TCS Daily

The Cyberspace Commons?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 8, 2003 12:00 AM

Last weekend was the Association of American Law Schools conference in Washington, and I wound up speaking on creating a commons in cyberspace.

This didn't work out very well: the panel was organized by the Communitarian Network, an organization that promotes the notion of shared values, but that seemed to mean something different by the word "commons" than I - or the other law professors on the panel - thought. But it produced some interesting discussion, and I'm going to draw on it here. Since I was speaking, I didn't take notes, so please credit the other panelists with all the good ideas, and blame me for the bad ones.

In legal and economic analysis, a "commons" is a resource that anyone can use. The classic example is the common grazing field shared by everyone in a village. As long as there's enough to go around, its common character is a benefit: there's no need to waste time dividing it up and assigning rights when there's enough for everyone.

The problem (the buzzphrase is "tragedy of the commons") is when there are more people wanting to use the resource than it can support. Everyone could just cut back - but since there's no guarantee that other users will cut back, a rational user won't cut back, but will try to grab as much as possible before someone else gets it. Grazing becomes overgrazing in a hurry under these circumstances, and everyone is worse off. Soon, there's nothing to do but to move elsewhere, as the previously settled area becomes a desert. The classic term for this problem is "the tragedy of the commons," after a famous article by that name.

This model wouldn't seem to fit the Web very well, though. There aren't many commonly held resources, and most of them aren't really limited. Bandwidth, maybe, in shared networks, but that's pretty easy to address. (Actually, the use of overall Net bandwidth for spam may fall into the "overgrazing" category, but I'll save that subject for another column).

But if there's one scarcity that everyone will agree on, it's time. Napoleon told his generals "ask me for anything but time," but he didn't know the half of it. For my own weblog, I try to get around to as many sites as possible, but it's a hopeless effort: the number of new sites is expanding far faster than I can follow. And email is worse. I get hundreds of emails.

But that difference - between visiting sites and receiving email - is one reason why I think that the weblog world won't succumb to the tragedy of the commons the way that email has. Think about an email list: everyone can post freely to the list, but by doing so they consume readers' time. In a sense, there's a common pool of reading hours available, determined by the number of hours the average reader is willing to devote to mail from the list, multiplied by the number of readers. Each post to the list consumes some of that time, but at minimal cost to the poster in relation to the amount of time consumed. And the bigger the list, the greater the payoff (other people's time consumed) versus the cost (the poster's time).

Left to themselves, then, you'd expect that email lists and similarly-structured systems would succumb to a tragedy of the commons: excessive posting that consumes so much time that people abandon them and they die. (As a corollary, it would seem likely that the people whose time is the least valuable will post the most - since they incur the lowest cost in doing so - and if you assume that their time is less valuable because they're, well, dumb or crazy, then the more posts you see, the lower their likely value.) This does seem to describe the fate of many email listservs, which start out well, with a few members, flourish and grow for a time, but then degenerate into flamefests and collapse. A similar phenomenon seems to affect chatrooms, message boards, etc. Some people are suggesting that even well-established sites like Slashdot may suffer from this kind of thing, though I think the jury is still out on that one.

So, despite all the blogosphere hype, is the world of weblogs headed the same way? It could be, but I'm going to predict that it isn't. The reason is that people who post on weblogs can't commandeer the time of others: nobody will read their stuff except voluntarily since - unlike email on a listserv - reading a weblog requires a deliberate act. As a weblog reader, you control your time: as the member of an email list, you don't. So although individual weblogs may collapse into Usenet-style flaming, they'll either lose their audiences, or accumulate a reader base that wants to read flaming, in which case it's not really flaming - for our purposes - at all.

As Nick Denton says:

[T]his is the way to deal with flamers: let them post on their own damn sites. And then let everyone else ignore them. Weblogs are a gigantic interlinked discussion forum, in which it's trivially easy to route around idiots.

I think this is right. Am I too optimistic? We'll see.

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