Essay of the Day: Peer-to-Peer Relationality

By Michel Bauwens:

Anonymity is nothing new in cities. What is more, however contradictory it might seem, sociability and anonymity go together in the city. Bauwens reflects on this through an analysis of peer-to-peer networks, a system for sharing and combining individual efforts on the Internet in a collective task.

If we look at the historical development of relationality; such a review may lead us to challenge any simplistic identification of peer to peer relationality with anonymity. To begin with, let us broadly define peer to peer relationality, as that type of relationality where individuals can freely aggregate themselves around common goals, enabled by the affordances of the new type of internetworked technologies1.

       The proposition that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self, a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.

       Another important aspect of the condition of postmodernity, and its ‘psychological’ interpretations, is that of the fragmentation of the individual. Rather than seen as an integrated self, the postmodern individual is seen as fragmented, consisting of many different parallel processes, each with a relative autonomy, and not necessarily integrated. In classic postmodernism, this is seen as a kind of ‘realization’ or endgame, an uncovering of the truth of the human condition, as well as the result of the social conditions prevalent under ‘late capitalism’. It also creates a certain ‘despair’ around the human condition, since fragmentation is not always a desirable quality.

       However, I believe it behooves us to posit a second phase of postmodernity, which is no longer deconstructive of self and society, but reconstructive, and to see the emergence of peer to peer relationality as an expression of that reconstructive effort. Peer to peer has indeed to be seen as an object oriented sociality, where person-fragments cooperate around the creation of common value. What connects individuals who participate in open and shared knowledge, software or design projects is the ability to connect their own ends, with some transcendental collective goal (building a universal operating system, constructing a universal free encyclopedia, constructing an open source car, etc.). In peer projects, individuals aggregate a particular passionate pursuit into a collective project.

       This is important, because whereas in individualist market visions the invisible hand indirectly creates public benefit (at least in theory and ideology), in peer to peer the intentionality of the collective project is integrated in the effort itself. Contributors to Wikipedia or Linux do not see the end result as an indirect result of individual transactions, but as the result of a particular social design which harmonizes individual effort and the collective goal, with the integration of both seen as non-contradictory.

       This gives peer to peer relationality a strong collective aspect, which was absent in the previous individualist epoch. Nothing precludes the public good to become a similar peer to peer object, so that it is more than the simple aggregation of existing partial peer to peer projects, but the object of particular attention by itself.

       Positively interpreted, peer to peer becomes a global ‘cosmic’ mash-up, whereby the fragmented individuals of postmodernity recreate unity and identity through their engagement with collective efforts, which can be geared to civic public goods. In this interpretation, individuality is preserved, relationality is added, and a collective dimension emerges in a higher unity, where the individual and collective aspects, agency and communion, are no longer opposed to each other.

       Anonymity is really nothing new for the city; it’s part and parcel of modernity and its reliance on ‘neutral’, contractual, exchanges and transactions. The anomie of the modern individual, ‘freed’ from his local and traditional attachments, is a well known and frequently discussed sociological phenomenon. Though cities are undoubtedly spaces of sociality, there are also spaces of lack of sociality, of, typically, ‘not knowing one’s neighbors’. Much of our lives in the city are indeed already anonymous.

       For a new social system to structurally replace its predecessors, it needs to ‘transcend and include’, on a higher level of integration, the key features of the previous modalities it is replacing or complementing (even if it does not do this altogether well). So in our specific discussion, we would expect the personal relations typical of premodernity, and the neutrality/anonymity of the modern market society, to be ‘transcended and included’ into P2P relationality. This means that, in our understanding, P2P allows both anonymity and personalization to occur simultaneously. Indeed, we can see on one level how peer to peer enables stigmergic2 cooperation between individuals who do not know each other, as in the Wikipedia cooperation, for example; and allows ‘trust with strangers’ to occur more readily, as for example in the scheme, where strangers can share couches with each other, because they trust the larger system and reputational checks and balances. On another level, any deep cooperation necessitates closer personal involvement and engagement in peer to peer projects, and many social networks, say Facebook or LinkedIn, are equally predicated on a refusal of anonymity. P2P relationality therefore liberates from the constraints of both forced personalization and anonymity, giving flexible freedom to peers in networks.

       But because it empowers and enables relationality to occur, and explodes the number of possible relations3, i.e. the possibility of ‘fragments finding each other’, it will without any doubt change the face of city life, enabling and empowering city dwellers. Without a doubt, this will create problems and challenges of its own, and eventually reveal the dark sides of hyper-relationality, especially when it may be imposed as a new social norm, a base expectation of standard behavior, and the related challenges of forced transparency and imposed surveillance. And what may occur naturally to newer generations may be considered as quite a negative and disturbing behavior by earlier generations.

       Most interestingly, P2P relationality will not be confined just to other humans, but will extend to the ‘Machine Other’, i.e. the internet of things, with sensor-enabled objects; and most likely in the post-warming age, a revival of relationality with other living beings and the natural environment. Life in the city, anonymous or not, is bound to become very interesting in the coming decades, as the full potential of this relationality is played out.



1  A narrower definition, used in our work in the P2P Foundation, follows Alan Page Fiske’s relational typology, and identifies peer to peer relationality with non-reciprocal ‘generalized’ exchange, where the individual exchanges only with a commonality, a totality, not with other individuals from whom reciprocity is required. Alan Page Fiske calls this ‘communal shareholding’ and it is the type of relationship prevalent in peer production environments. For details, see

2    See

3    In particular Metcalfe’s Law and Reed’s Law on Group Forming Networks, see

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