Architectures of Participation (yktm)

In the last year I’ve done a lot of thinking about the open source process and spirit, specifically in terms of applying it to domains other than software. But I always get a bit bogged down by the term ‘Open Source’, as my understanding of its essence is likely different than most people’s understanding. Indeed, the term is strongly associated with software, and anyone who doesn’t actually work with the process in software generally just won’t quite understand what is so amazing about it.

So for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to go with a new term to represent what I mean when I talk of the ‘essence’ of open source, the thing that really excites me about it, and the part I feel is quite transferable to other domains, and indeed already has. Many have written about many parts of this, but none fully gets across what I want to express. The best I’ve heard is ‘Architectures of Participation’. Tim O’reilly coined the term for a speech in 2003, his best explanation of it is here. He focuses on identifying it, with examples of open source software and the world wide web. I will adopt the term, but hope further it by trying to articulate the core ideas, and to examine how we might start to apply the lessons to other domains, what factors are crucial for success.

An Architecture of Participation is both social and technical in nature, and the component parts can not be easily extracted: the social is strongly enabled by the technical, but the technical without the social process is nothing. The architecture leverages the skills and energies of a wide body of users as much as possible to cooperate in building something than any single group of ‘producers’ could alone. The line between producer and user is blurred as everyone participating has something to contribute, and the wide distribution of user/producers contributing incrementally can achieve more than even the most massive top down efforts.

The best articulation of Architectures of Participation is found in Benkler’s Commons-based Peer Production model. If his term were easier to use I would just adopt it, but I find it unwieldy when talking about the ‘thing’ that is utilizing commons-based peer production. There is a commonality between the structures that arise in his described production process, and I use the term Architecture of Participation to refer to that structure. It is both social and technical in nature, as he clearly articulates, it is a group of people who cooperate to build something (peer production). The ‘commons-based’ part I see as a pre-requisite for any Architecture of Participation, contributors must be guaranteed to have access to the results of their work. But he elucidates that all of the successful peer production efforts hinge on lowering the barriers to entry for new users, to make some sort of contribution very easy. He goes in to a lot of depth, theorizing about how to divide up the tasks, how bite sized chunks that are easy for any one to do form the root, gearing up towards larger responsibilities and contributions. I will just point to him, but point that technology can play a large role in making contributions easier. Open Source software has built a variety of technical infrastructures that allow its peer production process to scale up. One of the best examples is the source control management systems like cvs and svn, combined with the innovation of the ‘patch’, a small chunk of code that can be automatically combined with the source tree by someone who has earned the appropriate trust of the project. The technical must enable the social, and often in a novel way in order to bootstrap an effective Architecture of Participation.

In future posts I will attempt to justify and find commonalities between the situations that I would term Architectures of Participation, but for now I will just posit for that the chances of creating a successful architecture, in any domain, rely on one pre-requisite and then maximizing three aspects (though am open to there being more). Much of this can be viewed as bite-sized Benkler, there’s not a ton new here, his work is mostly summarized and put through my filter. I’m mostly writing it so I can refer to it in future posts without having to make people get all the way through Coase’s Penguin.

The prerequisite is that the results of the production process must be available to all contributors. If I put something in, I expect to get something out, and people continue to contribute because they tend to get far more out than what they put in. Often people don’t even mind if their contribution is being used by someone else to make money, as long it continues to provide something useful to them, or if they have a similar opportunity to make money. Sometimes, as in the case of the GPL license in open source software, they want to be guaranteed that if anyone else adds value that it is available to all. But in many situations the strength of the Architecture of Participation is such that it makes economic sense for those deriving value from it to contribute at least the important part of their results back to the community.

There are even cases, such as amazon book reviews, where people continue to contribute even though someone else is making money off of their contributions, and where they are not deriving any economic value. But participating in these architectures is not something that can be measured in mere monetary terms by any means. People who write lots of amazon book reviews enjoy sharing their opinions with others, and it doesn’t matter to them if amazon makes money because of their good review. It’s not like their alternative is to publish in the New York Review of Books. But they definitely want to retain credit for a good review, and enjoy the feedback that others appreciate their views (the ‘was this review useful to you?’). The pre-requisite, however, still holds: they must be able to get out what they put in, and to get out reviews that others put in. If Amazon simply sucked in their reviews and just used them for collaborative filtering and generic blurbs then they’d get a lot less contributions. I plan to write a future post on the interactions of money and Architectures of Participation, as there are a variety of models that sustain the commons in different ways, and indeed I’m sure there are even more innovative business models that will evolve in the future.

Past the pre-requisite, I believe there are three aspects that must be maximised for a successful architecture of participation:

  • Work is done on something immediately useful, or at the very least has the promise of being useful relatively soon.
  • The barriers to contribute are as low as possible.
  • Users are viewed as ‘co-developers’, that is as equal partners in the undertaking, instead of just the consumers.

Let’s take each of these on their own.

Work is done on something immediately useful, or at the very least has the promise of being useful relatively soon. Most people are not going to contribute to something that is going to take years before it can be used. That’s not to say that it needs to be ‘done’ relatively soon, it just has to be useful. Indeed many of the best architectures of participation are around things that will never be ‘done’. The wikipedia is a good example, it will never be complete, as there is always new knowledge generated. But even from the first day it was useful to have a place online to look up encyclopedic knowledge. If there are only four articles, those four articles are still useful to someone. Contributing just becomes a process of adding more things that are more useful. The ebay seller trust mechanism is another example. Though it’s not immediately useful for a buyer to rate a seller, as it does little for the seller, the whole system of buyer and seller ratings is useful. And it can easily be seen that by contributing, one is contributing to something that is useful. The term ‘useful’ is also important. The work must be perceived as valuable by a significant group. If only the initial core group thinks it is useful, then an Architecture of Participation will have no chance of forming around their effort.

The barriers to contribute are as low as possible. And as low as possible often means doing exactly nothing more than what users are doing anyways. My favorite name for this is Paul Kedrosky’s term Drive-By Data. Tim O’Reilly’s Architecture of Paricipation term focuses pretty much on this facet of the architecture exclusively, so contribution is a natural side effect of users pursuing their own goals. Examples of this are napster, where sharing your music is a side effect of using the system,or, where just making your bookmarks feeds in to the value of the whole system. I would argue that this fact in and of itself is not the only factor in making what I call an architecture of participation. It’s certainly a factor in Open Source Software, as when someone fixes a bug and makes it available to all. But it’s not sufficient to fully explain everything, especially why a OSS project comes into existence in the first place, how the initial Architecture of Participation is formed. NASA Clickworkers is another. If other factors are right then contributions can take a bit more involvement. But it should still be trivially easy – editing the wikipedia does not require you to know html, and it doesn’t even require you to create a log-in. This is a great example where the technology enables the social, the ‘wiki’ managed to go one better than html for ease of use. Indeed the original vision of the web was to be read and write, but even though html is quite easy, it still involved a bigger learning curve than most people were willing to take. One could not just look at the ‘source code’ and just start writing, in the way one can with wiki markup. The technical infrastructure must be set up to allow small contributions to happen very easily, or the project will have a much harder time turning into a true Architecture of Participation.

Users are viewed as ‘co-developers’, that is as equal partners in the undertaking, instead of just the consumers. This comes straight from open source development, perfected by Linus and made famous by The Cathedral and the Bazaar. But I firmly believe it is widely applicable. If you treat your users as your most valuable resource, they will become it. To some extent this is an intersection of post on You can change the world and parts of Open Source: Beyond Software. If you are to view your users as mere consumers, that you are the producer and are just providing things to them which they pay you for, then they will remain consumers. But if you view them as equal partners in building something of value, some will become exactly that. And some will have amazing ideas and energy that can build it into something bigger than you alone could have imagined. But it is only by seeing others with that potential, and then giving them the responsibility to make it so, that it will come to pass.

It may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but giving people responsibility is one of the greatest rewards that Architectures of Participation have. Enabling low level contributions is important, but projects really take off because a core group of people devote themselves to it. And they are only going to do so if they truly get a say in the direction, if they have responsibility for the success, and also get credit for it. But the key for me is that you can give responsibility to those who have never had it before, and often they will become the most passionate and hard working contributors. It is incredibly empowering to feel like you can change the world, like you make a difference, even in a very small part of it, since so much of world seems devoted to the message that you are powerless. Successful Architectures of Participation that are structured to not only allow but encourage one to go from a lowly user to a leader of the project are more likely to have success than those that don’t.

Ok, this is getting long, and overdue. Apologies for the lack of examples, some of this stuff may seem a bit too abstract, not firmly grounded. I don’t feel I totally hit what I wanted to, but hey, I’m just applying open source principles to more than just software: release early and often. In the future I’ll attempt to run through many more examples, which should start to elucidate what I feel constitutes an Architecture of Participation.

53 thoughts on “Architectures of Participation (yktm)

  1. this rocks, cholmes. don’t bottle it up, keep going! 🙂

    your words inspired me to finish making some words i’ve been chewing on for the ever mutating description of Wsfii that i hope will one day in some form actually make it onto the front page of


    Each of Wsfii’s activities is a kind of Architecture of Participation, an open Collaboration, an ongoing public description of the Process of Creation. The domains Wsfii has featured are those activities that have been very affected by open source software and the “Hacker Ethic” that underpins its creation. The domains this ethic can affect are innumerable. Every kind of research effort can be re-oriented, from protectionist bubbles formed by the pressure to Be First, towards a space into which we can all arrive together, by working on the things that we enjoy most, having the means to contribute to enhancing the things that we like, and getting together to talk about it.

    There is no ‘We’ in Wsfii. Wsfii belongs to anyone who wants to tend to their part of it. Everyone is encouraged to create their own Wsfii out of their own intersection of interests. Wsfii, in being, can create more Wsfii, everywhere.


  2. Pingback: Into The Pudding » Foundation of Participation Part 2: the social concerns
  3. Pingback: Anonymous
  4. Pingback: Into The Pudding » Blog Archive » Distribution of Geodata
  5. Pingback: GeoServer Tech Talk at Google « Into The Pudding
  6. Pingback: Kim
  7. Pingback: Arquitecturas de participación « Dirección de proyectos de Gestión de Información Geoespacial
  8. Pingback: Musings on Going Beyond Research — Zero Net Positive
  9. Many organizations have sprung up to provide such certification. Environmental sustainability will be a
    key focus of these efforts. This is especially true if you are coming during the peak tourist season, that
    starts in September and goes on to April.

  10. A central or built in vacuum cleaner has the suction motor and bag based in a central location of the building, providing vacuum inlets at strategic places throughout the building.
    This vacuum cleaner is fairly lightweight (it weighs approximately 16 lbs) compared to all other vacuum cleaners
    that you can find inside the market, therefore doing it straightforward for yourself to hold it around the home without
    having breaking a sweat. You will only need to vacant a bagless vacuum when it exhibits
    how the canister is full.

  11. Aloe vera can prevent scarring and heal minor scars because it contains enzymes,
    saponins, hormones, and amino acids that can be absorbed into the skin.
    Taking fewer carbohydrates and more of protein is good for health and the results are
    amazing if followed along with exercise. There are a variety of styles, colors, and sizes that can suit any individual, both
    men and women alike.

  12. Nutra – Sweet breaks down into methanol, formic acid and
    formaldehyde. By being aware that the truth is not simple for most health issues, the tendency to oversimplify and over generalize health information can be thwarted.
    Rosemary oil is a common addition to successful natural pain relief products on the market today.

  13. Just like other clothes, swimwear too is subject to wear and
    tear. This variety of swimwear has been put into use since the 1940s and is still a
    popular form of swimwear in North America. Funkita and Funky Trunks fashions are obtainable
    for all age ranges, shapes and sizes.

  14. Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins
    to assist with SEO? I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords
    but I’m not seeing very good success. If you know of any please share.
    Appreciate it!

  15. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful post.

    Also, I have shared your site in my social networks!

  16. When someone writes an article he/she keeps the image of a user in his/her
    mind that how a user can be aware of it. Therefore that’s why this
    post is amazing. Thanks!

  17. Hello! This is my first comment here so I just
    wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy
    reading your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the
    same subjects? Thanks!

  18. Hi would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re using?
    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster
    then most. Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at
    a reasonable price? Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!

  19. Hey there! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any problems with hackers?
    My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing a few months of hard work due to no back up.
    Do you have any methods to protect against hackers?

  20. Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all folks you really recognize
    what you are talking about! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally
    talk over with my web site =). We can have a hyperlink alternate
    agreement between us

  21. This is really interesting, You are a very skilled blogger.
    I’ve joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your great
    post. Also, I have shared your web site in my social networks!

  22. I do agree with all of the ideas you have offered in your
    post. They are very convincing and will definitely work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are very short for newbies.
    May just you please extend them a little from next time?
    Thanks for the post.

  23. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate
    to this fantastic blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for book-marking
    and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I
    look forward to fresh updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group.
    Chat soon!

  24. Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it was extremely
    long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say,
    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still
    new to everything. Do you have any recommendations for first-time blog writers?

    I’d genuinely appreciate it.

  25. Hello there! This is my first visit to your blog!
    We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new project in a community
    in the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on. You have done a extraordinary job!

  26. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the
    video to make your point. You obviously know what youre talking about,
    why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog
    when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

  27. I like the valuable information you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here
    frequently. I am quite certain I’ll learn many new stuff
    right here! Good luck for the next!

  28. Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the
    post I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely happy I found it and I’ll be book-marking and
    checking back frequently!

  29. I have to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this site.
    I am hoping to view the same high-grade content by you later on as well.
    In fact, your creative writing abilities
    has encouraged me to get my own site now 😉

  30. Fantastic blog! Do you have any tips and hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option?
    There are so many choices out there that I’m completely confused
    .. Any suggestions? Many thanks!

  31. What’s Happening i’m new to this, I stumbled
    upon this I have found It positively helpful and it has helped me out loads.
    I am hoping to give a contribution & aid different customers like its helped me.
    Good job.

  32. Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this website before but after browsing through some of the posts I
    realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m certainly happy I stumbled upon it and
    I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back regularly!

  33. Asking questions are genuinely pleasant thing if you are not understanding something fully,
    however this paragraph offers pleasant understanding yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s