Effort Sharing (was: Re: [ox-en] Material peer production (Part 1: Effort Sharing))
- From: Stefan Merten <smerten oekonux.de>
- Date: Mon, 14 Apr 2008 19:39:56 +0200
Hi Christian and all!
I think I start to understand where the base of our disagreement is: I
seem to see practice of peer production projects differently and also
don't share some of your basic assumptions.
2 months (76 days) ago Christian Siefkes wrote:
The first characteristic of peer production is that the effort required to
reach the goals of a project is shared among those who care enough to
Yes. But that sharing of effort is nothing special but a common
characteristic of all types of work with a division of labor.
How this sharing is organized depends on the kind of project.
Projects creating free software or open knowledge use a style which
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Heylighen> Francis Heylighen 
describes as "stigmergic" (hint-based). The work done in in such projects
leaves "stimuli" or hints motivating others to continue. Examples of such
hints are to-do lists, bug reports, and feature requests in free software
projects; or "red links" to missing articles and listings of "most wanted
articles" in the Wikipedia. They point participants and potential
participants to the tasks that are worth doing.
But this is *at best* part of the truth. I agree those hints exist.
But I disagree that they play a major role in the sense that they
guide what volunteers do. From my experience volunteers not only
self-select *themselves* to do some effort but also *what* they do.
Take yourself as an example. Do you remember that I approached you on
using the Oekonux wiki to do all those definition pages? Though it was
obvious that this was a strong need for Oekonux, though it was obvious
that you are capable of doing a good job here you as an Oekonux
contributor decided to not help that common goal but instead set up
your own thing. I think this would have been no difference if I had
set up some to-do list with that entry.
But that is a general trend I can see also in other peer production
projects: Volunteers do what they like. Only on rare conditions they
pick up an aribtrary topic from some to-do list and execute it. If at
all then this is something which is done by core team members - but
rarely by arbitrary volunteers.
Eric S. Raymond called that "Scratch your own itch" and IMHO he was
very right on this. I'll work on that item on a to-do list when it is
*my* itch - not because it is on a to-do list. That behavior IMHO is
part of the Selbstentfaltung of the volunteers. In fact if this would
be differently I'd not think of volunteers any more.
This hinting system also serves as an informal mechanism for prioritizing
tasks: the more people care for a task, the more likely it is to be picked
up by somebody (since the corresponding hints tend to become more visible
and explicit, and since people are more likely to pick up a task they wish
to be done).
That implies that volunteers react to those hints. From my experience
I don't agree with this. May be you have different experiences?
And since everybody is free in choosing the tasks they want to
do, participants will generally be more motivated than in a market-based
system, where they have to follow the orders of their boss or customer.
Yes. But the to-do list is only a motivation for some - and in my
experience for a very few. Instead people scratch their own itch and
take effort for new things which are much more interesting than some
bloody old to-do list.
But we can experiment easily with this on Oekonux. I can quickly set
up a to-do list and then we'll see how tasks get done.
They also tend to pick up those tasks they think they are good at, ensuring
that the different talents and skills of people are applied in the best
That's IMHO only half the truth. There is always the motivation to
tackle a new problem, use a new tool / technology or something
similar. In the contrary: If you are really good at something there is
a chance that it gets routine, you get bored from it and look for new
challenges. Also part of Selbstentfaltung. Computers are useful here
in that they have a great potential of automation.
For projects producing freely copyable goods, such a hint-based system with
unconditional access and voluntary contributions is very reasonable. There
is no need to exclude non-contributors from the benefits from the project,
since admitting them doesn't cause any additional cost (or only a very
Sorry, but there is no logical need to couple contributions to use of
a product. Using a product and contributing to its production are two
completely different things and I can not see the slightest necessity
to artificially bind them together. At least not on a societal level.
And BTW: The cost of creation of the copy is mainly taken by the
downloader who pays for own bandwidth and local storage.
and every additional user might sooner or later decide to
follow one of the hints and become a contributor.
Once again I don't think this matches actual practice. A Free Software
project does not make available stuff in order to attract
contributors. It is not sitting in the bush to catch the next users of
the product to ask them to contribute.
And even non-contributing
users are often beneficial for the project, since they might increase the
motivation of contributors (it feels good to know that there are people out
there using your software or reading your texts).
That's true indeed.
Things change if the costs of admitting additional users become so high
that you can no longer rely on mere hints and voluntary contributions to
make up for them.
See above on the coupling of contributions to and use of a product.
In fact it is often the case that a user does not have the skills to
contribute to a product s/he is using. If you want to install such a
coupling - for whatever reason - I feel you can't do without some
abstract super structure which smoothens this skill gap. In capitalism
this abstract super structure is called money and its human side
(roughly) boils down to measuring labor time. And I can not think of
any such abstract super structure without alienation - but may be I
can get convinced otherwise.
In such cases, more explicit agreements about how to
distribute effort will become necessary. In the BitTorrent example,
admitting more users mainly requires additional _bandwidth_, hence users
are expected to contribute bandwidth.
Even this is not true. More bandwidth is only useful for faster
operation. It's not an absolute need.
The problem you are dealing with here is - AFAICS - well known. See
In material production, a main
bottleneck is _effort_--time spent on behalf of a project, doing tasks
that are required for reaching the goals of the project (in the bicycle
example, such tasks might include designing, assembling, and producing
bicycles; and building, cleaning, and maintaining a factory where the
bicycles are produced).
Effort is not limited to material production. Effort is also done in
digital projects. In that respect I can not see the slightest
difference between virtual and less-virtual projects.
Everybody who wants to benefit from the project (to
get a bike) might thus be expected to _contribute some effort_ to the
project (other resources are required as well, but this will be a topic for
Can you give any logical reason for this? I mean beyond "who does not
work may not eat"?
Thus, the tasks required to reach the goals of the project are
distributed among those who want to benefit. (You think it's crazy to have
to spent effort for every little thing you want to get? Bear with me, we'll
come to that in the next part).
No need to wait for the next part because it is so well-known from
Distributing Effort Through Weighting Labor
A project could distribute the effort required for production more or less
evenly among those who want to benefit, asking everybody to contribute
roughly the same amount of effort. But how to compare efforts? Effort is
_time_ spent on behalf on the project
Measuring labor time. Hmm... So you end up with the same logical basis
as abstract labor has. Interesting...
--time spent doing _tasks_ required
to reach the goals of the project. Both these factors are important. If a
project would just measure _time_ spent for the project regardless of the
_tasks_ people are doing, it would probably have trouble distributing all
the tasks it needs to be done, since there will be some popular tasks that
attract more volunteers than necessary, while there won't be enough
volunteers for other, unpopular tasks.
This problem can be addressed by balancing the _time_ factor with the
_task_ factor. I call this the _weighted labor_ approach: the _time_ spent
on behalf of the project is multiplied with a factor expressing the
_popularity of the task_ they are doing. If there are more volunteers than
necessary, this factor (the _labor weight_) is decreased; if there aren't
enough volunteers, it is increased.
And now you regulate the price of labor by a market. The supply side
is the popularity thing while the demand side is the "needs of the
If you now factor in that the popularity of a task says nothing about
the skill set needed for it you end up with a plain labor market. On
the one side you have projects - in capitalism called employers - and
on the other side you have potential contributors - in capitalism
called employees. Employers compete for employees and vice versa.
Classical example of price building.
Thus a popular task (say, programming)
will end up with a lower labor weight (say, 0.5), while an unpopular task
(say, garbage removal) will end up with a high labor weight (say, 2.0).
It's really funny but now you are introducing the societal average
necessary labor by generating general factors.
This means that if you are expected to contribute ten _weighted hours_ to
the project, you'll have to decide whether you would rather spent twenty
hours writing software or else five hours removing garbage (provided that
you are capable of doing either)--if you pick the unpopular task, you'll
benefit by getting more time for other activities outside the project.
You "benefit by getting more time for other activities outside the
project". That is really worth reading several times. So you are
talking of free time as to be distinguished from labor time. I'm
really sorry but if *this* doesn't remind you of plain old capitalist
labor I don't know what could.
Such a _task weighting_ system has some similarities to the __hint__-based
task distribution systems described by Francis Heylighen. High labor weights
are hints pointing people to the tasks that are especially wanted.
I find it most interesting on how quickly you are reinventing the
fundaments of capitalism here. AFAICS your only advantage over LETS
schemes is that you don't take concrete labor time as the basis but
add in some societal factor. Though that makes it even more similar to
capitalism :-/ .
How to Tie Benefits to Contributions
Since I disagree with this approach in general I don't comment on it
What if many people want a certain good and not all of their wishes can be
satisfied, e.g., due to limited resources?
I'd suggest to leave this case to capitalism until peer production can
It is important to understand that no _exchange_ takes place between those
who produce a good and those who use it: increasing the _cost_ (expected
contributions) of a good won't increase it's _production effort_, and it is
the production effort which the producers get recognized as contributions.
That resembles that workers get paid only their reproduction costs -
not the prices of the products they produce. The only interesting
thing to know is where in your type of capitalism the surplus value
ends up. Proper analysis will bring this out for sure.
Both the weighted labor model and these flexible allocation models ensure
that everybody's preferences have free play. Nobody is forced to do a task
they do not really want to do or to live in conditions they don't really
Just as in capitalism. Of course nobody forces you. But if you want to
get some benefit you need to labor.
Contact: projekt oekonux.de