A response to The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace (Kollock)

A response to The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace (Kollock)

I’ve thought a lot about the economies of online cooperation and I found this paper interesting mostly because it was written by a sociologist in 1999. I took issue with many of its assertions, but was intrigued by what the author did and didn’t consider about the technical issues and how 1999 his examples and reasoning were. In 1999, not even Nupedia (which gave way to Wikipedia) existed yet. How would he revise his analysis for Wikipedia?

The analysis of gifts and motivation suffers from a shallow understanding of the implications of atoms versus bits. Bits are not simply atoms that freely move and replicate. They do, but that makes for a new logic, one that our vocabulary and metaphors haven’t caught up with yet. “Sharing a story” and “sharing a pie” have very different implications. He identifies this as the trait of indivisibility, that “one’s persons consumption of a good does not reduce the amount available to another.” (I can’t find a definition of this term anywhere else, but I’ll go with it.) He brings this up in order to discuss the public goods, but he fails to identify an important implication: when all “goods” are the functionally equal result of activity with the information network, then the appropriate framing is not stuff but action. He analyzes Usenet posts as gifts… would you describe helping an elderly person across the street as a gift? It’s an action.

The “remarkable property of online interaction” he describes is not new in a categorical way; it just takes information exchange to an extreme. We could always share ideas indivisibly and non-excludably (e.g. language itself). As he points out, near-zero costs can change the system in non-linear ways. Today storage costs near zero. What’s “unprecedented in the history of human society” is that the records and byproducts of all our activities create persistent artifacts.

Digital goods then are not created per se, they are the by-product of activity. Activity is the appropriate frame of analysis.

I laughed when I read the rationale for why an operating system would come before a word processor. He’s right on that programmers, when not externally compensated, make the things that they want to use. And that is exactly why the first successful open-source project was Emacs, a programmer’s text editor. In fact, Emacs was the motivation for the GPL license in the first place. Developers had been building free GNU software for years before Linus learned to program. Linux was a new kernel on which all that software could run. Seeing the Linux kernel as the driving force is an easy mistake to make if you’re oriented to goods, because it’s a pretty valuable good. But the volunteer army wanted to do and first made the tools for them to do. Eventually an ideological element emerged, contending that all software should be free because it can be, but most contributors just make what works for them. The magic is that they can share the byproducts of their activity at a trivial cost.

The motivations offered, reciprocity and reputation, seem pretty similar to me, as does “altruism”. It’s all a continuum of scope. As Kollock points out, reciprocity is not expected from the party helped but from the group as a whole. This is contingent on reputation. “Reputation” in an online community can yield other rewards. “Self-image as an efficacious person” is an endogenous reward, but there are other rewards that are exogenous, such as likelihood to be hired. Altruism is a further abstraction, the belief that being good pays off somehow. The larger the scope, the less direct the link between action and reward.

All said, I think the paper does a good job at illustrating “the economies of online cooperation” as it purports to. I focused on my misgivings because I thought they’d make a more interesting post.

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