The importance of purpose in peer production

What is it about Nick Carr’s recent challenge to Yochai Benkler’s views on the peer production model that feels wrong? He says that peer production exists prior to a commercial market and that a commercial market will break down the peer production model.

“One thing that has become clear is that the success of social production collectives hinges on the intensive contributions of a very small subset of their members. Not only that, but it’s possible to identify who these people are and to measure their contributions with considerable precision. That means, as well, that these people are valuable in old-fashioned monetary terms – that they could charge for what they do. They have, in other words, a price, even if they’re not currently charging it. The question, then, is simple: Will the “amateurs” go pro? If they have a price, will they take it?”

Nick’s challenge is accurate, particularly when a peer production model doesn’t have a strong enough purpose to hold it together through adversity.

And Jason Calacanis has done what almost anyone in his shoes would also try by offering to pay Digg users for their “labor” on Netscape instead of on Digg. He wants to win.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the top 20 people on DIGG, Delicious, Flickr, MySpace, and Reddit are worth $1,000 a month and if we’re the first folks to pay them that is fine with me–we will take the risk and the arrows from the folks who think we’re corrupting the community process”

I guess it’s the assumption that people are motivated first and foremost by money that bothers me. No doubt I’ll do something for money if the benefit of doing it for love or because it’s right is less than the benefit of having the cash. I want to give my family all the advantages that I can.

But I think Nick misunderstands a value proposition inherent in the concept of communities.

There are a lot of people who put a lot of energy into building their church community when that time could be spent elsewhere making money. And I doubt most churches would suffer any significant memership losses if a nearby competing church offered to pay people to switch churches. They participate in the church community because the investment returns have personal and social value that have nothing to do with their material wealth.

People who moderate online communities like some of the more active Yahoo! groups invest themselves because of their interest in things like social influence or sometimes even for other selfish gains. The really successful groups have an undeniable and crystal clear purpose.

For example, the San Francisco Golden Gate Mother’s Group is a highly engaged community of women with new babies who help each other with the day-to-day challenges of urban motherhood. The community holds itself together by the shared desire to raise children well. That mission couldn’t be any simpler or more important to a first time mother. Even the least-engaged member understands that answering someone’s question now results in better answers for you when you need help in the future.

Paying people to participate wouldn’t make them better at what they do. I’d argue it might actually make them worse. If Netscape was a brand with a purpose that mattered to me, then Jason wouldn’t have to pay me or even the best bookmarkers to participate.

Nick also challenges the notion that peer production can operate without management overhead. I think he miscalculates the role of management in peer production. Yes, it may be required, but management is a service to the group, a service to the mission. Management in peer production could probably be outsourced.

I do think Benkler may actually underestimate the importance of a clear and cohesive mission for the group. Without a core purpose that the members of the group find important, a competing commercial market could very well break down the community.

But that then begs the question of how valuable the community was in the first place.