Esteem, peers, and communality

Why do people contribute to open-source or inner-source projects?  It's long been recognized that one major aspect is something usually described as "peer esteem." In Apache and the future of open-source licensing, Matt Asay makes the mistake of assuming it's the only factor, and compounds the mistake by assuming he can (re)define the term for everyone else, but he's certainly right that it's one important factor. So what does it mean, and what can we do about it?

Also this week, and totally out of left field for this blog, American Public Media's Speaking of Faith program has published an interview with neuroeconomist Paul Zak and a wealth of supporting material on the neurobiology of economics and cooperation. The research reveals some remarkable things that can be applied to this idea of "peer esteem" in the building of communities.

And (as retweeted by another author in this space, Guy Martin), Steffan Antonas has published a great discussion on How To Say Thank You On The Social Web. As he points out, "saying thank you" is more than courtesy in a community: it's the primary "currency" of the virtual gift economy—which is just the sort of economy, it turns out, that Zak is talking about.

Where these all come together is this: the kind of esteem, the kind cooperation, and the kind of thanks that each build community is, in every case, the person-to-person kind. The effective kind of esteem is not just the esteem of some faceless mass of objectively assessable "peers," it's the esteem of the peers I know. And it's not the esteem of those known people who are my peers by some scientific test, but those who I esteem as peers.  And, further, my esteem for them arises from and contributes to their esteem for me: we are mutual peers.  And such mutual esteem can only grow within, and cannot help but further feed, a strong sense of belonging to the same community. And this is just exactly the sort of community that Community Managers need to foster and feed, in order to spark the contribution and cooperation that makes open- or inner-source work so productive and powerful.

The sources I link here reveal a rich interplay of insights into what "peer esteem" is, how it's done, and what it produces. So there you are, Community Managers: you have your reading assignment for the week!

Posted in TeamForge
3 comments on “Esteem, peers, and communality
  1. Jack. Thanks for the shout out. I’m proud to have been included as part of this interplay. It’s certainly generated some great discussion. I think the concept of social currency resonates with many of us and it certainly applies to open source communities. Embracing this concept along with the associated culture is a fundamental lesson for community managers, as Guy pointed out. When we understand why people are contributing of their own free will, we can better understand and relate to them and reward them in actionable, tangible ways for what we benefit from. I think deep down we all are driven to contribute to enhance our sense of dignity, self esteem and our feeling of connectedness – recognizing those greater motivations, we can begin to build relationships based on mutual benefit and strengthen our communities.

  2. Matt Asay says:

    Great post, Jack. I don’t think I overlooked the points you make – I simply didn’t have time to address them. Given how verbose I can be, would you *really* want me to be thorough? (-:
    I was trying to spark discussion, not arrive at definitive conclusions. My own perspective had changed so much over the past 10 years that I know better than to set up permanent camp on any particular conclusion.
    I do think, however, that little open source is written out of duty (though a bunch is written by employees of companies that pay them to contribute). As such, my question remains: what use is the gpl except to control outcomes in the developer’s favor, which is the same aim of proprietary software?

  3. Fair enough, Matt, I’ll take you at your word 😉
    As to your question: of course you’re right, that both copyleft and copyright are about controlling the down-stream developer. The difference is in the intended control: the one intends to increase the amount of sharing, the other intends to limit it.

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