December 2007

Blogs have been buzzing lately about the introduction of a new(-ish) platform from Google called Knol. Check out the announcement about Knol on Google's blog. The idea is that Knol is a cross between Wikipedia and one of a few systems (e.g. Squidoo, Mahalo, Hubpages) that give users tools for creating portal pages on specific topics. The hope is that people will take ownership of particular topics, style themselves as experts, summarize and edit all the content that's out there in the cloud for everyone's benefit. Most of these sites have thus far tried to motivate users through a combination of reputation and community involvement. And let's not forget the value of the knowledge base itself.

Google is tackling issues of motivation and quality with reputational and social networking tools, just like everyone else. But with Knol, they also seem to be stepping in with the increasingly classic Google move: add cash. How else is a deep-pocketed late-comer supposed to make a dent in the market? The strategy is no-doubt driven by Google's bevy of economists who argue: when a rational person has the choice between doing something just for the warm-fuzzies, or for warm-fuzzies and cash, that person will go for the cash.

I'm surprised, however, that for all the talent they have on staff, no one around there has told them how dangerous this idea is. It turns out there's all sorts of evidence that when you add monetary payments (or, more generally extrinsic incentives), all kinds of unexpected things can happen. Motivation can be reduced, quality can dip, resentment brewed. I recommend the good folks at Google get started by reading Not Just for the Money by Bruno Frey (an economist!) and The Hidden Costs of Reward edited by Lepper and Greene.

Of course, all of this will depend on just how carefully Google designs their system. One of the most fascinating areas of my research is understanding how the minutiae of user interaction and design elements can influence social psychological motivations. Crowding out (when extrinsic incentives push out intrinsic ones instead of adding to them) can in some cases be crowding in when the context is right. We know so very little about this stuff right now, at least in a scientific sense.

Ultimately, there's a pretty fundamental divide here. Wikipedia is the 10-ton gorilla of knowledge sharing, and they've gotten this far without paying people a cent. Google is betting that Knol will be able to leech away contributors from Wikipedia. Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch seems to agree. And they may be right. But, I worry, to Google's own peril. Who are those users who will abandon Wikipedia to feed from the Google cash trough? Are they they the invested, high quality, knowledgeable contributors that Google would need to build a respectable knowledge repository? Doubtful. But it may be presumptuous of me to assume that Google cares about the quality of their Knol content. Maybe sheer volume is enough. It's their own property, so they can promote it in their search results all they want, and if the eyeballs and ad revenues are there, maybe Google is happy. But then let's not fool ourselves by calling it a 'knowledge repository' when it's really just another ad vehicle.

Last night Tamar and I spent a particularly wonderful night with some good friends drinking wine at our favorite wine bar in SF. It was unusual and amazing enough to be worth sharing, methinks.

We started the evening with a bottle of Domaine J. Laurens Brut NV. This French sparkling wine was a bit too sweet and apple-y for my taste. Not much in the way of yeasty or toasty complexity, and I prefer the bubbly a bit drier, more all the time, probably, owing to the influence of Tamar's family.

Then we moved on to the reds. Marissa wisely ordered a bottle of Louis M. Martini Barbera – Lake County 1993. Most of us thought this wine was quite good in the 'interesting' way – something we couldn't try anywhere else. This old wine was almost over the hill, and so showed a great deal of inconsistency. One sniff/sip would bring some interesting dark red fruit and bramble, while the next gave hints of over-ripe figs and prune. All in all, we were glad to try it, and it was a super bargain.

Next we had a bottle of L'Avenir Pinotage 2001. This is a huge wine from South Africa's oldest winery. At first, it was almost too much in my face, but with some air, it settled into a wonderfully balanced, still powerful wine. Wet cedar, very jammy, surprisingly smooth gives the 14.5% alcohol. Not 'hot' or acidic at all.

Unfortunately in the wrong order, next we ordered a bottle of Georges Cleret Morey-Saint-Denis 1994. This burgundy was the polar opposite of the L'Avenir. Subtle, light, hugely elegant. It had wonderful earthiness, a light floral character, and a long, long finish. It too got better with an hour of air, and paired really well with some seared tuna that Mike ordered.

After all that wine, I think Mike was feeling a little over-excited, and so on a whim he ordered a bottle of Moreira Colheita Porto 1957. That's right, '57. This wine sat in oak for 43 years before being bottled in the year 2000. Oh… my… god. Smooth as silk, lots of brown sugar, nutmeg, allspice, sweet tobacco in the back. Our excellent server Patrick noted a bit of apricot, which is a little unusual. We took our time with this bottle, partly because its alcohol content is 20% and partly because each sip lingered in our mouthes for about 5 minutes. Best port ever. We were beside ourselves.

A couple sitting at the next table noticed our little wine adventure, and leaned over to chat. Seeing our '57 port they said, 'Wow! Are you Google or something?' We all died laughing. We're grad. students. heh.

The Economist recently reported the results of Radiohead's bold experiment in giving their new album away for free on the internet. It turns out 60% of people paid nothing for the album – unsurprising if you believe that a rational, self-interested individual would not pay for something he could get for free (as many economists do, for example). And yet, 40% of people paid something for the album, quite a few of them more than they would have paid if they'd been able to download the album from iTunes or Amazon. Who are these people?

Radiohead Experiment Results

One window into that question might be opened by looking at the pricing data longitudinally. A few weeks after the album was released, I remember reading that the number of free-riders was only about 30%, though I can't remember the source. But still, it puts the question out there: how did the distribution of prices change over time?

My completely unsupported guess is that the vast majority of the high outliers came right away – motivated fans, ideological supporters of new music models, enemies of the big record companies. Even if we take the narrow view of pure rationalism, we can call these people 'rational zealots' – we must factor the belief and promotion of a valuable cause into the price they were willing to pay. I'd also guess that the percentage of non-payers increased dramatically as time went on, and that these days most people download the album for free. Who's got the data for us to check?! Any way you slice it, this is a cool experiment.

Why do I keep writing about Wikipedia? Mostly it's because Wikipedia is emblematic of the sorts of online collective action that I study. And I just love that all their dirty laundry is falling out. Actually, I don't intend that to be mean – more that Wikipedia has, up until now, been driven by a sort of utopian ideal that masks a lot of the turbulence and reality under the surface. And we shouldn't be surprised – this is what happens when people try to cooperate, online or not. It an everyday part of social systems.

Anyway, The Register is reporting on a new scandal in which – shocklingly – it turns out that Wikipedia is not as open and democratic as everyone thought – or hoped. Turns out a select group of upper-level administrators have been using private mailing lists to coordinate responses (read: attacks) on users they think are trying to undermine their power, among other things. My reaction is similar to when I hear about a White House scandal – it's good to get a tiny window into the machinations of people in power, but we don't even know the half of it.

An interesting question is, would Wikipedia be able to survive without the 'rings of hegemony' that have now apparently sprung up? Would the challenges of coordinating the efforts of millions towards a stated goal (uber-open-online encyclopedia) overwhelm any truly democratic, egalitarian (dare I say socialist?) efforts? I have opinions, of course, but if anyone is out there, I'm interested in yours.