The reaches of peer production – Wealth of Networks

I can’t help but synthesize this week’s reading a bit with the user-friendliness cases we’ve been studying for Interactive Media Strategies. After reading Benkler’s introductory development information economics and decentralization, I’m wondering if peer production and its elements can be placed on a kind of continuum with user-centered design.

Let me try to break that down.

Most e-mailed list on the NYTimes.com shows a small way users affect production there.

This week I skeptically asked whether there were more examples than Wikipedia of successful collaborative peer production. Delving deeper into Benkler’s theories helped see that in a different way. The key was that I stopped looking for and trying to quantify sites based solely in peer production and instead applied the theories Benkler put forth about information sharing and peer production economics to existing sites I use every day.

In so doing I saw Internet users sharing the production of information everywhere. I saw it on sites like Del.i.cious and thesixtyone where the user participation is central to the function, but I also saw it on sites like the nonprofit I used to work for where supporters will determine whether the International Field Director will shave his beard based on their rate of giving, or on any media site that includes a list of most-emailed or most-read articles.

In those situations, I would argue, invention and innovation are sometimes very meaningfully affected by the users. If a story about the heavily protested execution of a Georgia man is the most e-mailed article one day on NYTimes.com, maybe tomorrow the editor will assign a writer to put together a piece about innocent people being executed. If more people donate online because they really hate beards, maybe he will allow them to upload photos of bad beards.

And from there, it feels like only a small hop to say that folks examining the way their Web sites are used and changing its design as a result (which is what we’ve been discussing in iMedia Strategies) are part of this decentralized approach to the economics of information. Because even though the users of a site aren’t intentionally trying to change it or produce any sort of information for it, they end up affecting the basic layout and functionality of the site. More and more site engineers (I’m thinking of even the big ones like Google and Facebook) rely heavily on usability for their design. In other words, while the sites maintained and produced by the people, for the people are on one end of this continuum, user-centered design is on the other.

The point I’m trying to get at is that users are included in production to greatly varying degrees but on the Internet it is almost unavoidable that they will be contributing to the information market (or nonmarket). While I at first read Benkler to be suggesting we all start open source software companies, or start scanning books and uploading them to share, now I wonder if he isn’t more accurately creating a new framework to examine an inherently user-run beast. He’s not asking for communism, he’s asking for us to embrace this changing attitude toward information–and maybe even recognize the good that can come from it.

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