Saturday, March 29, 2014

Summary: Kreiss et al. "The Limits of Peer Production"

Kreiss, Daniel, Megan Finn, and Fred Turner. "The Limits of Peer Production: Some Reminders from Max Weber for the Network Society." New Media & Society. 13:2 (2011): 243-259.

Kriess, Finn and Turner’s article argues that there is now a dominant “utopian consensus” concerning online or “digitally enabled” peer production (e.g. Wikipedia, Amazon book reviews, some kinds of online journalism, open-source software, fan fiction, etc.) that celebrates its democratic, egalitarian, and liberatory effects. Their article offers a caution about and critique of what they see as an overly celebratory view about peer production’s democratic and social levelling effects.

Their main thesis is that the celebratory consensus view of peer production needs to adopt the kind of rigorous scrutiny that Max Weber aimed at the modern bureaucracy. They argue that the consensus view of peer production is based on its contrasting itself to all that is commonly held as “bad” concerning the quintessential modern organizational form, industrial bureaucracy.

Kriess et al offer a point-by-point critique of the accuracy of five claims that are the foundation of peer production’s alleged superiority to the bureaucratic form. Using a nuanced understanding of Weber’s work, they show that despite its “iron cage” problems, bureaucracy has its more flattering and functional aspects (e.g. an ability to efficiently carry out large-scale, routine tasks over the long term; training/expertise; codified rules; rules of conduct; transparency; accountability; and especially rules that may explicitly enshrine social values such as equality, inclusivity, and minority and workers’ rights). Many of these are lacking in various forms of peer production with serious consequences for its often hyped egalitarian and democratic effects.

They argue that we should be asking new research questions that: explore the consequences of eschewing codified bureaucratic values like accountability or inclusivity; that examine when participation in peer production intrudes in subtly coercive ways in our daily life; explore how peer production intersects with bureaucratic organizations; and investigate instances in which peer production has been coopted to mobilize unpaid intellectual labor or leveraged to benefit the bottom lines of large, leaner and meaner, but decidedly bureaucratic, corporations.

Authors, Audience, and Reception:
“The Limits of peer production” is aimed at an academic audience. I took a look at the Web of Science database and found that the journal New Media & Society is ranked 9th out of 72 journals in their “Communications” category in terms of its “impact,” and I gather that it is a respected, peer-reviewed academic journal; just ask its publisher, Sage. The authors Daniel Kreiss, Megan Finn, and Frederick Turner are credentialed academics at prestigious institutions, UNC (journalism and mass communication), UC-Berkeley (Finn is now a postdoctoral fellow with Microsoft Research), and Stanford University (Communication). Kreiss et al’s (2011) article was cited 7 times (Web of Science) by other peer-reviewed articles.  I’m not exactly sure how to interpret that, but I’m assuming that’s a pretty good reception for an article whose lead author is an assistant professor; it appears to be Kreiss’s most cited article. I couldn’t find any direct responses or challenges in the peer-reviewed universe, but Googling the article’s title and author’s name turns up its mention on various blogs, this P2P Foundation website commentary, this mention in the bibliography of an entry on the “Digital Revolution” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History (Rubin and Casper, editors), and its mention as a cautionary voice in this very interesting CJR 2011 essay by Dean Starkman critiquing the “anti-institutionalism” of thinkers like Clay Shirky.

My response:
I really enjoyed their insightful use of Weber. I think their article provides a thoughtful and skeptical appraisal of the optimistic tone and claims concerning peer production’s democratic and egalitarian effects. I liked its questioning of the assumption that peer production is equally well-suited for all sorts of social contexts (e.g. software production, political campaigns, journalism, etc.; see p. 254) and I thought its suggestion that we look carefully at how peer production intersects with corporate-dominated capitalism is an important one (see p. 255).

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