The Tragedy of the Comments – Part I: Commons in the digital world

In an interview at South by Southwest 2012, Anil Dash talked with Nick Denton about comments in the context of blogging (in particular, for large sites that get a lot of traffic). They bemoaned how the initial ideals of civil discourse in comments, of capturing the intelligence of the readership, had become a joke. Comment threads on big blogging sites inevitably devolve into a flurry of snark, diatribes and name-calling (much like they have done on discussion boards and in other online forums over the past two decades). Denton called this the "Tragedy of the comments," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the more well-known Tragedy of the commons (a theory about sharing and the allocation of scarce resources).

In an effort to combat this downward trajectory of civility, Denton announced that Gawker media was going to try an experiment, enlisting the people who start comment threads to police them (more or less – details were scarce). It’s an interesting idea, and it was a provocative discussion on the whole, but it all got me to wondering:

  1. Does the real-world Tragedy of the commons paradigm apply to "digital commons"? If so, is there anything that’s different?
  2. Can we leverage proposed solutions to the real-world commons problem in order to remedy some of the bad behavior seen online?

A definition for digital commons

The tragedy of the commons refers to any situation where finite resources are shared in such a way that when individuals act out of self interest, it comes at the expense of the greater good. The classic example is the shared pasture a group of farmers can use for their cows. The tragedy occurs when individual farmers overgraze the land, which benefits them in the short term, but degrades the pasture in the long term. For those interested in a deeper description, the original 1968 paper by Garrett Hardin makes for a good read.

Unfortunately, people often misuse the term "tragedy of the commons," treating it as shorthand for any situation where groups of people behave badly and bring things down to a lowest-common-denominator of quality. This characterization is the one Denton used to describe blog comments, but it’s not really that helpful in terms of coming up with a solution. If we’re going to create an analogy with the tragedy of the commons, we need to stick with the original definition that includes the notion of shared resources.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define a digital commons as a shared virtual space where people can interact with each other in a way that’s reasonably permanent and visible, and generally open to anyone. This broad definition would include any of the following as digital commons:

  • Discussion forums (e.g., Usenet, Google groups, customer support forums)
  • Comment threads for any type of shared content (e.g., blogs, photographs, video)
  • Social networking systems (e.g., Facebook walls, Twitter streams)

With this as a definition, we can see that digital commons have actually been around for quite some time. From the computer bulletin boards of the 1970s to Usenet to blogs and Facebook, digital commons have been around for 40 years, and the problems Denton and Dash were discussing have been around for just as long. Godwin’s Law, caustic flamewars on Usenet, blog trolls, and uncivil discussion threads are all just manifestations of the same basic problem and underlying behavior.

Is there a tragedy of the digital commons?

If we’re going to apply thinking about the tragedy of the commons to the digital world, two things need to be true of digital commons:

  1. There must be some shared, finite resource that we can identify
  2. The viability of the commons must be damaged by depletion of this resource

The identification of the resource that’s being shared in digital commons is the tricky part. After all, there’s no pasture in the digital realm, no grass that gets eaten when too many cows are in the field. Maybe we can use the physical world as a guide.

Imagine the soil of an over-used pasture over time: it dries up, loses its minerals, stops being a place where things want to grow. Digital commons also have a set of things that make them fertile for discussions: active participants, good content, an inviting and respectful atmosphere, mutual respect, low barriers to entry. Over time, degradation in one or more of these things makes the forum less fertile for discussion.

Fertile ground for discussion is thus the finite resource in digital commons. That’s what can be eroded over time through the insensitive actions of individuals. The next question becomes, can the viability of the digital commons be damaged by depleting it (i.e., by doing things that damage the fertile ground for discussion)? Definitely (and almost by definition).

Self-interested behavior in digital forums can degrade any number of things related to the forum’s fertility and viability. Most of the bad behaviors that show up in online discussions are people doing things that favor themselves (e.g., self-righteous criticism of others, trying to look smart or clever). These selfish behaviors cause the tone of discussions to spiral. People stop respecting each other, and the digital commons stops being an inviting place, especially for new participants. Discussion dies. Over time, a digital commons can gain a reputation for people being snarky or critical, and it loses its appeal.

So we’ve established a reasonable analogy between the real-world tragedy of the commons and what occurs in the digital world. The analogy isn’t perfect, however. Digital commons have two properties that make them different:

  • Identity: The nature of the digital world adds some interesting wrinkles to the commons problem when it comes to identity. People typically use avatars when participating in online commons, either partially or completely masking their identity. They can be whoever they want online, adopting the persona and attitudes that suit them best. The mutability of online identity often lets people speak more freely, which can lead to provocative discussions that might not otherwise happen. Unfortunately, this can cut both ways. If no one knows who you really are, there’s no real-world consequence for what you say (good or bad). This lack of consequence opens the door for people to express pointed and nasty opinions they might suppress in face-to-face interactions (e.g., racism, homophobia, sexism).
  • Scale: The physical world is limiting in terms of the number of people that can use a shared resource. Not so online. Anyone can join an online discussion, in principle. While some forums restrict discussion to invited participants, I would argue that these are the ones most likely to be civil, and not suffer from the problems associated with digital commons. As soon as the group size grows, the potential for abuse grows with it, and the commons is ripe for ruin.

So, what can we do to solve the tragedy of the digital commons? Is there anything we can learn from real-world solutions? For more, check out the next post in this series: In search of solutions.

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