Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blog #11

Lessig's "Two Economies: Commercial and Sharing"


Lessig describes two polar opposite forms of economy in Remix: the commercial economy and the sharing economy. He's not using economy in the strictest modern sense in that he's not describing the foundation of commerce upon which an entire community's wealth is built - indeed, he argues in the next section that both forms of economy "are critical to life both online and offline" (p. 177)

Instead he's describing the way in which value is ascribed to a unit of participation, the mores of exchange and the way the value of the exchange is considered participatory.

He does spend a small amount of time talking about the obvious differences - a commercial economy is payment for goods received, whether that be units of work or actual finished products, whereas a sharing economy is more nebulous and the value of participation or goods is negotiated mostly based on demand, esteem and gratitude.

The more important aspects he focuses on are the sort of participation that each economy encourages, the sort of product that comes out of it, and what I've been calling the mores of exchange: the often unspoken rules and taboos which describe how an individual sharing economy dictates the behavior of the participants in it.

Lessig points out that in a community, or a sharing economy, you contribute mostly inadvertently - by consuming or participating (me-regarding), you create the value of the community as a byproduct - and intentional participation is done out of a sense of membership or out of altruism (thee-regarding). Lessig notes that the two overlap greatly.

The key distinction between the two economies that he focuses on in this section, and reiterates ad nauseum, is that the one form of valuation, exchange, participation, etc. that not permissible in a sharing economy is that of money. I'd issue a small correction of that by saying that contribution is vital to a sharing economy which must, as a unit, interact with the commercial economy. Your club rents space, your guild buys server time; your charity pays for mass mailings or buys food for homeless shelters, your charity may also maintain a domain name, web server, and an admin. I don't think Lessig missed this point, but neither did he consider this form of monetary participation to weaken his point. I don't believe it does either, but it does state that the interaction between money value and community value is more complicated than he'd like it to be for the purpose of this small section.

And with good reason - his argument is that by leaving money out of the equation you're calling on a different form of sentiment - the sense of membership or ownership: proprietary sentiment. People participate in the sharing economy because they feel invested in it. They've received something for free, they like it, so they add to it. It's not just guilt or obligation - if somebody gets something badly wrong on Wikipedia, you might feel indignant enough about the falsehood or inaccuracy to fix it yourself, perhaps with a snarky comment in the update status line. If you're looking for help on a support forum for a problem you're having with a computer, some software, your dishwasher, your cellphone, etc. and you see somebody asking a question that you know the answer to, you might feel compelled to help them along the way. None of this would be possible, Lessig argues, in a system that requires monetary exchange to participate. Some companies have seen success with a token or monetary economy - you pay to post a question, and people who answer get paid if the questioner decides it answers their question - but this is the exception and doesn't encourage participation as well as a more sharing economy. Compare two sites which offer software advice - experts-exchange.com (formerly expert sexchange thanks to a lack of spacing) and stackoverflow.com

Experts Exchange claims to deliver answers using a buy-in economy - you buy points with which to ask questions. If you answer questions, you get more points to ask with, if you don't, you can just buy more. If your question doesn't get answered, after 24 hours you can request the attention of a moderator who ostensibly will research your question. The community around Experts Exchange is a bit sickly and people tend to be sharp with "stupid questions" and not particularly helpful. Although they still answer them to the best of their ability - money talks.

Stack Overflow is entirely community-based and works on a reputation system - asking questions, giving good answers and having your answers accepted means that you gain reputation. By trying to game the system by giving rubbish answers, you end up losing points for being voted down. Voting someone down makes you lose reputation as well. As you gain reputation, you gain power - you get the ability to moderate. By turning community participation into a sort of game, they've built a very healthy community. Of course, they still don't like "stupid questions."

The end result? Experts Exchange tends to be good only for answering extremely esoteric hardware questions and "stupid questions." Stack Overflow tends to produce fewer answers of the "here's how you do exactly what you asked" kind and more of the "here's what you should have asked, why you don't want to do what you said you want to do and how to do what you really want to do" kind. Stack Overflow is far more useful as a programmer's resource and as a sort of community knowledge how-to guide.

Lessig's distinction clearly matters here - the commercial economy promotes commercial-style interaction, whereas you get a deeper interaction motivated by more than just profit in the shared economy. However, as he indicates, both are necessary. Some of the sorts of questions that get answered on Experts Exchange would never get a satisfactory answer on Stack Overflow because they are, at least on the surface, "stupid questions." By guaranteeing a profit motive, you've made it far more likely that a user will get their stupid question answered. They might get a stupid answer, but there's a hidden benefit to this: this question has added to the communal pool of knowledge. If you can't figure out why pressing the "start" button on your dishwasher doesn't start it (when it's not plugged in), a quick Google search will get you your answer - at the expense of the first idiot who was willing to pay for the answer.

1 comment:

  1. Dang, great post. First, you say "I'd issue a small correction of that by saying that contribution is vital to a sharing economy which must, as a unit, interact with the commercial economy." Yes, this is a very good point (and, I agree Lessig does go on and on about his pts in this section). Second, great examples here. (my husband was just going on and on the other day about his lover for Stack Overflow). I really like your point that "commercial economy promotes commercial-style interaction." This almost makes me feel like Lessig could stand to be a bit more nuanced in his approach (write him a letter would you?)