I mentioned the term “P2P” a couple of times in my earlier posts. The experts in P2P are the people in the P2P Foundation, led by Michel Bauwens, and the Indianos (English or Spanish). Most of what I have to say about it, I learned from them. I even translated a book by the Indianos on the subject.
P2P is short for peer-to-peer, which is to say, person to person. (There are a lot of technological implications, too, but we’ll talk about those later.) It describes any direct relationship between people, with no intermediary or outside authority. This distributed arrangement of people and the flow of information between them contrasts with centralized models, but also with decentralized models. By definition, every peer in the network has to be able to communicate freely with every other peer. If one peer is unwilling or unable to communicate, the other peers continue unimpeded.
This contrasts sharply with traditional organizational structures. Outside of small, loose-knit collectives, nearly all organizations have some degree of hierarchy, and that has a lot to do with information flow. Whether or not there’s someone who can give orders, there’s nearly always someone who has more information than the others, and that makes that person the de facto leader. Consciously or unconsciously, they are deciding who gets information, when, and how much (not to mention the way it’s presented). This has a strong influence on everyone else’s ability to participate meaningfully in the organization.
On the Internet, that changes. Information can be made openly available, and distributed among all. No one has a monopoly on it, whether formal or informal. That means everyone has a common understanding of the decisions to be made. It doesn’t mean they have the same experiences, priorities, or opinions–being equal doesn’t make people identical–but it does mean information is not withheld from some members because of their organizational or social status.
This opens up all manner of possibilities. A group of people brainstorming together as equals will have far more ideas than the same number of people meeting as boss and employees. They’ll also have more space to act on those ideas: they could pick one, or they could try out several in parallel or sequentially. When power is shared horizontally, rather than stacked up vertically, people are, well, empowered.
But if no member of the organization can overrule any other, then the only way to make progress and get some real work done is to have clear agreements on procedure right from the outset. An organization has to be organized. The rules for a group of equals need to be thoughtfully written: simple, clear, and preferably few in number. They should be fairly broad, so as to anticipate novel situations. Obviously, they should be written by the whole group, and there should be a formal process to update them as needed. But the rules for a P2P group will sound different from traditional rules. Traditionally, rules are about what you must do and must not do, and the punishments for infractions. P2P rules will be more about structuring ongoing negotiations between members. People who collaborate as equals won’t spend much time thinking about punitive measures (except in grievous cases). They’ll spend their time focused on meeting expectations. That doesn’t guarantee they’ll meet them every time, but it does shift the focus from discipline to self-discipline.