart Mill as an inspirational source for this movement, but leaves out Karl Marx! This is a conspicious omission indeed. Then the authors offer a truly Fabianesque explanation to why the movement for Industrial Democracy died out: the unions betrayed the hopes by insisting on class antagonism (!). This dubious claim is made in an assertive way and without any references to back it up. In accounts given by people that were involved (Cooley – Beer or Architect, Pelle Ehn, D. Noble – Progress Without People and many others) union buraucracy did play a key role in betraying the movement, but in the opposite way, the unions feared the bottom-up, direct democratic incentives from rank-and-file and prefered to seek agreement with the employers, who were firmly against such challenges to the rightful authority of the managers. There would be many interesting parallels to draw with the current developments, but then the authors need to do a proper reading of the litterature and get the history right.

My general assessment.
As I said at the outset, the paper is ok, but it has a much greater potential. My impression is that the authors proposes to discuss a topic that could be controversial and intersting, the relation between community and firms/organisation, with the question of whose the tail and whose the dog, with all that implies in terms of politics, autonomy, co-option etc. But the authors balk at engaging this more strident discussion, instead hiding behind the pretence of describing a taxonomy of existing projects. That leaves me frustrated, as the rich insights, historical perspectives and theoretical discussions that could be had are not developed very far.

Minor remarks

page 2, under ”FOSS trajectories”
I reacted to the phrase ”the modernist notion of individual property”. Does this imply that there is a post-modern notion of property, or does it imply that individual property is just a notion? If one is speaking about ”property” (as opposed to say architecture), then the corresponding temporality should be ”capitalism” rather than ”modernity”.

”problematizing the boundaries of established categories and their taken for granted…”
This accusation hangs in the air, and leaves me wondering: who is it that takes all of this for granted? The authors do not return to this claim later in the text, it does not seem to play an important role for their argument, and so my conclusion is that the authors are simply ensuring the reader that at least it is not them. Better to drop it than leave a loose, unadressed accusation.

Table 2
Reference to Hirschman’s terminology (exit/voice), which however is not introduced nor discussed. A few words could be in order to situate the terminology, if the authors think it helps explain their case.