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Peer Production: Boon or Bane June 3, 2006

Posted by rajAT in blog, citizen journalism, collectivism, digg, media2.0, peer production, technology, web2.0, wikipedia, youtube.
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Nick Carr and Jaron Lanier say that rise of digital collectivism is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise. They argue that this is different from meritocracy where the best gets awarded. Nick is of the opinion that the peer produced goods will be mediocre. But as these average goods are available for free that undermines the economic incentives for creating something that is better than mediocre.

Nick points out that markets are good at setting prices for commodities as markets filter out individual biases. There are things where markets are not good like writing books, encyclopedia entries or editing newspapers or magazines. Let me try to expain Nick’s argument by an example – It says that Wikipedia is a mediocre product as compared to Britannica encyclopedia or any other encyclopedia. Now that there is a free mediocre product i.e. Wikipedia in the market people will not buy Britannica anymore. The sales of Britannica will drop and Britannica will take its encyclopedia product off from the market. So, how Britannica should survive in the wake of wikepedia? If Wikipedia is mediocre then I think there is an opportunity for Britannica to tap in. People are always ready to pay premium for the best knowledge. I really don’t think that this behavior will change in future also. The knowledge worker viz consultant, lawyer, doctor faces this competition daily but does he feel threatened from a consultant who is providing his services free of cost. No. Because the costly consultant knows that the cost is not the differentiator but the specialized knowledge that he is having. And that is going to attract the client.

If Britannica thinks that they have a superior product than Wikipedia, they shouldn’t fret. In fact they should see wikipedia as its free version. Let me give you some real life example. Couple of my friends got hooked to wikipedia. They were spending tones of time reading articles on it and they ended up buying Britannica and Microsoft Encarta. I asked them why they have bought two encyclopedias – They said Encarta got lots of multimedia content and Britannica got lots of wonderful long articles. And now they have best of both the worlds. Now if they want to check on a particular thing they first saw it on Wikipedia and then on the regular encyclopedia. Society overall has benefited by having a wikipedia. It gives people a choice and people are smart enough to figure out what is good for them.

Let us have a look at newspapers and magazines. Will Ohmynews or NowPublic will replace NYT or BBC well I don’t think so. Citizen journalism will perform an important role in our society and they give a refreshing new choice to the people. The established media houses because of certain restrictions, generally don’t report things in full. This could be because they are related to one political party or because of the nationalist agenda. Citizen journalists don’t have any such prejudices and give unbiased view of the situation. And it is great to have this alternative available. Similar reasons can be given for consumer generated videos and pictures. We cannot compare the pictures present in Flickr by the ones that get published in National Geographic. But people would like to see both. No video on YouTube can be compared to any oscar winning movie.

Jaron Lanier argues that American Idol can’t give you a John Lennon. I am not sure of American Idol but the singers who won in Indian Idol are signed by big music houses. In fact some of the singers who won in other popular singing competitions got nominated as best playback singers in Filmfare awards (Indian Oscars). Shows like Indian idols give such a great platform to the budding stars and motivates millions of other people too. And this also puts pressure on the existing established singers to give their best. As a result, the society gets benefited.

In the end, I will say that connected production or peer production or whatever you want to call it is a great boon to the society. It challenges the authority of the existing established players who have to come with more innovative ways to survive and sustain. People are going to buy / favor / consume the product which is the best.

Peer production has just raised the bar.

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