Benjamin Mako Hill – Laboratories of Oligarchy? How The Iron Law Extends to Peer Production

CITP Luncheon Series

Date: Thursday, April 11, 2013
Location: 306 Sherrerd Hall
Streaming Live: https://www.youtube.com/user/citpprinceton
Food and discussion begins at 12:30 pm. Everyone invited.

The examples of large successful peer production projects like Wikipedia and GNU/Linux have inspired a wave of social movements. Scholars have embraced networked technologies as novel forms of participatory organization with broad democratizing potential. But despite the egalitarian ideals associated with peer production, many projects exhibit strong inequalities of participation and hierarchical governance institutions. Like other democratic organizations, peer production may exhibit organizational behavior consistent with Robert Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” Using exhaustive longitudinal data of internal processes drawn from a population of wikis, we construct measures of organizational participation appropriate to peer production communities. In contrast to previous work, we find support for Michel’s iron law and conclude that the adoption of organizational forms used in peer production may not enhance democratic outcomes.


Benjamin Mako Hill is a social scientist, technologist, and activist. In all three roles, he works to understand why, and when, peer production succeeds. He is a PhD Candidate in a joint program between the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Media Lab and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. In September 2013, he will join the faculty of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. His research aims to explain why some attempts to create free culture and free software result in large volunteer communities like Wikipedia and Linux — while the vast majority never attract even a second contributor. He has also been an leader, developer, and contributor to the Free and Open Source Software community for more than a decade as part of the Debian and Ubuntu projects. He is the author of several best-selling technical books, a member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors and an advisor to the Wikimedia Foundation. Hill has a Masters degree from the MIT Media Lab.