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 A

Reviewer: Anonymous

1. Is the subject matter relevant?
Relatively. It covers again the question of mesh networking and the political aspects of this technical project, but within a new context of surveillance.  Like many works in this area the mesh network architecture is somehow collapsed on to or articulated with radical politics, and like many “technically-minded activist-oriented academic researchers” the authors have difficulty  effectively separating these functions and their ideas.

2. Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations or bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?
The literature review covers much of the existing social science research on wireless networking and its politics. It is a bit unbalanced in its critique of ethnography (especially considering that these researchers also use the same approach and ask many of the same questions. There seems also to be a bit of a missing piece in that the authors don’t truly seek to bridge the gap between socio-technical and technical work, and indeed do not really define what the intersection might be between the social scientific and technical literature they review. The authors need to include a conceptual framework that explains why they choose their research questions, in the context of previous research, and where these questions seek to contribute to the state of the art. For example, the third question introduces ‘personal and organizational limitations, controversies and tensions’ which cover different areas of the previous research on mesh networks, intersecting with different theoretical perspectives. If the authors wish to pursue controversy analysis some of this literature should be mentioned, or if organizational forms are the main consideration they should make this clear as well.

Finally, given the journal’s focus, some reference to the ongoing debates around peer to peer culture in relation to collaboration and competition. Otherwise the project remains thinly and loosely descriptive.

The section on politics and telecom policy is also a bit strangely placed after the research questions. If this context is also part of what drives this research? If so can it be theorized before the research questions, as part of a broader framework positioning peer production as a response to this situation? The significance of the local versions of the widespread opposition protests should also be better positioned, perhaps with reference to the peer-to-peer mesh networking and other peer to peer organizational practices like those underway in Barcelona (Corsin-Jimanez is an author to cite here).

3. Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s means of validating assumptions or making judgements?
The sample size for interviews is very small and much of the analysis continues to focus on individual motivations, which does not produce novel results (much previous research on hacking culture including my own and Biella Coleman’s work touches on fun as motivation, and also on the difficulty of separating politics, fun, and hacking practice) so the authors should push hard to see what they can find that is novel. I would thus suggest that they spend less time describing the various motivations of mesh networkers and more time analyzing what if anything is novel about this project compared to the others worldwide that might be similar.  The consequences of the divergent motivations as presented here seems to be that the project won’t take off or develop. Why is this interesting? Is there a strong movement elsewhere towards privacy that is frustrating the Montreal activists? Or were other social externalities produced by their failure to get the mesh to operate? (as in Katrina Jungnickel’s study)?  The article could be revised to include policy review as a complementary methodology, which would allow the paper to deepen its connection to the policy issues that clearly interest one of the authors, and address the shortcomings of the interview method with such a small sample size.

4. Is the article well written?
The structure is a bit loose, and the article needs a better focus so that some of the novel points raised by the respondents are not supported. The article needs to focus more on the key conceptual challenges raised within the field, and link its own findings to these challenges. If the findings are not novel, but instead validate findings from previous similar studies, this should be noted instead, and the structure put in place to address this.

5. Are there portions of the article that you recommend be shortened, excised or expanded?
The literature review should be expanded, and the empirical sections rewritten with a sharper focus on politics and architecture, as opposed to description of various competing points of view. In particular by the end I am not sure, as a reader, of the value of investigating this project in this way. What does RL achieve politically, or culturally? It is unclear and even the advocates appear divided and not always convinced. If this is a matter of critically investigating the alternatives and finding them wanting, perhaps a stronger connection to the industrial or policy framework later in the paper would be more interesting.

Suggestions for improvement:

  • – include relevant political peer-to-peer literature in your literature review
  • – make explicit and bring forward the discussion about policy and surveillance
  • – consider using policy review as an explicit methodology to address the shortcomings of interviews with a small sample size
  • – refine research questions to demonstrate what is novel about this particular case (or note that this paper is primarily a validation of previous studies; in which case make explicit links to these)
  • – tighten the descriptive passages covering the different rationales for participation, and enhance and expand the sections that raise questions about the political or policy impact of these projects (or else, as above, state that the research validates previous studies)
  • – clearly connect the results to the research questions and to the existing empirical and conceptual literature identify, if relevant, any clear directions for policy, activism or practice resulting from this study.

Review B

Reviewer: Anonymous

1. Is the subject matter relevant?
Yes, the subject matter is relevant to the Journal of Peer Production as well as to the Special Issue on Alternative Internets.

2. Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations or bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?
The treatment of the subject matter is interesting but it has not been well-developed from a theoretical or methodological perspective. Also, there are a large number of important citations that are missing from the analysis including many studies of community wireless networks conducted over the past 15 years i.e. Sandvig, Meinrath, MacKenzie, Forlano, Bar, SSRC-New America Foundation Report on mesh networks by Forlano and Powell etc. The authors criticize existing scholarship for not being critical enough but their study does not go beyond existing research in a particularly rich or nuanced way. The study brings up many disparate themes as is common with ethnographic work but it does not go into sufficient depth on any of these themes or tie them to particular theoretical arguments, concepts or methodological approaches.

Also, the study is fairly late in the development of these networks. While it is true that these networks are understudied, it is not clear what this study adds. The study is also missing the bigger picture of global practices around these networks with the exception of Jungnickel. There are many networks in many countries around the world that would be interesting to mention in more than a footnote. The article is missing discussion of these networks (and similar technologies) vis a vis Arab Spring and Hong Kong protests, both of which resulted in mainstream media attention. If surveillance is the main issue, then more use of scholarship around surveillance should be included i.e. Deibert’s Citizen Lab at University of Toronto.

3. Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s means of validating assumptions or making judgements?
The authors have not done a sufficient job of analyzing the data in order to reveal deeper meanings and, perhaps, even counterintuitive findings. The interpretations are fairly straightforward and literal. As such, they do not add a lot to existing discussions of mesh networks. Also, there is not enough discussion of the different kinds of CWNs and mesh networks that exist since many of the early networks were not actually mesh networks. Mesh networking technology did not function particularly well during the early days of this technology and as such there were barriers to participation and use as well as technical obstacles as documented by Sandvig.

4. Is the article well written?
The article is straightforward but it is not particularly well-written in that it is mainly a series of quotes and descriptions without a very strong narrative or rich, evocative language that is often common with ethnographic studies.

5. Are there portions of the article that you recommend be shortened, excised or expanded?
The article requires a much richer literature review (which theoretical approaches, concepts etc.) an methodology section. The article does not give any detail about how the ethnographic study was conducted, how the data was analyzed etc. The concluding section could be expanded and more powerfully stated as well.

Suggestions for improvement:

Greatly expand the theoretical framework and methodology sections. Analyze the data with a narrower set of questions and concerns. Focus the article on a more specific theme and go into much deeper detail on this theme. Give more attention to the value of existing work rather than dismissing it without doing much to further these studies. Instead, it would be valuable to pick up on existing themes and apply them to your own study. Contribute more substantially to the scholarly conversation rather than offering another case study (of which there are already plenty).


Review C

Reviewer: Mark Gaved

1. Is the subject matter relevant?
Yes. This is a report of the visions, goals and challenges of a small community wireless mesh network by social scientists (including at least one self-reporting on their own network). Thank you for reporting on this initiative. The social and political background to the network is laid out and a wide ranging discussion of the challenges and goals are explored through reporting from an online survey and face to face interviews. However more careful focussing of the paper is required to help the reader move through the narrative.

2. Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations or bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?
Overarching research questions of great interest are raised in the introduction, with further questions identified in the third section. I think that the specific research questions in the third section “Research Questions and Methodology” should be brought to the Introduction and presented to the reader much earlier, perhaps the first or second paragraph: this will clarify the main direction the reader can expect to see the paper develop. In the Introduction you note a number of different areas you intend to explore and the paper would benefit from focusing these down to a smaller number of distinct research questions to follow through in the article, e.g. you note:

  • “…what might the networks of tomorrow look like, emerging from the ooze of the primordial surveillance state that we become more aware of everyday? Are these efforts to reinvent networked communication up to the challenge of both providing communications infrastructure and safeguarding our personal privacy?”
  • “…we were eager to examine Réseau Libre’s politics and goals. We also aim to learn about the technical practices of the individuals involved, to analyze the extent to which their project-oriented politics extend into their personal uses of technology and vice-versa.”
  • “…we examine the ideals and practices at work within the bounds of the mesh and its members, as well as the personal relationships of these individuals with technology and the internet outside the mesh. We explore, more indirectly, the contemporary issues of autonomy and utility, ideological and political consistency, operational security and social infrastructure. “

I understand there is overlap but I felt overwhelmed with all these different potential directions that the article might go and I think simplifying this wide range of directions, or structuring them to show how they move from the general to specific RL context, would strengthen the paper.

You note that there has been little reporting of mesh networking: “Our work here seeks to fill a significant gap in the existing literature which is overwhelmingly technical” and note there is some social science reporting. It is a valuable contribution to offer work that bridges domains. However, the topics raised in the discussion sections in the middle of the paper reflect on challenges in Réseau Libre which are not unique to mesh networks (e.g. motivations for joining a community network initiative, the challenge of achieving a critical mass of users in a DIY wireless network) so I think this Literature Review would be strengthened by referring to work where other authors have explored the challenges faced previously by other networking communities. I don’t think the specific technical aspect of a mesh network as compared to a wireless, non-meshed network necessarily lead to different motivations for participation from these other DIY networks, or the challenges of ensuring technically naïve end users’ security, so the paper would benefit from noting key works where other authors have descried these challenges for other types of community networks (including wired networks). If you believe the mesh network aspect does distinguish RL’s challenges from other community networks you could indicate in the text what those specific distinctions are. It might be work looking at writing by Jonathan Baldwin and others around the Red Hook Initiative wireless mesh network, or Mary Bina’s work on the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. The discussion around the motivations for participation would be strengthened by considering how sustainable in the long term these motivations are, and the consequences of if the motivations are short term only: perhaps also theoretical strengthening, e.g. reference to Deci’s work on motivation?

3. Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s means of validating assumptions or making judgements?

  • Yes. The paper needs to be clearer about the research methodology and the number of participants the data is drawn from.
  • It’s noted that the researchers were able to “interact with eight participants (out of about 42), who answered the online survey and/or met us for a face to face interview”. Please indicate how many participants filled in the online survey, and how many met you for an interview. Small sample sizes are not necessarily a methodological issue but the lack of clarity about numbers calls into question the reliability of the data.
  • You note five participants interviewed: if this is so, note it in the methodology section. How many online surveys were returned?   It is noted that subscribers to the open mailing list “could participate in an online survey with about twenty questions”: please tell me exactly how many questions.
  • You note “Many project participants” in a number of places to indicate the strength of opinions– given that you have 8 participants in total, please indicate actual numbers rather than using general descriptors.
  • In some cases where you present data it is not clear whether you are drawing on survey data, interview data, or both, please could you indicate what you are drawing on.
  • In the section “Usage and motivations of joining Réseau Libre”: you note “We could resume some of the main motivations of the main motivations in a few points, though these are only some main tendencies, and by far not all of them”. Please indicate how you’ve selected the following five points (and why you didn’t choose others). They are all very interesting and valid points but you should clarify how you’ve made your selection.
  • Under “Guiding principles of Réseau Libre (Political motivations)” you note “most current members seem to agree on a few core guiding principles” – it would be good to indicate how you’ve come to this conclusion (where the data comes from), this would strengthen the argument. Some of the guiding priciples” noted appear to be general opinions, while others feel like they are derived from an agreed written document (e.g. “Consensus decision-making is another guiding principle”) – could you clarify if there’s a set of principles or similar document that has been generated by the group, or if this is your assessment of the group’s philosophy?
  • You note: “Mesh internet tends also to be slower the further you are from the antenna” – is this something specific to all forms of wireless networking, or specifically mesh networking?

4. Is the article well written?
The article tells a very interesting story but needs some editing before it can be published.

The paper should be checked as there are typographical errors and some expressions that reduce its impact and may cause some misunderstandings. I would recommend the article should be further proofed before it can be accepted for publication.

5. Are there portions of the article that you recommend be shortened, excised or expanded?

The section on “Social disruption, politics, and telecoms” should be modified to more clearly introduce Réseau Libre. This section describes the political and social background that inspired the RL group however there needs to be clearing bridging from the general discussion to the RL introduction. Furthermore I think some of this general discussion could be more focused to point at the RL work: I was not sure of the relevance of the long quote describing the three phases of the 2012 Quebec movement: if there’s a clear reflection of the RL work that responds to each of the phases, or a specific phase, perhaps you could expand your text to make this clear (otherwise, I am a little confused at why I am being given a detailed breakdown).

It’s great there is a thread of a discussion about sustainability running through the paper and really good you are honest about the challenges Réseau Libre faces. I would like to see some of the key points drawn together: you note “..If kept in its current state, the mesh network will maintain its low number of users and participants…” but we should also recognize that there are also scenarios in which it may decline. I would be interested to hear if there has been reflection on other networks’ failures and how RL members believe their approach may overcome other groups existential crises: was this discussed in your interviews? Literature references to sustainability crises may strengthen your discussion, e.g. Damsgaard and Scheepers (1999) work on the existential crises that corporate intranets face could be used as a theoretical lens.

In the conclusion, you note “It [Réseau Libre] has … become a starting point for other projects”. This is intriguing. Please briefly describe some of the key projects that RL has triggered. Readers will be likely to want to find out more about the other projects, and understand which aspects of RL have been seen to be influential in the local area.

Suggestions for improvement:

This is an interesting paper about a community led mesh networking initiative. I think it raises issues found by a number of DIY community network initiatives and it would be strengthened by referring to these, as in a number of discussion areas the challenges are not specifically due to the mesh nature of the wireless network (as opposed to point to point wireless networks, or wired community networks).  The literature review could therefore be strengthened by referring to other similar initiatives. The authors could clarify whether they think the challenges are due to specifically the use of a meshing protocol or are more generally found in technology based community initiatives.

See above sections in this review for specific requests for changes.