Seven years ago, Nicholas Carr and Yochai Benkler made a bet. They did this in the comments section of a blog post, there was no money at stake, they never followed up Benkler's suggestion that they appoint "between one and three people" (I'd call that two) to determine the winner, and they never decided when exactly the bet would come due (two years? five years? ten?).
For a time, though, it seemed like a big deal. Carr, the former HBR executive editor who now writes brilliantly skeptical books about the digital revolution, had observed entrepreneur Jason Calacanis's attempt to unseat news aggregator Digg by offering paid jobs to the most influential diggers, and proposed that "large-scale social media" was on the verge of being "subsumed into professional media." Benkler, the law professor (then at Yale, now at Harvard) and prophet of the transformative power of "commons-based peer production," responded with a suggestion that they make it a formal wager:
We could decide to appoint between one and three people who, on some date certain — let's say two years from now, on August 1st 2008 — survey the web or blogosphere, and seek out the most influential sites in some major category: for example, relevance and filtration (like Digg); or visual images (like Flickr). And they will then decide whether they are peer production processes or whether they are price-incentivized systems. While it is possible that there will be a price-based player there, I predict that the major systems will be primarily peer-based.
Carr said that was a good idea, but the term should really be ten years, or maybe five. And the bet was on, sort of. The Guardian wrote about it. Tim O'Reilly wrote about it. I wrote about it in my column for Time. And, of course, somebody created a Wikipedia page about it.
And then, well, most everybody forgot about it. I finally thought a couple months ago to check in on where things stood and discovered that, last year, Carr and Benkler had each claimed victory. Sigh.
After watching the collisions and collusions between peer-based and professional media during the hunt for the Boston marathon bombers, I decided to look again. I found that Matthew Ingram, a professional journalist with great enthusiasm for social media, had declared Benkler the winner. So had some guy on Quora. Benkler is a neighbor and friend, so I can't claim to be entirely neutral here, but I think I'm a lot more sympathetic to Carr's views than Ingram and the Quora guy (his name is Lee Ballentine) are. Still, given the wording of the bet, I've also got to say Benkler is the winner, so far (it seems like we ought to check back in one last time in 2016). Jason Calacanis's professionals didn't displace Digg, the volunteer users of reddit and Twitter and Facebook did. And if you survey the traffic-giants of the Internet, as Benkler did in his claim of victory, it's clear that more of them are, to use the terms that Benkler laid down in 2006 and Carr agreed to, "peer production processes" than "price-incentivized systems."
What most them aren't, though, is charitable organizations. Of Alexa's 25 top sites globally, only Wikipedia is nonprofit. The vast majority of the content created and shared on Facebook and YouTube and Blogger and Twitter may not be "price-incentivized," but much of it is promotional and self-interested, as Carr noted in his claim of victory, while the people maintaining the infrastructure and determining the rules are definitely profit-incentivized.
As far as the wager goes, this is irrelevant. While Benkler is clearly a big fan of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and other such cooperative efforts, he never said the "peer production" he was talking about had to be nonprofit. In the 2002 Yale Law Journal article in which he introduced the concept, Benkler mentioned Google's PageRank, Amazon's customer reviews, and Sony's EverQuest (a massively multiplayer game) as examples of it.
But the coexistence of peer production and money making within the same organization does carry with it lots of potential for conflict. As Benkler writes in his latest book, The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest, the evidence that humans are motivated by things other than money keeps growing every day. But the context in which we act can determine whether we emphasize self-interest or cooperation. Benkler cites a study by Varda Liberman, Steven M. Samuels, and Lee Ross in which they had subjects play the Prisoner's Dilemma game, in which two people are given a choice between cooperating or not. When they labeled this the "Community Game," subjects cooperated 70% of the time; when they called it the "Wall Street Game," that dropped to 33%.
This is a reality that all the for-profit empires built upon peer-production may eventually have to face. All of them have succeeded by persuading users to treat them as Community Games, and share freely. They have done this in large part by, to borrow Tim O'Reilly's phrase, creating more value than they capture. But you have to wonder if, as companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter inevitably become more entwined in the Wall Street Game, they'll be pressured to capture more of the value they create, and the willingness of their users to engage in unpaid commons-based peer production will diminish. If that happens, the results of the Liberman-Samuels-Ross experiment would seem to indicate that the fall-off would be not gradual but precipitous. Capitalizing on others' unpaid labor is great business — until suddenly it's not.