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.