What happens when the boundaries between play and labour collapse?

The concept of playbour, a contraction of play and labour, is central when looking at how to hold on to participants in online Collaborative Commons, and create a form of sustainability, says Giacomo Poderi. He is a postdoc at the IT University of Copenhagen, who, in a new project, is studying participants’ subjective experiences in the commons.

Computer Science DepartmentResearch

When we hear of a subject or concept that we do not really know, our first inclination is to look it up online – and in simple searches, the first result will often lead to a Wikipedia page. Wikipedia works as an online encyclopaedia, which presents the information we need clearly and easily. An encyclopaedia is usually put together and published as part of an actual publication business, where contributors and editors are payed for their work. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is what is known as a Collaborative Common – an online community, where participants, on a volunteer basis, create and maintain digital products and content, which can then freely be shared, reused, adapted and re-shared by others.

The advantages of such commons are clear: people are engaging as participants – a term, which is predominantly used with its positive connotations.

“Participation gives you empowerment, gives you satisfaction, gives you enjoyment, but there are also downsides to active participation in Collaborative Commons. For example, a pressure of expectation can arise, from other users, to maintain a certain level of productivity,” says Giacomo Poderi.

He will spend the next two years at the IT University of Copenhagen, as a part of his individual Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. In his project “Infrastructuring SuStainable Playbour”, Giacomo Poderi takes a critical perspective on the concept of participation in these commons, highlighting some of the challenges they face, not just collectively, but on an individual level. For instance, the volunteer participants have jobs to keep, which can give rise to concrete scheduling challenges.

Playbour

A central term in Giacomo Poderi’s project is the concept of playbour. The term originated in the digital games industry, where it was associated with “modding” – the act, by players, of modifying or customizing the game, essentially by hacking it and creating new content. These small hacks, however, are actually beneficial to the game companies, who benefit from the additional content created by players. Essentially, the players end up “working” for the company, or for other users, and what started out as a hobby, and an enjoyable activity, increasingly resembles real labour.

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Playbour is thus, more generally, a concept that tries to highlight the collapsing of boundaries between what were once understood as two different human activities: play and labour.

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“Playbour is thus, more generally, a concept that tries to highlight the collapsing of boundaries between what were once understood as two different human activities: play and labour,” says Giacomo Poderi.

One of the boundaries that collapses in these online communities is the boundary between being a consumer and a producer; active participants in the commons are both – so-called prosumers. They quickly come to feel a sense of responsibility for the products or content they are creating, and in the end, it can feel more like a duty. Participants end up leaving the commons for different reasons, but some of these have to do with the culture of the commons, their governance and their participatory infrastructure.

Giacomo’s end-goal is to create empirically grounded principles or guidelines that will help to support long-term engagement by participants while safeguarding their subjective needs, and thus help the commons achieve sustainability.

Diversity and governance

Having just started his project in January 2018, Giacomo Poderi is in the early stages of his research. Nevertheless, he has already identified some key issues to focus on in his case studies, which include an open source video game community and a non-profit organization that lobbies free and open source software. Aside from these, he has yet to decide on a third case, which will be based in Copenhagen.

One of the issues that might play a role for individual participants in Collaborative Commons is diversity:

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Over time, the commons tend to be dominated by a well-defined set of people, which might tend to exclude other participants, even as an indirect consequence.

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“Over time, the commons tend to be dominated by a well-defined set of people, which might tend to exclude other participants, even as an indirect consequence – and this creates a problem of scalability. In other words, it affects the flexibility with which the common can expand and increase its capacity,” says Giacomo Poderi.

Another issue is governance – a term, which covers the set of constituents and policies that the commons have to adopt and develop over time. Governance defines who has the right to contribute, how you achieve that right and what constitutes a good contribution. Governance of Collaborative Commons has been described in previous studies, but these studies remain mainly at institutional and structural levels, whereas Giacomo proposes to shift the focus:

“Looking at subjectivities, at individuals, can provide a very different perspective, and new insights into the individual participant. This is lacking in the research that has been done so far,” he says.

Ultimately, whether Giacomo ends up with concrete design guidelines, or some more overarching principles, he hopes that the results of his study will reach the people it is all about: the participants, the prosumers, of the Collaborative Commons.

“It is a part of my approach to be flexible, and though I don’t know yet to what extent it is feasible, I would like to engage the participants in the construction of the guidelines. And I would definitely like these guidelines to be publically available, both for researchers and participants.”