Bergquist and Ljungberg, “The Power of Gifts”

The power of gifts: organizing social relationships in open source communities

Berquist and Ljungberg here attempt to build on the work of Eric Raymond and others who have explained the functioning of the open source community from within in order to provide the basis for the academic theorizing of such communities. They focus on the social customs of existing open source communities, analyzing “netiquette” and the process by which new users are socialized into the gift economy that characterizes open source. They particularly stress the differences between classic gift economies, as theorized by Mauss and others, and online, digital gift economies.

For Mauss, gifts are given within the context of social norms that require, among other things, that the gifts be received. Gift giving is non-altruistic in that the giver always gains some advantage over the receiver, and thus the gift transaction both reflects and instantiates a power relationship. But Mauss considers gifts only as material artifacts, which already possess value within a society. In digital gift economies, the gifts are immaterial—mere information—and thus possess no inherent value outside of the context of the virtual domain in which they are exchanged. The transaction costs of such giving are nearly zero, and thus no obligation is incurred merely in the act of giving. For one thing, the gifts are given in a public, not private, sphere. Significantly, they only acquire value when they are discovered by users. That is, there is no particular intended recipient; they only becomes gifts once someone finds them, downloads them, and uses them. The receivers are thus often unknown to the giver. The obligation that is then incurred, according to the norms of the community, are not material: they need not even involve the reciprocation of further gifts. Instead, they take the form of public praise.

Additionally, the authors note that in the open source community, gifts need not be received at all: sometimes code is contributed to the community only to be criticized (or “flamed”) by other members, or rejected by the “inner circle” of project maintainers who act as gatekeepers for such contributions. They argue that such practices serve a socializing purpose: they teach new users (“newbies”) the proper behavioral etiquette within the community, establish hierarchies, and ultimately provide the feedback that crafts the gifts—or code—themselves to be better and more efficient; in other words, to be more valuable to the community at large. Givers, then, do not gain prestige and power merely through the act of giving, as in Mauss’ material gift economy; rather, giving is itself molded by the community: such givers are rewarded for good work only.

For these reasons, the authors see the online gift economy as a sort of peer review process, whereby its social forms establish a system of exchange that differentiates between useful and non-useful gifts, ensuring the quality of the eventual work. Because such judgments are subjective, they depend upon the established community, and particularly on hierarchies among the most respected givers: “Peer review is thus a social mechanism, through which a discipline’s experts or the core members of a community maintain control over new knowledge entering the field.” (318) The authors note that this mechanism is analogous to the academic gift economy, whereby individuals contribute their knowledge to the general economy of knowledge so that they may become visible to their peers and professionally advance within their field.

Beyond this social mechanism, however, the “openness” of the process also aids development of those ideas by other members of the community. Because the gifts exchanged exist in a state of abundance (they can be copied ad infinitum, without cost), the emphasis of value shifts from material scarcities to temporal scarcities: efficiency, reduction of redundancy, and speed of development are highly valued within the open source community. Gifts that involve sloppy coding or fail to take into account the work that has already been done are thus of little use to the community, and the contributors of such “gifts” fail to gain any praise or power within their peer group. The open exchange of ideas, then, allows for a sped-up development process, whereby many people benefit from each others’ work: “By sharing knowledge and being open about results and methods, the results can be justified and replicated.” (318) As a developmental model, then, the open source gift economy functions to quickly and efficiently socialize its members into valuable contributors, circulate such contributions in a manner that quickly separates the useful from the redundant or sloppy, and push overall collective development toward the creation of lean, high-quality software.


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