The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace
The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace. The Internet is filled with junk and jerks. It is commonplace for inhabitant of the Internet to complain bitterly about the lack of cooperation, decorum, and useful information. The signal-to-noise ratio, it is said, is bad and getting worse.
Even a casual trip through cyberspace will turn up evidence of hostility, selfishness, and simple nonsense. Yet the wonder of the Internet is not that there is so much noise, but that there is any significant cooperation at all. Given that online interaction is relatively anonymous, that there is no central authority, and that it is difficult or impossible to impose monetary or physical sanctions on someone, it is striking that the Internet is not literally a war of all against all. For a student of social order, what needs to be explained is not the amount of conflict but the great amount of sharing and cooperation that does occur in online communities.
Rheingold (1993) has described interaction in one online community (the WELL) as consisting of a gift economy, in which help and information is offered without the expectation of any direct, immediate quid-pro-quo. Even in more anonymous settings, such as Usenet discussion groups, there is a surprising amount of free help and information given out, often to complete strangers whom one may never meet again.
In comp.sys.laptops, a discussion group on Usenet devoted to notebook computers, it is commonplace for participants to contribute detailed specifications and reviews of new models as they come onto the market. Participants also respond to questions that other users post with detailed advice and answers to technical questions.. Personal computer consultants will offer similar advice for about $40 per hour. In comp.lang.perl, a discussion group devoted to the computer language PERL, participants routinely help others out with their technical questions and contribute new computer code for others to use. An accomplished PERL programmer can charge $75 per hour. In a number of online discussion groups for lawyers, participants routinely offer each other detailed legal advice concerning cases on which they are working (Simon 1996). The lawyers report that they often refuse to give similar information over the phone or charge up to several hundred dollars an hour for the same advice.
Why would anyone give away such valuable advice? What can explain the amount of cooperation that does occur in online communities? In this chapter I wish to analyze how the economies of cooperation change as one moves to the Internet. I argue that there are fundamental features of online interaction which change the costs and benefits of social action in dramatic ways.
Because the metaphor of gift giving has been used to describe online interaction and exchange, I will begin with a brief discussion of the concept of the gift. I then discuss social dilemmas – situations in which individually reasonable behavior leads to collective disaster – and in particular examine the challenge of providing public goods (to be defined below). Subsequent sections detail the shift in the economics of cooperation, discuss the motivations that drive contributions and collaboration, and provide two striking examples of online collective action. I close with a strong caution against assuming that the shifting economics of online interaction guarantee high levels of cooperation.