Commons-Based Peer Production and the New Right

A thought.

I wrote up this thought for the now-defunct student newspaper Leiden International Review back in 2017. As the LIR is now defunct, I'm reposting it here, as I fear that the basic thesis of the text remains relevant.

This article is a thought experiment, based on an idea that has come to haunt this author time and again since the election of current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in May 2016.

Both public and academic opinion on the Internet has been loosely cycling through phases of enthusiasm and phases of disappointment. The 1990s, soon after the beginning of the world-wide web (WWW), saw enthusiasm about the democratization of the public sphere. This was answered by a series of criticisms, most notably those regarding the digital divide and the Babel objection - the notion that if everyone can publish, there will be just too much content available to distinguish important from unimportant and valid from invalid.

In the mid-2000s, another more nuanced but still relatively positive wave appeared. Most notably, Yochai Benkler framed knowledge production on the net using his concept of Commons-Based Peer Production (hereinafter peer production) in his 2006 work The Wealth of Networks. While knowledge production before the web was largely determined by long drawn-up planning and facilitated in hierarchically organized companies by a relatively small set of experts, it is increasingly the work of a large number of volunteers to source together their skills to generate knowledge equivalent or better than the experts could.

While existent before, peer production became a competitive model of production through technologies like the WWW. It is marked primarily by much more "fine-grained" (Benkler's term) processes. To give an example: in the top-down company model, an expert would write an article for an encyclopedia after being commissioned to by some organization; in peer production someone writes a draft for a Wikipedia page, which is then improved successively by a large number of contributors. Every single step in this is much smaller and can be done by a more diverse set of people without much individual planning. The characteristic, smallest step - following the example of Wikipedia - would then be a reader who finds a spelling mistake and spontaneously decides to correct it.

Let's look at some of the reports on the methods of new right movements all over the world: political memes supporting Trump and his agenda, trolls "shouting" down Duterte's political competitors, and the overall debate on fake news. What we see are extremely personalized tactics. Glorified are not issues or ideologies, but people. As their counterparts, it is either a single person (e.g. Hillary Clinton) that is targeted, or it is largely anonymous groups of people (immigrants, drug users, etc.). It is tempting to frame these movements and campaigns as hierarchical, but this framing is almost certainly insufficient to describe the phenomenon.

On a second glance, the movements do however show basic characteristics of peer production. Producing a meme takes little time. The same applies to writing a hateful comment or sharing a dubious article. All of these actions can be done spontaneously and take little effort. A single meme, without being shared, would mean little. Only by being shared and remixed time and again does it become an important part of political discourse on the web.

Considering the rise of the recent new right wing movements as partially a result of peer production carries important implications for analysis. Similar to how the Internet blurred the line between amateur and professional (for example in the case of manga translation), the line between supporter and activist has blurred. Is a person an activist for sharing an article on Facebook or posting a tweet? Is it a matter of the quantity of political or otherwise engaged posts that make an activist? There needs to be a debate over the terms we use for analyzing today's political developments.

Second, viewing these movements as a result of peer production offers a wide range of experiences for comparison. Peer produced as their contents or code may be, Wikipedia, the Linux Kernel, etc. are first of all projects. If we came to see the public sphere as a project to be filled by peer produced contents, one could draw from the experiences of these projects in handling the downsides of open systems.

It may well be that the prognoses about the democratization of cultural and knowledge production on the web were spot-on. But the newly recovered forms of production may not only have helped projects like Wikipedia or many free and open source software projects, but they may have been the facilitator for the rise of anti-democratic movements and parties in many countries. Considering these movements as an Internet phenomenon, observed through the lens of peer production, may be a fruitful addition to the discourse.