Social peer-to-peer processes are interactions among humans with a peer-to-peer dynamic. Peer-to-peer (P2P) is a term that originated from the popular concept of the P2P distributed computer application architecture which partitions tasks or workloads between peers.[1][better source needed] This application structure was popularized by file sharing systems like Napster, the first of its kind in the late 1990s.

The concept has inspired new structures and philosophies in many areas of human interaction. P2P human dynamic affords a critical look at current authoritarian and centralized social structures. Peer-to-peer is also a political and social program for those who believe that in many cases, peer-to-peer modes are a preferable option.


P2P is a specific form of relational dynamic, based on the assumed equipotency[2] of its participants, organized through the free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task, for the creation of a common good, with forms of decision making and autonomy that are widely distributed throughout the network.

There are several fundamental aspects of social P2P processes:


Many of the characteristics of P2P processes emerged in the open source movement.

P2P processes are not structureless but are characterized by dynamic and changing structures that adapt themselves to phase changes. We can describe this by invoking self organization. Stigmergy is also cited by some practitioners in P2P as their principal mode of coordination, as an alternative to planning (see more on the Open value network model).

Its rules are not derived from authority, as in hierarchical systems. It does not deny ‘authority’, but only fixed forced hierarchy, and therefore accepts forms of influence that based on expertise, initiation of the project, etc.[4] P2P may be the first true meritocracy[citation needed].

P2P eliminates most, if not all, barriers to entry. It is assumed that ‘anybody’ can contribute and does not use formal rules in advance to determine its participating agents. The threshold for participation is kept as low as possible, to being permissionless at the extreme, for example in mining for the Bitcoin network or in opening a wallet and perform transactions on the same network. Participants are expected to self-select the module that corresponds best to their expertise. Equipotency means that it is the immediate practice of collaboration which determines the expertise and level of participation. Validation of knowledge, acceptance of processes, are determined by the collective through the use of digital rules which are, in some cases, embedded in the project's basic protocol.

Communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated into the protocol of the collaborative system. Techniques of 'participation capture' and other social accounting make automatic collaboration the default scheme of the project. Personal identity becomes partly generated by the contribution to the common project. P2P characteristics have been studied by Howard Rheingold et al.'s Cooperation Project.[5]

The organizational topology in P2P is a network, not a linear or 'pyramidal' hierarchy (though it may have transient elements of it); it is 'distributed' or 'decentralized'; intelligence is not located at any center, but everywhere within the system.

P2P processes start from the premise that ‘we don't know where the needed resource will be located’. Thus, most processes are crowdsourced.

Collaboration must be free, not forced, and not based on an exchange (i.e. time vs money).

These P2P interactions are geared to produce something, enabling the widest possible participation.

Whereas participants in hierarchical systems are subject to the panoptism of the select few who control the vast majority, in P2P systems, participants have access to holoptism, the ability for any participant to see the whole.

These are a number of characteristics that we can use to describe P2P systems ‘in general’, and in particular as it emerges in the human lifeworld.


The first requirement to facilitate the emergence of peer-to-peer processes at large scale is the existence of a technological infrastructure that enables distributed access to fixed capital.

Digitalization: Individual computers that enable a universal machine capable of executing any logical task are a form of ubiquitous fixed asset, available at low cost to many producers.
Networking: The internet, as a point to point network, was specifically designed for participation by the edges (computer users) without the use of obligatory hubs. Although it is not fully in the hands of its participants, in its initial form the internet was controlled through distributed governance, and outside the complete hegemony of particular private or state actors. The Internet's hierarchical elements, such as the stacked Internet protocol suite and Domain Name System, do not deter participation, although they are no longer free of censorship. Meshworks are a logical extension of the internet. With this methodology, devices create their own networks through the use of excess capacity, bypassing the need for a pre-existing infrastructure. Wireless community networks, Open Spectrum advocacy, file-serving television, and alternative meshwork-based telecommunication infrastructures are exemplary of this trend.[6]

The second requirement is alternative information and communication systems which allow for autonomous communication between cooperating agents.

Web 2.0 allows for intermediated collaborative production, a first step towards true peer production.
Web 3.0 and Web3 allow the desintermediation of large scale collaborative production, which is a true case of peer production.

The third requirement is the existence of a 'software' infrastructure for autonomous global cooperation. A growing number of collaborative tools, such as blogs, wikis, and gits embedded in social networking software facilitate the creation of trust and social capital, making it possible to create global groups that can collaborate without the intermediary of manufacturing or distribution by for-profit enterprises.[6] Similar applications for online collaboration are being reproduced using blockchain and other P2P technologies, which allows for the disintermediation of the infrastructure itself.

The fourth requirement is an infrastructure that enables P2P collaboration and protects it from private and public appropriation. From a legal perspective, the General Public License (which prohibits the appropriation of software code), the related Open Source Initiative, certain versions of the Creative Commons license and equivalent licences that are applied to open source hardware (ex. CERN Open Hardware Licence) fulfill this role. GPL and related material can only be used in projects that in turn put their adapted source code in the public domain.[6] They enable the protection of the artifacts produced through these P2P processes (digital and physical) and use viral characteristics to spread. Moreover, p2p technologies such as Blockchain, Holochain, etc., makes it possible to deploy unstoppable, or capture resistant infrastructure that doesn't require the State or a legal system for its own protection. In that sense, P2P opens a transnational space where socioeconomic processes tan deploy globally beyond the power or the influence of the State or any other national or international institution.

The fifth requirement is cultural, i.e. the diffusion of mass intellectuality, (i.e. the distribution of human intelligence) and associated changes in ways of feeling and being (ontology), ways of knowing (epistemology) and value constellations (axiology) have been instrumental in creating the type of cooperative individualism needed to sustain an ethos which can enable P2P projects.[6]

In the economy


There are two important aspects to the emergence of P2P in the economic sphere. On the one hand, as a format for peer production processes, it is emerging as a 'third mode of production' based on the cooperation of autonomous agents. Indeed, if the first mode of production was laissez-faire based capitalism, and the second mode was the model of a centrally-planned economy, then the third mode does not use market and pricing mechanisms, or managerial commands, but instead uses social relations and socially-defined goals, motivations and incentives.

As a new mode of production, peer production is still largely dependent on the mainstream economy to reproduce itself. Recently, with the advent of web 3.0 and Web3 we are seeing breakthroughs in developing its own incentive mechanisms, using various coins and tokens, showing promising signs of bootstrapping itself as an independent and self-sufficient mode of production. As the influence of P2P grows larger, hybrid models have started to emerge. At play are coaptation attempts from institutions that subscribe to both, socialism and capitalism ideologies. For example, initiatives like The Network State, which coming out of the Silicon Valley, are the adaptation of Platform capitalism (itself an adaptation of Capitalism to new capabilities introduced by Web 2.0) to newer capabilities introduced by Web3. On the other side of the spectrum we find the Coordi-Nation as an adaptation from Platform Cooperative, as proposed by Primavera De Filippi and others.

Peer production has become a significant part of the mainstream economy, even if it is not much advertised as such in mainstream economic literature.[6] As such and despite significant differences, P2P and the capitalist market are highly interconnected and interdependent. Peer production produces use-value through mostly immaterial production. In the early stages, up until the creation of The DAO in 2016, which marks a turning point in P2P for building its own bootstrapping mechanisms, peer production could not directly provide an income for its producers. Participants could not live from peer production, though they were deriving meaning and other types of benefits from it.[6] Today, with the development of DAOs and OVNs an increasing number of individuals can sustain their lives directly from their engagement in P2P projects and ventures (see also Sensorica).

The market and capitalism are also dependent on P2P. Capitalism has become a system relying on distributed networks, in particular on the P2P infrastructure in computing and communication.

Moreover, practices that have been developed within P2P networks have been adopted by private and public institutions, to the extent that capitalism has become highly reliant on cooperative teamwork. See for example agile development and extreme manufacturing, influenced by open source development. Other examples of partial implementations of P2P practices by for-profit enterprises are various forms of crowdsourcing or user-generated data or content. For instance, Amazon built itself around user reviews,[citation needed], while eBay lives on a platform of worldwide distributed auctions, and Google is constituted by user-generated content.

The support given by major IT companies to open-source development is a testimony to the use derived from even the new P2P property regimes (digital commons in this case).

Thus, production today is no longer confined to the enterprise, but beholden to the mass intellectuality of knowledge workers, who through their lifelong learning/experiencing and systemic connectivity, constantly innovate within and without the enterprise.[6] See also Verna Allee and the value network concept.

One hybrid business model is that businesses use the P2P infrastructure (the Internet for example, or even their computing cloud which may run on Linux, an operating system issued from peer production), and create a surplus value through services, which can be packaged for exchange value.

Another hybrid model is the creation of two-sided markets. One form of this was improperly called the "sharing economy",[7] also termed "access economy" or "peer exchange economy.".[8] More properly speaking, this is better described as a "micro-services economy", instantiated by businesses like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, which are proprietary platforms that mediate coordination among people who can engage in transactions. This new practice is also called Platform Capitalism, or the adaptation of Capitalism to the new possibilities introduced by web 2.0, in which the firm doesn't own the means of production and doesn't even engage in production, but coordinates a network of producers and consumers. In this context peer production is contained within a private domain (a proprietary platform for coordination) and subject to with will of whose who control the platform. The Platform Coop arrangement also exists, where the platform that insures the coordination among producers and consumers is owned by a cooperative with a more democratic governance. The P2P movement proposes fully decentralized alternatives of these type of economic coordination systems, where the platform is in the hands of participants, like in the Bitcoin network.

Peer-to-peer systems contribute to more specific forms of distributed capitalism. The massive use of open source software in business, enthusiastically supported by venture capital and large IT companies such as IBM, is creating a distributed software platform that will drastically undercut the monopolistic rents enjoyed by companies such as Microsoft and Oracle, while Skype and VoIP have drastically redistributed the telecom infrastructure. It also points to a new business model that is 'beyond' products, focusing instead on services associated with the nominally free FS/OS software model. Industries are gradually transforming themselves to incorporate user-generated innovation, and new desintermediation has occurred around user-generated media. Many knowledge workers are choosing non-corporate paths and becoming mini-entrepreneurs, relying on an increasingly sophisticated participatory infrastructure, a kind of digital corporate commons.[6]

Market economy

Social P2P systems are different from market economy:[6] neither market pricing nor managerial command are required for P2P processes to make decisions regarding the allocation of resources. There are further differences:

Markets do not function well for common needs that do not involve direct payment[6] (national defense, general policing, education and public health). In addition, they fail to take into account negative externalities[6] (the environment, social costs, future generations).

P2P economic system

In The Political Economy of Peer Production Bauwens regards P2P phenomena as an emerging alternative to capitalist society. P2P economy may be seen as extending or already existing outside the sphere of free/open source software production and other non-rival immaterial goods. Peer production effectively enables the free cooperation of producers, who have access to their own means of production, and the resulting use-value of the projects supersedes for-profit alternatives.[6]

Historically, though forces of higher productivity may be temporarily embedded in the old productive system, they ultimately lead to deep upheavals and reconstitutions of the political economy. The emergence of capitalist modes within the feudal system is a case in point. This is particularly significant because leading sectors of the for-profit economy are deliberately slowing down productive growth (through patents and monopolization) and trying to outlaw P2P production and sharing practices.[6]

In politics


Governments of countries are composed of a specialized and privileged body of individuals, who monopolize political decision-making. Their function is to enforce existing laws, legislate new ones, and arbitrate conflicts via their monopoly on violence. Legislation can be open to the general citizenry through open source governance, allowing policy development to benefit from the collected wisdom of the people as a whole.

Michel Bauwens has stated, that current society is not a peer group with an a priori consensus, but rather a decentralized structure of competing groups and representative democracy, and as such it cannot be replaced entirely by peer governance.[9] In a recent Substack post [10] Michel Bauwens reiterates his idea of the Magisteria of the Commons

My own concept of Magisteria of the Commons is quite similar. My argument is that we have a commons gap in our global institutional order. We have inter-national governmental cooperation, we have trans-national financial flows, but we do not have transnational civic institutions that are able to project the web of life and the dwindling resource base of the planet. I strongly suspect these Magisteria will evolve various forms of multi-stakeholder governance, but with participation of the productive citizens directly. This is emphatically not an iteration of the World Economic Forum model.

Open source movements

Many new movements are taking on P2P organizational formats, such as the alter-globalization movement and the "Occupy" movement (i.e. Occupy Wall Street). The movements see itself as a network of networks that combines players from a wide variety of fields and opinion, who, despite the fact that they do not see eye to eye in all things, manage to unite around a common platform of action around certain key events.

They are able to mobilize vast numbers of people from every continent, without having at their disposal any of the traditional news media, such as television, radio or newspapers. Rather, they rely almost exclusively on the P2P technologies described above. Thus, Internet media are used for communication and learning on a continuous basis, prior to the mobilizations, and also during the mobilizations.

Independent Internet media platforms such as Indymedia, as well as the skillful use of mobile phones, are used for real-time response management, undertaken by small groups that use buddy-list technologies, and sometimes open-source programs that have been explicitly designed for political activism such as TextMob.

Many reports have appeared, including those described in Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs, about the political significance of SMS in organizing successful protests and ‘democratic revolutions’. The network model allows for a more fluid organization that does not fix any group in a permanent adversarial position. Various temporary coalitions are created on an ad hoc basis depending on the issues.

Notable contributors

The following is a list of individuals who have made contributions to the peer-to-peer paradigm.

Business and economics
Philosophy and spirituality

See also


  1. ^ "What does Peer-to-Peer Architecture (P2P Architecture) mean?". Techopedia Inc.
  2. ^ "Equipotent definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary". Retrieved 2020-12-23.
  3. ^ Benkler, Yochai (2001). "Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm" (PDF). The Yale Law Journal. arXiv:cs/0109077. Bibcode:2001cs........9077B. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-10-10. Retrieved 2010-04-15.
  4. ^ Bruns, Axel. "Peer-to-Peer Interaction" (PDF). Queensland University of Technology: 9.
  5. ^ "The Cooperation Project: Objectives, Accomplishments, Proposals" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-04-15.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Bauwens, Michel (2005-01-12). "The Political Economy of Peer Production". CTheory. Archived from the original on 2022-10-25.
  7. ^ "The rise of the sharing economy". The Economist. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  8. ^ "The Popularity of Peer-to-Peer Exchanges in the Last Decade". Gear Peers. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
  9. ^ Bauwens, Michel (2007-02-25). "P2P politics, the state, and the renewal of the emancipatory traditions". Re-public. Archived from the original on 2011-07-22.
  10. ^ Bauwens, Michel (2024-04-23). "Should we worry about the cooptation of the commons?".
  11. ^ Greif, Irene (August 1975). Semantics of Communicating Parallel Processes (EECS Doctoral Dissertation). MIT.
  • Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. MIT Press, 1999 (describes the underlying P2P ethos of the internet's founding fathers)
  • Aigrain, Philippe. Cause Commune. L'information entre bien commun et propriete. Fayard, 2005 (on the new Commons and associated social movements)
  • Bauwens, M., 2005, Peer to Peer and Human Evolution
  • Ferrer, Jorge N. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. SUNY, 2001 (outlines the new paradigm of participatory spirituality)
  • Galloway, Alexander. Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. MIT Press, 2004 (power as embedded in the digital protocols governing networked systems)
  • Gilmor, Dan. We the Media. O'Reilly, 2004 (on participatory journalism)
  • Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature. Island Press, 2001 (on networked and P2P physical and social laws)
  • Heron, John. Sacred Science. PCCS Books, 1998 (defines relational spirituality and the methodology called Cooperative Inquiry)
  • Himanen, Pekka. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. Random House, 2002 (on the 'P2P' work culture exemplified by the hackers but spreading in the general economy)
  • Lasica, J.D. Darknet: Hollywood's War against the Digital Generation. John Wiley & Sons, 2005 (cultural and political consequences of P2P filesharing)
  • Malone, Thomas. The Future of Work. How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life. Harvard Business School Press, 2004 (coordination theory and decentralisation in the corporate enterprise)
  • Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990 (how to manage the physical commons)
  • Raymond, Eric. The Cathedral and the Bazaar. O’Reilly, 2001 (the gift economy culture of the free software and open source movements)
  • Sagot-Duvauroux, Jean-Louis. Pour la Gratuite. Desclee-De Brouwer, 1995 (the gratuity of common goods as indicative of civilizational progress)
  • Stallman, Richard. Free Software, Free Society. Free Software Foundation, 2002 (the ethos of the Free Software movement)
  • Tuomi, Ilkka. Networks of Innovation. Oxford Press, 2003 (networked forms of innovation)
  • von Hippel, Eric. The Democratization of Innovation. MIT Press, 2004 (examines participatory innovation starting from the users/consumers themselves)
  • Weber, Steve. The Success of Open Source. Harvard University Press, 2004 (studies Open Source and peer production)

Further reading