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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rock Stars and the Gift Culture

I just re-read Eric S. Raymond's Homesteading the Noosphere, a work I first read in approximately 1999 right around the time I was installing my first Linux distro. I was never anything more than a baby hacker, but lots of stuff from that work stuck with me. And the parallels to my experiences blogging about teaching are kind of amazing.

Through this week, I've come across multiple occurrences of a particular refrain: "There are people in this community regarded as rock stars.  This is bullshit.  They are just teachers, we are all teachers, no one's writings or opinion should carry more weight than another's." On one hand, this makes rational sense, and I don't know anyone who's had the term rockstar (or a synonym) lobbed at them and, like, welcomed it. They're all, "Really? Me? That's weird. Okay. Please stop that now." 

The MTBoS is not a school. It's not a marketplace, not academia, not a hierarchy. It's not like any other thing most people are familiar with, and so resists explanation. But it is...something. It's a culture, with norms and taboos and status. I think, and humbly propose, that it's very much like open-source hacker culture. Understanding how might go some distance toward dispelling the bewilderment over the rockstardom phenomenon, and why we're all so nice to each other, and what motivates us to give so much time and energy for no tangible reward. 

I'm about to quote liberally from this page.
Most ways humans have of organizing are adaptations to scarcity and want. Each way carries with it different ways of gaining social status. 
The simplest way is the command hierarchy. In command hierarchies, scarce goods are allocated by one central authority and backed up by force. Command hierarchies scale very poorly; they become increasingly brutal and inefficient as they get larger. For this reason, command hierarchies above the size of an extended family are almost always parasites on a larger economy of a different type. In command hierarchies, social status is primarily determined by access to coercive power. 
Our society is predominantly an exchange economy. This is a sophisticated adaptation to scarcity that, unlike the command model, scales quite well. Allocation of scarce goods is done in a decentralized way through trade and voluntary cooperation (and in fact, the dominating effect of competitive desire is to produce cooperative behavior). In an exchange economy, social status is primarily determined by having control of things (not necessarily material things) to use or trade. 
Most people have implicit mental models for both of the above, and how they interact with each other. Government, the military, and organized crime (for example) are command hierarchies parasitic on the broader exchange economy we call `the free market'. There's a third model, however, that is radically different from either and not generally recognized except by anthropologists; the gift culture. 
Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy. 
Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.
The following section is a direct quote, but I substituted teacher stuff for hacking stuff: 
it is quite clear that viewed this way, the society of blogging math teachers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, "survival necessities" are abundant -- collaboration tools (blogging platforms), content creation tools (too numerous to elaborate), lessons carefully crafted and freely shared.  This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one's peers. 
(Onto the next chapter, The Joy of Hacking:)
In making this `reputation game' analysis, I do not mean to devalue or ignore the pure satisfaction of learning and teaching well in the privacy of one's own classroom. Teachers all experience this kind of satisfaction and thrive on it. People for whom it is not a significant motivation never become teachers in the first place, just as people who don't love music never become composers. 
Imagine your beautiful lesson locked up in your room and used only by you. Now imagine it being used effectively and with pleasure by many people. Which dream gives you satisfaction?
Back to verbatim-quoting the next chapter, The Many Faces of Reputation:
There are reasons general to every gift culture why peer repute (prestige) is worth playing for: 
First and most obviously, good reputation among one's peers is a primary reward. We're wired to experience it that way for evolutionary reasons touched on earlier. 
Secondly, prestige is a good way (and in a pure gift economy, the only way) to attract attention and cooperation from others. If one is well known for generosity, intelligence, fair dealing, leadership ability, or other good qualities, it becomes much easier to persuade other people that they will gain by association with you. 
Thirdly, if your gift economy is in contact with or intertwined with an exchange economy or a command hierarchy, your reputation may spill over and earn you higher status there.
I swear I'm almost done, here, The Problem of Ego:
I have observed another interesting example of this phenomenon when discussing the reputation-game analysis with hackers. This is that many hackers resisted the analysis and showed a strong reluctance to admit that their behavior was motivated by a desire for peer repute or, as I incautiously labeled it at the time, `ego satisfaction'. 
This illustrates an interesting point about the hacker culture. It consciously distrusts and despises egotism and ego-based motivations; self-promotion tends to be mercilessly criticized, even when the community might appear to have something to gain from it. So much so, in fact, that the culture's `big men' and tribal elders are required to talk softly and humorously deprecate themselves at every turn in order to maintain their status. How this attitude meshes with an incentive structure that apparently runs almost entirely on ego cries out for explanation. 
Okay, not done. The Value of Humility:
Having established that prestige is central to the hacker culture's reward mechanisms, we now need to understand why it has seemed so important that this fact remain semi-covert and largely unadmitted. 
The contrast with the pirate culture is instructive. In that culture, status-seeking behavior is overt and even blatant. These crackers seek acclaim for releasing ``zero-day warez'' (cracked software redistributed on the day of the original uncracked version's release) but are closemouthed about how they do it. These magicians don't like to give away their tricks. And, as a result, the knowledge base of the cracker culture as a whole increases only slowly. 
In the hacker community, by contrast, one's work is one's statement. There's a very strict meritocracy (the best craftsmanship wins) and there's a strong ethos that quality should (indeed must) be left to speak for itself. The best brag is code that ``just works'', and that any competent programmer can see is good stuff. Thus, the hacker culture's knowledge base increases rapidly. 
For very similar reasons, attacking the author rather than the code is not done. There is an interesting subtlety here that reinforces the point; hackers feel very free to flame each other over ideological and personal differences, but it is unheard of for any hacker to publicly attack another's competence at technical work (even private criticism is unusual and tends to be muted in tone). Bug-hunting and criticism are always project-labeled, not person-labeled.

This makes an interesting contrast with many parts of academia, in which trashing putatively defective work by others is an important mode of gaining reputation. In the hacker culture, such behavior is rather heavily tabooed. 
The hacker culture's medium of gifting is intangible, its communications channels are poor at expressing emotional nuance, and face-to-face contact among its members is the exception rather than the rule. This gives it a lower tolerance of noise than most other gift cultures, and goes a long way to explain both the taboo against posturing and the taboo against attacks on competence. 
Um, sound like any cultures you know?

So, look. I'm seeking ways to make newcomers feel welcome, indeed we all should. But if we agree that some parallels can be drawn between hacker culture and MTBoS, the fact that those who have been around awhile become well-known, and that status is correlated with contribution, doesn't come as a surprise.  The very cool thing is, there's so much going on in our global, stateless army of awesome! So there are so many ways to contribute, make some friends, and learn something. And the best part is, you can't help but grow as a teacher, so the kids directly benefit. Which is what got us all here in the first place.

Update: thanks to Megan Hayes-Golding for writing some missing pieces of this post.
On reputation: So if the MTBoS is a gift culture, who I was previously calling the rockstars are really just the most generous members of our community. They've earned high reputations because of their prior contributions. Most hackers who contribute to open source software do it not for reputation but do it to make the code work for them. Most teachers who contribute to the MTBoS do it because they need something for their classroom. We share it because, why not? But after we share, and someone else picks it up for their classroom, we gain in reputation. Reputation wasn't the original goal, but is a natural byproduct.

On social capital: Have you or anyone else here read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow? In it, he describes a utopian currency called whuffie. It's a reputation based system where the highly-respected have high whuffies and the universally hated have low. When it comes to giving reputation points, "A person with a score of 0 is just as capable of giving and revoking Whuffie as someone with a score of 1,000,000." Reddit gold and Slashdot karma are popular online social capital-measuring sticks. gasstationwithoutpumps also mentioned stackoverflow as a third.
On secrecy: Rebecca commented about the secretiveness of her local colleagues. Yes, to that point! Folks who know little about open source software often comment that they don't understand why people would volunteer to write software when they could get paid for doing the same work under a different banner. Why would you want your work out in the open? Because gifting makes us better teachers.