Book Review: David Bollier’s Viral Spiral: how the commoners built a digital republic of their own

David Bollier’s Viral spiral : how the commoners built a digital republic of their own is a very good book with a horrible title. While there are many books about various elements of free/open-source software (like GNU/Linux), Creative Commons licenses, peer production (remix and mashups), and open models for success (Wikipedia, open science, open education, and open business), I think this is the first book to discuss these within the context of a social history.

So why is a social history so important? There are other books that discuss what the commons is or what it could be, but this is the first book to truly try to capture the process of creating the framework for the commons by theorists and practitioners. In reading several sections, especially on Creative Commons, I felt like I understood better how the process evolved. Where we are now doesn’t just happen, people create it, and there are missteps and corrections made. Viral Spiral helps to see the warts-n-all process, rather than just showing things as they are now.

So what are the issues with the book?

First, the term, viral spiral. Just no. Bollier does make a good argument for his term — but it just doesn’t have the right sound to it — or capture the holisticness of the idea. My suggestion would be participatory meme (but even that doesn’t quite get there). Maybe Henry Jenkins’ term, convergence culture?

Viral spiral is apt … because it suggests a process of change that is anything but clean, direct, and mechanical. …  Life on the Internet does not take place on a stable Cartesian grid—orderly, timeless, universal—but on a constantly pulsating, dynamic, and labyrinthine web of finely interconnected threads radiating through countless nodes. … Viral spiral calls attention to the holistic and historical dynamics of life on the Web, which has a very different metaphysical feel than the world of twentieth-century media.

Second, considering my interest in fans and fandom, it is interesting how few mentions of fandom there are in the book — excepting musical fandoms. There is the requisite Nine Inch Nails Ghosts mention and a discussion of the Grateful Dead bootleg policy (but no mention of the subsequent changes in policy).

Relatedly, there is nary a mention of pre-internetz created remix / fanworks forms such as vidding and fanfic — and therefore, this social history is incomplete, especially as related to (often-gendered-as) girl or women commoning activities. Additionally, since the book focuses on the names that made this possible (important for a social history), it ironically glosses over many of the small contributions of the commoners.

The gaps in the social history exist, but everything that is in this book is valuable, and likely would be lost but for this book. And this is the win quote from the book:

Individuals working with one another via social networks are a growing force in our economy and society. The phenomenon has many manifestations, and goes by many names—”peer production,” “social production,” “smart mobs,” the “wisdom of crowds,” “crowdsourcing,” and “the commons.” The basic point is that socially created value is increasingly competing with conventional markets, as GNU/Linux has famously shown. Through an open, accessible commons, one can efficiently tap into the “wisdom of the crowd,” nurture experimentation, accelerate innovation, and foster new forms of democratic practice.

This is why so many ordinary people—without necessarily having degrees, institutional affiliations or wealth—are embarking upon projects that, in big and small ways, are building a new order of culture and commerce.

The book has a Creative Commons license and is available as a free e-book; however, it is only available as a whole — rather than also as individual chapters. I understand this way makes statistical analysis of downloads easier — but sometimes one only wants to look at one chapter — or references!


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