I have criticized these systems, including Backfeed specifically, but I haven’t actually tried them out. So I was eager to see what Ouishare discovered.
I should say that Ouishare is an interesting bunch, certainly earnest, and certainly walking the walk. This experiment is a good fit for the group and a good set of people to conduct a legitimate trial.
“At OuiShare we’ve been experimenting with horizontal ways of organizing since the beginnings, so when we met Matan Field and Primavera de Filippi at OuiShare Fest this year, their new project Backfeed awakened our curiosity.” (From:  http://magazine.ouishare.net/2015/11/decentralizing-part-of-ouishare-with-blockchain-experiment-1/)
So what experiment should ‘oui’ do?
Francesca Pick reports on the experiment and what they learned.
The “guinea pigs” started with a bunch of very good questions.
“[W]hat would it mean to decentralize OuiShare? How would it change how we work, manage, communicate? How we measure value? And is it even something we want?”
To get things practical, they decided to use Backfeed to run their program selection process . They already crowdsource the program (i.e., use open voting to select among all submissions), so this is a natural fit for the Backfeed “conseneus” decision making process.
The aim going in was to improve the submission system in 2 ways:
- making contributions more visible and providing transparency by documenting them, and
- enabling contributors to build a reputation (by participating in the evaluation process.
What They Did
This experiment was done by using Backfeed integrated into Slack to operate the submissions and evaluation, augmented by Backfeed’s reputation and “consensus” mechanisms based on a blockchain .
“Easier said than done.” Even this limited objective required rethinking what they had done in the past, as well as ingrained thinking and habits.
“What does a fully decentralized process even look like?”
Pragmatically, she asks:
- Will we be spending all our time evaluating people’s work?
- How do you integrate on and offline coordination?
She also points to deep ideological questions:
- Is it a good thing to evaluate everything we do?
- How should reputation be distributed?
- What kind of behavior do we want to incentivize?
- To what extent can code impose a certain world view?
- What is “value” for us?
Pick also observed the personal, emotionally laden reactions of the team as they encountered this technology.
“Beyond questions raising more questions, what left the biggest impression on me was the fact that the workshop generated strong reactions in my team members and me, often of fear, the unknown, losing control and of constant evaluation.” (From  http://magazine.ouishare.net/2016/01/how-to-slowly-lose-control-ouishare-decentralization-experiment-chapter-2/)
Slack experiment 1: evaluating program questions
“As a first experiment, we asked OuiShare Connectors to submit and evaluate ideas for key questions that they think the OuiShare Fest program should address this year.” (From  http://magazine.ouishare.net/2016/05/between-friction-and-seamlessness-ouishare-decentralization-experiment-chapter-3/)
This short experiment gave an unexpected result: “Fewer contributions, not more”.
People “actively participated in discussions and pitched their ideas in the regular chat, but when it came to actually submitting an official contribution through Backfeed, they were hesitant”
Essentially, the software tracked transparency and reputation mechanism was a barrier to brainstorming. I would note that the chat sessions that people were happy to participate in both documents their actions and probably has informal “reputation” accounting in people’s heads. But making these processes very visible and “etched in stone” made people step back.
Slack experiment 2: holding up the mirror
Addressing this barrier, and also concerns over workload, the team modified their workflow tracking to automatically post completed tasks to the Backfeed augmented Slack system. This made participation seamless and, indeed, invisible.
“For now, this is my conclusion: as far as I can see, tools for decentralized coordination with blockchain are still quite unreliable and far from being ready to use. There are many reasons we did not get very far in using this tool operationally, linked to technical immaturity, lack of time, but especially human challenges.”
In a video talk , Pick notes that at the time of the experiment, Backfeed didn’t actually use the blockchain, so the challenges had nothing at all to do with blockchain, per se! She notes that the human interface and processes themselves, regardless of the blockchain, are a high barrier that effectively precludes fully open participation. It’s just too hard to use for a “come one, come all” call.
Second, she concludes that the blockchain technology, and the “distributed decision making” protocols based on it, don’t make the process of evaluation easier, nor does it eliminate the psychological issues around submitting to criticism. These are difficult tasks for people to do.
I would say, the difficulty of the task is not really in the bookkeeping or a lack of transparency, it is human social psychology. So blockchains are not really “solving” the hard part of this challenge. I might also comment that “centralized” or hierarchical decision making is a natural solution to this problem, allowing many people to outsource the hard work onto a few people.
Great Work, But Inconclusive Results
Pick and team deserve credit and praise for this significant practical experiment. They did a thoughtful and careful trial, and Pick’s conclusions are moderate and hype free.
It is notable that they never really even got to the “disruptive” part, because they never really had an open system. This “radically decentralized” technology struggled to successfully work in a small, closed group. More over, it was a group that knew each other and was already working together.
How would this approach work at an Internet scale, wide open, and full of strangers? We have no idea from this experiment, but it probably would be difficult to get people to do it.
I’m particularly struck by Pick’s excellent discussion of the practical and ideological questions raised by even this tiny experiment. There is plenty of hype about decentralized decision making, and various permutations of reputation systems. Pick raises questions about how these ideas actually map to how people really want to work together.
It is interesting that, along with dislike of evaluating people and being evaluated, there was a sense of “slowly losing control” of the process. This is, of course, the entire point of “decentralization”, but it is also a psychologically and politically charged issue. Ceding “control” to software is not necessarily in the interests of everyone.
Most important of all, Pick asks whether we even want to do this at all. Even Ouishare, an organization dedicated to radical democracy and technology, did not find an easy answer to this question.
This is a crucial question that should be asked about all of the “innovations” touted for decentralized organizations and blockchains.
This is extremely valuable work, and should be widely read by anyone interested in deploying “decentralized” or blockchain technology.
- Francesca Pick, (2015) Decentralizing (Part Of) Ouishare With Blockchain: Experiment 1. Ouishare Magazine, 11 November http://magazine.ouishare.net/2015/11/decentralizing-part-of-ouishare-with-blockchain-experiment-1/
- Francesca Pick, (2016) How To Slowly Lose Control: Decentralization Experiment 2. Ouishare Magazine, http://magazine.ouishare.net/2016/01/how-to-slowly-lose-control-ouishare-decentralization-experiment-chapter-2/
- Francesca Pick, (2016) Between Friction and Seamlessness: OuiShare Decentralization Experiment, Chapter 3. Ouishare Magazine, http://magazine.ouishare.net/2016/05/between-friction-and-seamlessness-ouishare-decentralization-experiment-chapter-3/
- OuiShareTV, Francesca Pick- Factor Human: OuiShare’s Experiment in Decentralization 2016. https://youtu.be/vkhBLQCiqFo