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[spox] Raw text of O'Neil presentation at Oekonux 4

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27-29 MARCH 2009






Why is there mass participation in online projects?


1. Autonomy (rejection of hierarchy)

2. Distribution (power is shared)


What does distribution mean:

The right to fork (compromised in Web 2.0)

In Web 2.0: people can rapidly attain powerful positions


Legitimacy online

Who rules in autonomous / distributed systems?

Why do others accept their authority?


=> Leaders must _justify_ their central position.


Defining online authority:

1. sovereign authority (role separated from person)

-bureaucratic (also rules, release schedules, official repositories, written records): needs to be democratised to fit communal form

-'value-rational' (Weber 1978)

- collective basis, will of the people

See Debian: Project Leader, Constitution (organisation science: O'Mahony & Ferraro 2007).

But does not account for...


2. charismatic authority (role relinked to person)

- charismatisation of meritocracy (expertise not bureaucratic / hierarchical)

- affective attachment to personal qualities: 

-- brilliance of great founder (hacker-charisma) 

-- position of great node (index-charisma)

See Linux, Wikipedia, Daily Kos


distribution of authority


conflicting authority orders



=> drain on resources

=> unity and purpose, rite of passage


Role of leaders

Integrate contributions / adjudicate conflicts

To be accepted, these decisions must be legitimated by meaningful relationship between role and structure: networks offer no justification.


Organisational form?

Volunteer associations (Harrison 1960)

Collectivist organisations (RothschildWhitt 1979)

Voluntary hierarchies (Weber 2004)



Online tribal bureaucracy (O'Neil 2009)

A hybrid form used by autonomous groups and characterised by:

- cooperative production of free content

- overlapping of authority orders: bureaucratic traits are mixed with collective and charismatic (or 'tribal') traits

- prevalence of conflict

- deliberative procedures 






Comparison: corporate bureaus

(1) advantages of OTB

- Good match people/work (ownership of authority)

- No misuse of resource by insiders (risk by outsiders)

- No representational costs


(2) disadvantages of OTB)

- No (legal) responsibility for well-being of participants

- No means to oblige performance of unpopular tasks (lack of responsiveness / training)

- Since decisions are collectively debated, there is more likelihood of affective conflict (flamewar)


Comparison: communes

(1) advantages of OTB

- Resolve scale issue (length of meetings)

- Less unstable than communes (persons, unlike positions, are subject to sickness / moods)


(2) disadvantages of OTB

- Normative controls less efficient in large groups


Challenges: peer production and conflict

- Elite projects: quarrels over control of development

- Mass projects: Herding of autonomous content producers can generate humiliation

Wikipedia: inflation of authority mechanisms


Challenges: types of conflict

- minor conflict slows down the project

-- task [project content]: uncontroversial

-- affective [communes: persons not roles]: distributed work, but collective decisionmaking

-- process [approach to task]: betrayal of democracy, criticism of injustice


- major conflict consumes the project (combination of affective and process conflict) individual explicitly breaks rules => justifies by opposition to archaic force


Challenges: enforcement

- hard to punish loner or transient effectively (norms assume symmetry of interests)

- granularity (not coarse penalty of Leviathan): even if centralised decision, depends on agreement of individual members to be applied

Debian: reluctance to intervene


Challenges: deliberative procedures

- Fact: path-dependence

- Fact: speed, overexcitement

- Risk: disappearance of due process (notification of rule to obey)?

- Risk: disappearance of sacred quality, of surprise provided by voting?





How to increase market share for peer production?

- Frame in terms of common sense, not common good: 

- Pragmatic, not normative (Open Source rather than FLOSS)

- Personal realisation is paramount in society (see Duncombe 2007)

- Success-story as tool of depolitisation


Peer production in the business

- 'Post-bureaucratic' organisation like W.L. Gore & Associates: no hierarchy, no title: create idea, recruit talent, peer-review of performance, emergent leaders: rankings

- Still have to compete for connections, best projects: still competition


Peer production and the market

- Free content in Capitalism: great product, great advice provision, reach those who would not buy

- Utopia online => consumption of hardware...

- Internet ideology of freedom / 'New Spirit of Capitalism' (Boltanski and Chiappello 2004)


What replaces the market?

- Capitalism rejected domination based on transcendence / tradition.

- Reversion to earlier models of exchange (closeness, mutual help, solidarity): risk of reversion to precapitalist exchange (role=person).

- Tribal model: charismatic / traditional leader

- What form of exchange? (Everyone needs to conform)             


These interrogations: explain my focus on peer organisation 

Important questions remain: justice provision in relation to bureaucracy / State?

Connection to State? Possible? Desirable?

But if to represent viable alternative to bureaus, two other OTB issues need to be resolved.


Expertise and identity

- Tension between mass projects based on participation of amateurs and elite projects based on participation of experts.

- In one case anonymity is accepted.

- But: is anonymity viable (no responsibility)? 

- But: total surveillance? 

- User-centric IDM? Web of trust? Solutions?








Boltanski  L  &  Chiappello  E  (2004  [1999])  The  New  Spirit  of  Capitalism, London: Verso.

Duncombe  S  (2007)  Dream:  ReImagining  Progressive  Politics  in  an  Age  of Fantasy, The New Press, New York. 


Harrison P (1960) `Weber's categories of authority and voluntary associations', American Sociological Review, Vol. 25, No. 2.


Rothschild-Whitt  J  (1979)  `The  collectivist  organisation:  an  alternative  to rational-bureaucratic models', American Sociological Review, Vol. 44, No. 4.


O'Mahony  S  &  Ferraro  F  (2007)  `The  emergence  of  governance  in  an open-source community', Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 50, No. 5. 


O'Neil  M  (2009)  Cyberchiefs:  Authority  and  Autonomy  in  Online  Tribes, London: Pluto Press.


Weber  M  (1978  [1922])  Economy  and  Society:  An  Outline  of  Interpretive Sociology, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.


Weber  S  (2004)  The  Success  of  Open  Source,  Cambridge,  MA:  Harvard University Press.





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