I wouldn't be a member of any club that...

Matt wrote a follow up post to his popular "New Media Deal" piece and I just want to comment on one particular part of it.  Matt writes:

"A big part of peer production is that most people fundamentally, if
quietly, want to belong to any bit of community they can find."

I disagree. 

I'm in the middle of reading Bowling Alone in America: the Collapse and Revival of the American Community.  Granted I'm only up to the collapse part, but so much of this story rings true to me. Participation in groups is generally on the decline.  Sure, there are "membership" groups out there like the AARP that are growing, but they're not actual groups, they're more like mailing lists.

I'm talking about real communities, both on the web and offline.  I think the average person is just more concerned with paying bills, raising their kids, etc.  Its really unfortunatel, but I don't think we are the society of "joiners" that the web makes us out to be.  (I hope I'm wrong, and maybe Meetup is proof of that.) Even on the web, most people spend most of their time with applications just meant for them.  Even e-mail isn't a way for most people to find new communities, its something that enriches their own small circle.

If peer production is all about depending on people's explicit interest in belonging to a community, I don't think its going to work.

In fact, I think the really successful "peer" efforts, like del.icio.us, wikipedia, last.fm, and flickr, hell, you can even through in Amazon's "people like me" engine" only work because they understand that people don't really care enough about communities to join them. 

  • I don't have to care that there are hundreds of thousands of other people using del.icio.us.  It works for just me... its a better place to store my links. 
  • If I see a wikipedia article, I don't care who wrote it, and if its wrong, I'll just fix it.  I don't need to be an editor or talk to other wikipedia editors. 
  • last.fm shows a user what they're listening to and makes recommendations.  Frankly, if the recommendations were good, I think people wouldn't care of a person powered them or a computer did.
  • Flickr being such a cool community was largely an accident.  I didn't join it because I wanted to be able to interact with all the other people who go to LVHRD parties and take photos... I just needed a place to store my photos and be able to blog and share them.

Now, of course I'm being extreme here.  Being single and in my 20's, I'm probably more interested in community than the average person, and meeting new people is still very important to me, but this seems to decline as people get married, have kids, buy houses, etc.

Depending on people to choose community over just caring about their own little world is a very tough proposition.   Now, if you help me to augment the communities I'm already in, that's helpful, but that's not quite the same thing.

So I'm going to change Matt's statement and offer a new thesis:

"A big part of peer production is that most people fundamentally want the benefits of community, but are not willing to invest much, if any, social capital to get it.  Successful peer production involves leveraging communities and providing value without the explicit intention of the individuals to contribute to a collective."

That's how mesh networks are going to work, for example... because its built into the phone/wifipoint/laptop/whatever...   and the default is on, not because I'm going to download something because I want to help fight the telco's and help my community get free wifi.