Benjamin Mako Hill Thesis Defense

July 31, 2013


E14-525, MIT Media Lab


Although some examples of Internet-based collaborative "peer production"— like Wikipedia and Linux—build large volunteer communities and high-quality information goods, the vast majority of attempts at peer production, like other forms of collective action, never even attract a second contributor. This dissertation is composed of three essays that describe and test theories on the sources and dynamics of volunteer mobilization in peer production.

The first essay is a qualitative analysis of seven attempts to create English-language online collaborative encyclopedia projects started before January, 2001, when Wikipedia was launched. Hill offers a set of three propositions for why Wikipedia, similar to previous efforts and a relatively late entrant, attracted a community of hundreds of thousands while the other projects did not. Using data from interviews of these Wikipedia-like projects' initiators, along with extensive archival data, he suggests that Wikipedia succeeded because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely held concept of "encyclopedia" familiar to many potential contributors while the project innovated around the process and the social organization of production.

In the second essay, Hill presents evidence of a trade-off between "generativity" (i.e., qualities of work products likely to attract follow-on contributors) and the originality of the derivative work products that follow. Using data from the Scratch online community — a large website where young people openly share and remix animations and games, he builds on foundational theoretical work in peer production to formulate and tests a series of hypotheses suggesting that the generativity of creative works is associated with moderate complexity, prominent authors, and cumulativeness. Hill also formulates and tests three hypotheses that these qualities are associated with decreased originality in resulting derivatives. He finds broad support for the hypothesized trade-off.

Finally, in the third essay, he considers the relationship between volunteer mobilization and governance in peer production organizations. Although large successful peer production projects have inspired a wave of social movements and scholars, he hypothesizes that, like other democratic organizations, peer production exhibits governance consistent with Robert Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy." Using exhaustive longitudinal data of internal processes drawn from a population of wikis, he constructs measures of organizational participation and present evidence of increases in oligarchy and decreases in democracy associated with volunteer mobilization. In contrast to previous work, Hill finds support for Michel's iron law and conclude that the adoption of organizational forms used in peer production may not enhance democratic outcomes.

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