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Public Goods

Recent discussion about the future of Twitter got me thinking: is Twitter a public good?

Twitter Logo

First, let's make sure we're on the same page about public goods. Public goods have two properties – when one person takes advantage of the good, it doesn't reduce the amount available to anyone else (that's called non-rivalry) and you provide the good to everyone or no one, you can't selectively exclude some people from taking advantage of the good (that's called non-excludability). Traditional examples of this are things like clean air and national defense. My breathing easier, my being safer doesn't take away from your breathing easier or being safer. And we all breathe easy, we all benefit from safety.

So, is Twitter a public good? Well, yes and no. First let's start with the 'no'. Depending on how it's used, Twitter is a point-to-point or broadcast communication tool. In that capacity, we could argue that it does not constitute a public good. No more than email or letters do, anyway. If I post a tweet about my breakfast, where is the public value there? Where is the 'good' in the sense of something which can benefit many?

But then again, there is a 'good' there. It's a derivative good, but it's important. When people make their tweets public, they are doing at least two things: first, they are communicating with friends and family (or strangers). This is probably what they were trying to do. But second, they are contributing a bit of information to a collective body of real-time information about what people are doing and thinking about.

This is the power of Twitter trends and Twitter analytics. (See Twitter Search, Twitalyzer, Tinker, Brizzly, or Trendistic, just to name a few…) By aggregating all those tiny bites, we get a public body of information that can tell us a lot about what's going on. If I want to know what people are thinking about, paying attention to today (or at least what the tiny fraction of Americans who Tweet are thinking about), I can use Twitter to find out. And just like any public good, there's a social dilemma there. I read my Twitter stream all the time, but I almost never Tweet myself. I search the stream and look at trends, but I don't add my bites to the stream. I'm a taker, but not a giver. So technically I'm a free-rider.

But there's another interesting dimension there. If the Twitter public good is a derivative by-product, that means that many or most people are contributing to it without intending to. Like i said, they're just sharing some info. about their day. Many of them may not be aware that their info. is helping to make Twitter Trends more powerful. So how can we call them free-riders? It's like saying the people who don't edit Wikipedia because they don't know they can are free-riders. From one point of view they are, but the definition of a free-rider requires an informed choice to take advantage of others. So, we'd better look more closely.

Here's another example: Netflix' movie rating system. If I never rate movies, I still benefit from the algorithms that suggest movies I might like, but I'm not putting in my little bites. This may be because I don't even know that this is how the movie recommendation algorithm works. Am I a free-rider, even though I never knew about the derivative product of my ratings? On the other hand, I might rate movies all the time, but only because I like to have a reminder of how I liked movies I've seen over time. I don't know or care that those ratings get used for anything else.

Anyway, I think there are some interesting issues here. But getting back to the original question – Is Twitter a public good? – I'm going to come down on the side of a definitive 'Yes!'. But there's a lot of interesting thinking and research to do on the question of exactly how it's a public good.

I'm going out on a limb: Twitter may still be rising, but before long it'll be on the way out. By Jan 1st, 2011, Twitter will have fewer active users than it does today. Maybe even sooner than that.

Why? Because of the main findings of a surprisingly insightful guest post on Techcrunch by Geoff Cook, CEO of myYearbook. He pulls together the best available evidence on the question of why "Teens don't Tweet", and combines it with his own survey data. The nutshell is: Teens don't tweet for the same reason that most people don't tweet. Twitter doesn't provide much that other services like Facebook and MySpace don't already provide.

Twitter was itself pretty much a clone of earlier services such as Jaiku, recently acquired by Google, then open sourced. When people ask me what Twitter is, I say "Well, it's like Facebook status updates, but without all the other stuff on Facebook." Twitter won't last because its value proposition isn't large enough to sustain a user base beyond the initial fad-driven period. And that period is almost over. Yes, there really is a segment of the market that is hip-deep in micro-blogging, constant sharing. And I think Twitter will live on as an aggregator for news and updates from companies, celebrities, news outlets, and the like. But as a broad-market tool, it's 15-minutes are almost up.

I'm not even sure that Twitter sees Facebook as a direct competitor at the moment, but it ought to, because it's getting out-innovated by them left and right. Facebook's new iPhone app. is fantastic. They're expanding features and APIs, becoming a platform for gaming, for social organizing, for direct communication. Facebook Connect is getting traction, and threading Facebook into a whole network of external sites.

Facebook will survive for the same reason Wikipedia does: it's rich and diverse enough to foster a whole ecosystem around it. That's *very* hard to do, but once you've got that kind of diversity, you've got staying power. In the academic world, Facebook and Wikipedia are called public goods. In many cases, with public goods we're looking for the relatively few individuals who have so many resources, and who benefit disproportionally from the provision of the good, so much so that they're willing to provide the good on everyone's behalf. We called these people 'privileged groups.' The reason that diversity makes Wikipedia and Facebook so stable is that they don't attract just one privileged group, they attract many. There are so many ways to benefit, so many ways to engage, and for each one there's a privileged group. The interests of these groups overlap and enforce each other, together synthesizing a product that's much more valuable. Twitter just can't compete with that.

Ryan pointed me to a recent post called 'The Trouble with Free Riding' on the Freedom to Tinker blog at Princeton. I'm going to try and summarize it's arguments in a neat bulleted list and respond to each one, and in the process I'll miss some of the detail. But, wow. There's a lot there, and it's such a thought provoking blog post. I disagree with most of it though. It's pretty imprudent to do away with 100 years of theory on public goods, collective action, social dilemmas.

  1. The notion of free-riding is 'nonsensical' on Wikipedia. It doesn't even make sense to talk about it in that context.
  2. This seems like a rhetorical tactic to me. Wikipedia is a public good. It's produced by a process of generalized exchange which means that one's rewards aren't contingent on they give. Therefore, it introduces a social dilemma and the possibility of free riding. It's a non-starter to say that somehow online public goods are so different that we have to abandon previous notions, though this is a disturbingly popular point of view. Instead, let's talk about the ways that public goods that consist of digital information on the internet have some unique and special properties.

  3. People who free-ride on Wikipedia provide an audience, and the presence of that audience is a motivator for some contributors.
  4. This is a great point. I don't know of any experimental research that looks at an audience-as-motivator effect in public goods. Actually, I'd love to do that research. An interesting thing about Wikipedia is that estimating the size of the audience may be very hard, and may depend on how much you know about the system. So, we wouldn't expect the audience effect to work the same for my grandma who fixes a typo as it does for the Barnstar-waving expert contributor.

  5. Being an audience benefits free-riders because they value the content, and the presence of an audience benefits contributors because they appreciate that someone is out there reading. Therefore free-riding is not a relevant issue.
  6. Erp. Now we've gone too far. The possibility of an audience effect doesn't make free riding irrelevant. First of all, other contributors are just much an audience (maybe more so!) as anyone. So, there's no necessary relationship between free riding and an audience. Also – it's kind of a snitty point – but the author makes an analogy to softball games, community orchestras, and poetry readings. These are certainly non-rival in the sense that one's partaking doesn't prevent others from doing the same. But they're all completely excludable, so they're not really public goods, so free-riding doesn't mean the same thing.

  7. The scale and function of the Internet changes the nature of collective action.
  8. That's for sure. Part of what's so interesting about online public goods is that the internet reduces the coordination and distribution costs so much that 10,000 people contributing a little can more or less be the same as 10 people contributing a lot.

  9. "The concept of "free riding" emphasizes the fact that traditional offline institutions expect and require reciprocation from the majority of their members for their continued existence. A church in which only, say, one percent of members contributed financially wouldn't last long. Neither would an airline in which only one percent of the customers paid for their tickets."
  10. Well, this really doesn't have much to do with how free riding is defined. Moreover, I would argue that most churches get the vast majority of their money from 1% of contributors or less. These are what Oliver and Marwell called 'privileged groups' who have the resources to provide the good on everyone's behalf. They also said that the chances of the group including these people go up as the size of the group goes up.

  11. As long as there are enough contributors to sustain the public good, the number of free-riders doesn't matter because of jointness of supply.
  12. Well, this completely depends on what your goal is. On the one hand, sure, once you reach critical mass, the marginal cost of providing the good is zero (or near-zero), so who cares how many free-riders there are. On the other hand, there are lots of benefits to adding to the group of contributors. Wikipedia isn't perfect – not even close. It's wrong on a lot of topics. It's poorly written in many places. It's skewed heavily towards CS and popular culture, and away from things like history and literature. There's a lot to be gained for Wikipedia by converting free-riders to contributors. And let's not foget about the many, many systems that never get to critical mass.

  13. "Every project would like to have more of its users become contributors."
  14. I understand that this may have been an afterthought, but I doubt this is true. I'd rather the group that writes the Linux kernel stay very, very small. And, it could be that if contribution rates went from 5% to 50%, we'd have a much worse encyclopedia on our hands. This is part of the reason why I think Knol is such a bad idea. Money appeals to everyone, but you don't want everyone contributing. Maybe one reason why Wikipedia is as good as it is, is because the social psychological incentives that are at work there (status, reputation, feeling smart, unique, like your knowledge is valued) work much better for the kind of people we want to contribute. Of course, there are lots of ways to contribute, so what we really want is to turn some free-riders into content contributors, others into editors, still others into fact checkers, and lots of them into proof-readers.

  15. "We've never before had goods that could be replicated infinitely and distributed at close to zero cost."
  16. Really? No goods before that were non-rival and non-excludable? What about national defense or clean air? Classic examples of public goods. Here's the fundamental problem. Yes, online public goods are interesting and unique in lots of ways. But, they don't require us to rethink 100 years of theory. It all still applies, though maybe in new and interesting ways. So, let's get over the hypoerbole and talk about those.

My adviser Coye Cheshire, and I have just had a paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It's titled The Social Psychological Effects of Feedback on the Production of Internet Information Pools and it's freely available here.

I'm excited because this is the work that set me down the research path that I'm currently on, and that will lead to my dissertation research (and beyond). It's based on research I did while I was working on Mycroft, which then became a relatively short-lived startup company called inChorus.

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.

I think this recent clash between Wikipedia editors and webcomic creators is just the tip of the iceberg – we're going to see more frequent and intense clashes in the near future. Read the short article linked above to get the gist, but basically: a few Wikipedia users (one in particular) went around deleting many pages related to webcomics, saying they did not meet Wikipedia's notability guidelines. The webcomics community is angry, refusing to help with Wikipedia's fundraising efforts, trying to raise the profile of the issue.

As an observer, I love that this battle is happening. On the one hand we have editors who feel that it's their duty to police the boundaries of Wikipedia, and delete content they feel does not meet the notability guideline. On the other we have a community of content producers who, irrespective of any other measure of notability or popularity, perceive the intentional deletion of articles about their webcomics as a slight.

And rightly so. It is a slight. Someone with more power than most – in this case the user Dragonfiend – has applied an arbitrary interpretation of the notability guideline. Editors do this all the time, right? Well, it wouldn't be so problematic in this case except for two factors – and these are two fascinating factors that I think will continue to haunt and define Wikipedia in the years to come.

First, Wikipedia is wrestling with its openness as it grows. It wants to be democratic – indeed it has built its brand upon it. It's "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". (Actually, right now that slogan strikes me as a little duplicitous. *Almost* anyone can edit, and someone may end up denying your edits in the end.) And yet the challenges of immense popularity have made people like Dragonfiend necessary. As the size of the encyclopedia increases, the problems of order and coordination also increasing. In Wikipedia's case this seems to have required increased activity by self-appointed editors who wield the power of interpreting Wikipedia's policies as they see fit. Check out, for example, this recent paper that documents the increasing use of Wikipedia's Talk pages to handle emerging problems of coordination. The arbitrariness of these interpretations, as well as the mere existence of people who, like judges and editors, can single-handedly influence the system, is clashing with Wikipedia's democratic, open, community-based ideals.

None of this would be as big a problem as it has been, however, if it weren't for the second factor I want to mention. This debate is a lens that magnifies the social and cultural position of prestige and authority that Wikipedia has come to occupy among certain stakeholders. The webcomics community, for example, probably wouldn't be so upset if their articles were not included in the latest edition of Britannica. That encyclopedia just has a different position as a sociocultural icon. Similarly, many (but not all) chemists, philosophers, and literature critics (and the like) might not be as upset if they were left out of Wikipedia (and indeed they are under-represented there), but would be aghast at being left out of Britannica.

To generalize (in a slightly unfair way): In 2007 the web is a platform for community to coalesce around their hobbies and interests, to push across geographic boundaries and form dense networks of content creation and sharing. For these sorts of web-enabled, tech-savvy folks, Wikipedia was supposed to be a safe haven where they could participate and be included on the same footing as everyone else. After all, these were the exact people who embraced the new model that Wikipedia represented when it was just taking off. And now that they're being pushed to the fringes as Wikipedia is forced (or chooses) to take on the character of a traditional edited publication, they're pissed. Who can blame them?

Via TechCrunch, I read about a fascinating piece of work by Robert Rohde that seems to suggest that Wikipedia's astonishing rate of growth over the last few years is slowing down a bit. Check out this page, complete with interesting info. graphics like the one below.

Wikipedia Edits

Reading through the comments about this both on the Wikipedia talk pages and WikiEN-l archive is pretty revealing. Many people are extremely passionate about Wikipedia and unwilling to accept the validity of any argument that is seen to besmirch its good name. That leads to a lot of silly counter-arguments based on rhetoric and ideology rather than data.

The interesting thing is that I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the slowdown, if it really does exist, is actually a bad thing for Wikipedia. It's very hard to interpret statistical analyses of logfiles. For instance, Rohde's analysis seems to show that overall edits are down slightly, and that a higher percentage of edits are reverts of earlier versions. Without knowing something more about the qualitative nature of these edits, it's hard to assume this is some kind of 'Mid-Life Crisis' slowdown as TechCrunch suggests. This could be a sign of maturity – more well-reasoned edits overall, perhaps. Or it could be a sign of change in the nature of contributions (and contributors). Wikipedia may be attracting a large proportion of users who make fewer, more substantive edits rather than many tiny corrections. We just don't know.

Fantastic food for thought, though.

I recently found this commentary by Jason Calcanis on what he calls 'Wikipedia's Technological Obscurification'. Basically, Jason argues that there are three primary factors that keep many folks from contributing to Wikipedia:

  1. The lack of a WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get)
  2. The user of discussion pages that are hard to understand
  3. The use of IRC for many of the meta-discussions about how Wikipedia is run

Jason quite rightly points out that these are not intentional mechanisms for blocking participation, and neither are they necessarily a bad thing. He comes down with the point that these conditions are remnants of old technologies, and that Wikipedia has lacked the resources to move to more modern ones. I don't buy this last argument, and I want to reframe the question a bit.

First, I think this example shows us that although Wikipedia's rhetoric has been all about openness, in practice it doesn't really get there. My adviser Coye Cheshire often points out that even the most open of public goods on the internet end up enacting what he calls 'rings of hegemony'. In other words, we can think of the openness as starting only once we get to a certain point on the totem pole. Above that, there are still heirarchies of power that grow out of the need to do things like make rules, pay bills, and manage servers. I don't think this is a knock against Wikipedia at all. It's just a reality check.

Second, I take a completely different view from Jason about why these technologies persist. A lack of resources may be a part of it, but more important is the fact that Wikipedia is a culture with entrenched practices. Its core contributors apparently ascribe some meaning and value to technologies like Wiki markup and IRC that help them persist even when they become outmoded. This reminds is that many of these open projects are driven by a small group of zealots, even when the number of contributors overall gets very large.

Finally, Coye and I have recently written an article (forthcoming) which makes the point that online public goods system may tend to move from less order to more order over time and as they get larger. We define order as the degree to which the process by which the public good is produced and the product which constitutes it are clearly defined. Certainly wiki markup and IRC present a barrier to entry (which may or may not be intentional), but we can also think of stubbornly adhering to older technologies as one way of imposing order. By doing nothing, they essentially set up a structured process that is controlled by access to certain skills. Another way to impose order, of course, is to create new technologies and hierarchies (which they are also doing).

Think about it this way: why does Congress continue to adhere to a set of highly complex and arcane rules and procedures? Because they're necessary? Probably not. I'd argue it's more because the fact that they're so hard to understand gives a measure of power to more experienced lawmakers, thereby implying an order to the body. Imposing new rules to provide order would work too, but it would not necessarily privilege older lawmakers.