Christian Siefkes on hint-based stigmergic systems

Christian Siefkes continues his exposition of the ‘material’ peer economy, which we started discussing here.

Here in the blog he discusses Hint-based stigmergic systems:

“The first characteristic of peer production is that the effort required to reach the goals of a project is shared among those who care enough to contribute. How this sharing is organized depends on the kind of project.

Projects creating free software or open knowledge use a style which Francis Heylighen [2007] describes as “stigmergic” (hint-based). The work done in in such projects leaves “stimuli” or hints motivating others to continue. Examples of such hints are to-do lists, bug reports, and feature requests in free software projects; or “red links” to missing articles and listings of “most wanted articles” in the Wikipedia. They point participants and potential participants to the tasks that are worth doing.

This hinting system also serves as an informal mechanism for prioritizing tasks: the more people care for a task, the more likely it is to be picked up by somebody (since the corresponding hints tend to become more visible and explicit, and since people are more likely to pick up a task they wish to be done). And since everybody is free in choosing the tasks they want to do, participants will generally be more motivated than in a market-based system, where they have to follow the orders of their boss or customer. They also tend to pick up those tasks they think they are good at, ensuring that the different talents and skills of people are applied in the best possible way.

For projects producing freely copyable goods, such a hint-based system with unconditional access and voluntary contributions is very reasonable. There is no need to exclude non-contributors from the benefits from the project, since admitting them doesn’t cause any additional cost (or only a very small one), and every additional user might sooner or later decide to follow one of the hints and become a contributor. And even non-contributing users are often beneficial for the project, since they might increase the motivation of contributors (it feels good to know that there are people out there using your software or reading your texts).

Things change if the costs of admitting additional users become so high that you can no longer rely on mere hints and voluntary contributions to make up for them. In such cases, more explicit agreements about how to distribute effort will become necessary. In the BitTorrent example, admitting more users mainly requires additional _bandwidth_, hence users are expected to contribute bandwidth. In material production, a main bottleneck is _effort_–time spent on behalf of a project, doing tasks that are required for reaching the goals of the project (in the bicycle example, such tasks might include designing, assembling, and producing bicycles; and building, cleaning, and maintaining a factory where the bicycles are produced). Everybody who wants to benefit from the project (to get a bike) might thus be expected to _contribute some effort_ to the project (other resources are required as well, but this will be a topic for later). Thus, the tasks required to reach the goals of the project are distributed among those who want to benefit.”

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