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Tragedy of the Commons

There are many hackneyed sayings about the cynics being the only true romantics. Most of them revolving around some variation of “the reason many people are cranky is because their optimism is constantly challenged by the seven deadly sins of those around them”. I’ve also been doing some reading about the cyclical nature of human attention and interest and there are many patterns that emerge. One recurring theme is the Tragedy of the Commons. The basic idea is that if there’s stuff out there for free, it’s going to get ruined. In fact, you might want to check out that article before reading on, as it’s something that you should become familiar with if you haven’t already.

The tragedy makes some bold points – without attaching economic cost, you begin to have problems. As much as it goes against our charitable nature, it’s important that things have cost attached to them, and in fact, that cost needs to be high enough to discriminate between other ways to deploy or purchase resources.

A good example – a couple of months back there was some hype about Starbucks paying 2 cents a day or some other pittance to coffee farmers. The not-so-huddled masses gathered and said they should be paying a “fair” wage. Granted, the poverty level in many countries is one of the most important problems we have to face, but throwing money at it will not solve anything. Coffee prices are low because there’s too much of it on the market, paying more for coffee nobody wants will only entice more people to grow coffee, making the situation worse.

A similar problem – standing on the side of a busy intersection with a sign asking for money can be a profitable venture. For the first time I saw two people fighting over turf by the Alewife T Station during the rush hour. I’m not saying that the homeless should be ignored, I’m saying that throwing money at them will probably not change anything for the better.

So, what got me on this rant? A post yesterday about people making death threats against other bloggers. When there’s no cost to doing business in the commons, eventually neighborhoods will get run down. There will still be many great places to spend your time, but there will also be parts of town you don’t want to be seen in.

For me, this is the end of my Golden Age of the Blogosphere.

2 replies on “Tragedy of the Commons”

Good grief, John. After reading this post I have this urge to slit my wrists.

This “Tragedy of Commons” thing is probably one of the biggest pieces of hooey that I’ve read in a long time. In fact it flies in the face of every human achievement — and economic development ever made. Think about it, there was no “value” associated with oil before the nineteenth century. It was an annoying sticky substance that got in our way. We figured out a use for it and it is now a “precious resource.” Or what about the birth of radio and television? Those were broadcasted freely to the masses. It took a while for the “value” to be established — thus making a viable model.

It’s not the end of the Golden Age of the Blogosphere, John, it’s just the beginning, as we separate quality from the quantity of blogs that exist today. Once that happens, it’s easier to assign “value.”

Lastly, what happened to Kathy Sierra is reprehensible, and should be condemned by everyone. But that’s the point. The blogging community , a loosely connected community of free resources, needs to set its own rules for playing. The community must step up and set the basic rules of discourse.

If there would be any tragedy in here, it would be if the morons involved in attacking Kathy Sierra actually won by making everyone stop doing what they love to do.


Ok, I can see you reading it that way, let me try to focus a little more:

The key point of the tragedy of the commons for me is not about trying to determine value, but the fact that anything that people deem worthwhile that is free ends up getting used until it’s completely consumed.

Farmers will let their animals loose in the common field until there is no grass left. Spammers will send email until our inboxes get to the point that we need services to weed out the trash. And now the blogosphere is open for any freak with their anti-whatever point of view.

When I say that my Golden Age of blogging is over I don’t mean that it’s no longer on the path to becoming in integral part of our lives and very profitable. I’m saying that the blogosphere used to be my Mayberry – everyone was a friend, we all enjoyed some lemonade, had some fun heated discussions and hugs for everyone.

Now I look around and see New York City – still millions of incredible things, but now some neighborhoods that I want nothing to do with, and some that are even dangerous to be in. But – nobody ever got rich in Mayberry.

And as far as the bullies, the keyboard kommandos can’t hide forever, and sooner or later they get their punch in the mouth.

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