Power to the P2P

November 28, 2012

Jim Ware

Every once in a while something you thought you understood starts getting more complicated, and more important at the same time.

Recently I’ve become more and more fascinated with the power and the impact of peer-to-peer networks, or “P2P.” I believe P2P networks represent a wholly new kind of organizational capability that is distinctively different from, and complementary to, corporate and governmental structures.

Certainly the growth of the Internet—in combination with almost-ubiquitous mobile communication devices and connectivity—has increased our awareness of the power and the value of being able to connect easily and cheaply with almost anyone, or any information source, anywhere on the planet.

Many others have written with far more insight and eloquence than I can about how richly interconnected networks are changing the way we work and live. And we all have personal experiences that make us very aware of how differently the world works today. Just consider these few examples:

  • Facebook, Twitter, Google+ , YouTube, LinkedIn, email itself, and other similar applications have revolutionized the way we stay in touch with friends and colleagues near and far;
  • More importantly those social media tools have fundamentally changed our knowledge of current events, corporate products, and even government policies and programs;
  • Online news—much of it produced by “amateur journalists”—is eroding our dependence on print media (Newsweek, for example, is going fully digital in 2013, abandoning its print edition completely). The younger generations get far more of their news from the web than they do from print media;
  • At the same time, there is a rebirth of local news, local activism, and local resources like 311 Municipal Systems for addressing public problems. For example, 311.org in New York City has become a major vehicle for local citizens to report concerns about potholes, local crime, and other neighborhood issues—all at very low cost. But the real secret about 311 systems is that they are two-way: they produce databases that help city officials identify patterns and do preventive or anticipatory maintenance to reduce future problems.
  • Fundraising—for both charitable causes and start-up venture capital—has been transformed. For example, Kickstarter is now raising more money than the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). Kickstarter describes itself as a “funding platform for creative projects.” It is a vehicle for aggregating hundreds if not thousands, of small-dollar investments.
  • Change.org has enabled individuals all over the world to launch campaigns and petitions that have had a direct impact on federal and state legislation, and raised public awareness of issues that in the past would have gone completely unnoticed. Over 118,000,000 people have signed Change.org petitions.
  • The public response to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the north Atlantic coast of the United States in October, has been unprecedented, including the almost-spontaneous and bottom-up contributions of both money and volunteer time from groups like Occupy Sandy, which have no central leadership and no long-term funding. People are just taking personal action to help others in need. Occupy Sandy describes itself as a “coordinated relief effort to distribute resources and volunteers to help neighborhoods and people affected by Hurricane Sandy.”
  • Companies like eLance and oDesk are revolutionizing the way small businesses and individual free agents are finding work and contributing to the economy.  They, and other firms like them, are creating open, global marketplaces for labor. And in the last two years as much as 40 percent of the new “hires” in North America have been contract or contingent workers—brought onboard for a specific project or time period. This fundamental shift in the way people earn income and companies get their work done is only just beginning. And it wouldn’t be happening without P2P networks.
    [Update in August 2015:  Elance is merging into Upwork (formerly oDesk) and the site is already partially active. Starting in September there will be a limit to the ability to post new jobs on Elance. Also, there is a process of moving existing accounts from Elance to Upwork. Upwork has  created video tutorials on how to move your account and how to use Upwork; there is one tutorial for freelancers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zjCxSbTDns) and another for contractors (clients) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nr11mJXvCS4)]

I could go on and on. Clearly, individuals and small groups can now learn about events anywhere in the world and then organize meaningful responses almost instantly (and often without central control). All it takes to make something happen is an articulate champion for a cause, access to the Internet, and the ability to harness the energy and emotions of like-minded citizens.

However, as I noted earlier, others have written far more eloquently and knowledgeably about the power of these peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. Here are just two resources you should check out (I know there are many more):

  • Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (link is to Amazon.com) a new must-read book by Stephen Johnson that is filled with stories and insights about the power of networks. Johnson has coined the term “peer progressive” for what he believes is a whole new kind of political value system and community.
  • Has Politics Gone Peer 2 Peer?” – a 90-minute free online video of a November 5, 2012, panel discussion at the MIT Media Lab, hosted by The MIT Center for Civic Media and Department of Urban Planning and featuring author Stephen Johnson and three Harvard Law School Professors (including Lawrence Lessig, who has written extensively about the need for copyright and patent reform in the digital economy).

If you don’t have time to watch the video, at least read the very complete and clear summary notes of the conversation that were written by Research Assistant Matt Stempeck.

So, what does all this mean? I can’t be sure, any more than you can. But one thing has become very, very clear:  the future of work will be infused with peer-to-peer networks and virtual communities of interest.

And never forget that the future of work isn’t out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. We create it, one day at a time.

A final note: I owe many of these links, and much of this analysis, to an online post (“You Can’t Steal a Gift:  Peer to Peer Politics”) on the political blog, DailyKos by a diarist who goes by the nom de plume “gmoke.” All I can do is say “Thank you” to gmoke, and suggest that you read the full post (it’s not at all partisan; it’s just incredibly thoughtful).

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