The intersubjectivity of P2P: the The Gift Economy vs. Communal Shareholding

Republished from my 2006 manuscript:

“In my opinion, there is a profound misconception regarding peer to peer, expressed by the various authors who call it a gift economy, such as Richard Barbrook (Barbrook, 1995), or Steven Weber (Weber, 2004). But, as Stephan Merten of has already argued, P2P production methods are not a gift economy based on equal sharing, but a form of communal shareholding based on participation. In a gift economy if you give something, the receiving party has to return if not the gift, then something of at least comparable value (in fact the original tribal gift economy was more about creating relationships and obligations and a means to evacuate excess, since they did not need it for their basic survival needs ). In a participative system such as communal shareholding, organized around a common resource, anyone can use or contribute according to his need and inclinations.

Let me give a context to this claim by introducing the typology of intersubjective relations, as defined by anthropologist Alan Page Fiske (Fiske, 1993). There are he says, historically and across all cultures, only four basic types of relating to one another, which form a grammar of human relationships, these are Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, Market Pricing, and Communal Shareholding. From the following description, one can deduce that P2P does not correspond to Equality Matching, which is the principle behind a gift economy, but to Communal Shareholding.

“People use just four fundamental models for organizing most aspects of sociality most of the time in all cultures . These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Communal Sharing (CS) is a relationship in which people treat some dyad or group as equivalent and undifferentiated with respect to the social domain in question. Examples are people using a commons (CS with respect to utilization of the particular resource), people intensely in love (CS with respect to their social selves), people who “ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee” (CS with respect to shared suffering and common well-being), or people who kill any member of an enemy group indiscriminately in retaliation for an attack (CS with respect to collective responsibility). In Authority Ranking (AR) people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. Examples are military hierarchies (AR in decisions, control, and many other matters), ancestor worship (AR in offerings of filial piety and expectations of protection and enforcement of norms), monotheistic religious moralities (AR for the definition of right and wrong by commandments or will of God), social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (AR with respect to social value of identities), and rankings such as sports team standings (AR with respect to prestige). AR relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative (although they may involve power or cause harm).

In Equality Matching relationships people keep track of the balance or difference among participants and know what would be required to restore balance. Common manifestations are turn-taking, one-person one-vote elections, equal share distributions, and vengeance based on an-eye-for-an-eye, a-tooth-for-a-tooth. Examples include sports and games (EM with respect to the rules, procedures, equipment and terrain), baby-sitting coops (EM with respect to the exchange of child care), and restitution in-kind (EM with respect to righting a wrong). Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates such as prices, wages, interest, rents, tithes, or cost-benefit analyses. Money need not be the medium, and MP relationships need not be selfish, competitive, maximizing, or materialistic—any of the four models may exhibit any of these features. MP relationships are not necessarily individualistic; a family may be the CS or AR unit running a business that operates in an MP mode with respect to other enterprises. Examples are property that can be bought, sold, or treated as investment capital (land or objects as MP), marriages organized contractually or implicitly in terms of costs and benefits to the partners, prostitution (sex as MP), bureaucratic cost-effectiveness standards (resource allocation as MP), utilitarian judgments about the greatest good for the greatest number, or standards of equity in judging entitlements in proportion to contributions (two forms of morality as MP), considerations of “spending time” efficiently, and estimates of expected kill ratios (aggression as MP). “ (source: Fiske website)

From the above description, it should be clear that the tribal gift economy is a form of sharing, based on ‘equal’ parts, according to a specific criteria of ‘what it is that functions as common standard for comparison’. Thus in the tribal economy, when a clan or tribe (or the members of such) gives away its surplus, the recipient group or individual is forced to eventually give back, say the next year, at least as much, or they will loose relative prestige. What such a gift economy does however is create a community of obligations and reciprocity, unlike the market-based mechanisms, where ‘equal is traded with equal’, and every transaction stands alone.

Similarly, in the feudal social redistribution mechanism, the rich and powerful compete in the gift giving to Church or Sangha, as a matter of prestige. In this case, what they receive back is not other material gifts, but, on the one hand social prestige, and on the other hand, the immaterial benefits of ‘better karma’ (‘merit’ in S.E. Asian Buddhism), or being closer to salvation (in the form of indulgences in medieval Christianity). In the gift economy, “something” is always being exchanged

This is not the mechanism that operates in the sphere of knowledge exchange on the internet. In open source production, filesharing, or knowledge exchange communities, I freely contribute, what I can, what I want, without obligation; on the recipient side, one simply takes what one needs. It is common for any web-based project to have let’s say 10% active contributing members, and 90% passive lurkers. This can be an annoyance, but is never a ‘fundamental problem’, for the very reason that P2P operates in a sphere of abundance, where a tragedy of the commons, an abuse of common property, cannot occur, or at least, not in the classical sense. In the concept of Tragedy of the Commons , communal holdings are depleted and abused, because they belong to no one and also because physical goods are limited ‘rival’ goods, they can be taken away. The conflict is between the collective interest for preserving the Commons, and the individual incentive to abuse it for one’s own personal benefit. We should note how this theory is based on a ‘unregulated’ Commons, leaving it without defense against individual predation, and it is therefore misleading as a general theory of the Commons.

But in the Information Commons created through P2P processes, the value of the collective knowledge base is not diminished by use, but on the contrary enhanced by it: it is governed, in John Frow’s words, by a Comedy of the Commons, or using a similar metaphor, producing a Cornucopia of the Commons. This is so because of the network effect, which makes resources more valuable the more they are used. Think about the example of the fax, which was relatively useless until a critical mass of users was reached. And the goods are immaterial, and thus ‘non-rival’, which means that they can be replicated or replenished without cost , they cannot be monopolized (unless by law and licenses, hence the intellectual property wars). It is when these ‘network externalities’ are at play, that the Commons form seems to be the most appropriate, functioning better than with individual private property. From the point of view of the individual users themselves, who act in their own interest, what P2P systems do is to mobilize what the economists call ‘positive externalities’ . These are benefits generated by user resources or behaviour, which are lost if they are not used by others or a collective, but do not generate negative side effect for the user either.

What the better P2P systems do is to make such participation, such sharing of positive externalities, ‘automatic’, so that even passive use becomes useful participation for the system as a whole. Think of how BitTorrent makes any user who downloads a resource, in his/her turn a resource for others to use, unbeknownst and independent of any conscious action of the user . Say I have a team working on a software project, and it creates a special email system to communicate around development issues. This communication is considered a common resource and archived, and thus, without any conscious effort of the participating members, automatically augments the common resource base. One of the key elements in the success of P2P projects, and the key to overcoming any ‘free rider’ problem, is therefore to develop technologies of “Participation Capture” (see the endnote on how my concept differs from both panoptical surveillance and ‘sousveillance’ ).

There are of course new social problems arising with P2P, some of which we do not know yet, and some, already occurring, which are related to the quality of social behavior, but interestingly, these problems are tackled through the collective as well. For example, Clay Shirky, one of the most astute observers of the new social networking sphere, has observed how ‘flaming’, which can be a serious problem in mailing lists, has been seriously attenuated by blogs and wiki’s, through a focus on ‘social design’ . Shirky shows how the design, the protocols in Galloway’s view, have to move away from a focus on the personal user facing a box, towards a recognition of the social usage of these technologies.

The social logic of information and resource sharing is a cultural reversal vis a vis the information retention logic of hierarchical social systems. Participation is assumed, and non-participation has to be justified. Information sharing, the public good status of your information, is assumed, and it is secrecy which has to be justified.

So what people are doing in P2P systems, is participating, and doing so they are creating a ‘commons’. Unlike traditional Communal Shareholding, which starts from already existing physical resources, in peer to peer, the knowledge commons is created through participation, and does not exist ‘ex ante’.

All of the above argumentation leads to the conclusion that P2P is not a Equality Matching model (and not a Market Pricing Model), but Communal Shareholding. These arguments have an ideological subtext. The reason I am stressing this analysis is to counter neoliberal dogma that humans are only motivated by greed. Saying that P2P is a gift economy requires a strict accounting of the exchange. Or saying that such participation is motivated by the quest for reputation only, or that it is a game to obtain attention, corresponds to this same ideology which cannot accept that humans also have a ‘cooperative’ nature, and that it can thrive in the right conditions. Our aim is not to deny that humans have these characteristics, but only to point out that cooperation and altruism are just as constitutive of who we are, and given the right institutional conditions and moral development, the latter rather than the former can be enhanced. There is no need to ‘reduce’ the characteristics in a one-sided manner, but rather to recognize the subtle richness and combinations of who we are, and to develop the right kind of institutions and knowledge (such as the new field of cooperation studies) to strengthen the latter’s potentialities.

Though the early traditional gift economy was spiritually motivated and experienced as a set of obligations, which created reciprocity and relationships, involving honor and allegiance (as explained by Marcel Mauss in the Gift), since gifts were nevertheless made in a context of obligatory return, it involved a kind of thinking that is quite different from the gratuity that is characteristic of P2P: giving to a P2P project is explicitly not done for an ‘certain’ and individual return of the gift, but for the use value, for the learning involved, for reputational benefits perhaps, but only indirectly.

The above does not mean that P2P is unrelated to the contemporary revival of gift economy applications. Local Exchange Trading Systems, which are springing up in many places, are forms of Equality Matching, and, from an ‘egalitarian’ point of view, they may be preferable to Market Pricing mechanisms, since for them, any hour of labor has an equal value. Both P2P as ‘Communal Shareholding’, and contemporary expressions of the gift economy ethos, are part of the same ‘spirit’ of ‘gifting’, or of free cooperation. Substantial numbers of participants to P2P projects freely give, as do participants in LETS systems and other schemes. The difference is in the expectation that they will receive something specific and of equal value in return.

But what P2P technologies do is that they enable the creation of information-rich exchanges with dramatically lower transactional costs, thereby enabling gift economy applications, what Yochai Benkler calls a ‘sharing economy’, as well as numerous P2P-based market exchanges, which were not economical before. P2P is therefore conducive to a support of the growth of a gift economy based on its technology, while gifting and sharing practices are strengthened by the P2P ethos as well.”

1 Comment The intersubjectivity of P2P: the The Gift Economy vs. Communal Shareholding

  1. AvatarBob Haugen

    Michel, this is really excellent, and better than your other “gift economy” explanations that I have read recently, in that it includes the expected reciprocity (e.g. those are not really gifts) as well as the fact that the gift-giving was not related to basic survival needs (that is, gifts were not the real economy for such communities). I obviously should have read that 2006 article first.

    But you promised an “endnote on how my concept differs from both panoptical surveillance and ‘sousveillance’ .” I missed it, or at least it’s not explicit. And I don’t see it in the 2006 article, either. It’s been a source of some confusion and controversy.

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