The free rider problem and tradegy of the commons (Fisher, 2005)

24 October 2010

There are two classes of social dilemmas especially relevant to information behavior: the free rider problem and the tragedy of the commons. These dilemma situations refer to opposite sides of the same coin. In the free rider problem actors are tempted to not contribute to a group good, while in the tragedy of the commons actors are tempted to consume a good without consideration of how their use degrades that good. The free rider problem arises when actors want to enjoy a collective good, without contributing the resources necessary to create or maintain it. The seminal statements come from extensions of the rational actor model (derived from economics) to political and social problems of collective action (Olson, 1965), theories of group solidarity (Hechter, 1987), and the enforcement of norms (Coleman, 1990). The free rider problem is seen as a pervasive challenge for any collective good providing group, and is especially problematic when contribution is voluntary and groups are informal. This is often the case in online groups, so studying provision of collective goods in these settings promises to bring new insight into this general question.

The tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968; Ostrom, 1990) occurs when individual consumption of a collective good degrades the quality of that resource for all. When the resource is large none of the individuals feel the negative effects of their own actions, thus they have no incentive to curtail their own consumption (Yamagishi, 1995). The tragedy of the commons highlights different ways that consumption of a resource interferes with the ability of others to use that resource. Bandwidth consumption due to excessive downloading is a clear example in the online setting (Huberman, Rajan, &. Lucose, 1997). However, one of the major strengths of electronic resources is that they greatly reduce problems of rivalness (only one person can read a book at a time), degradation (Web pages don’t wear out), and crowding (for most uses additional users do not noticeably degrade the quality of online information resources). However, there are online social spaces like Usenet groups, e-mail lists, and blogs that may have a social carrying capacity where excessive use by some may degrade the resource for others.

The baseline prediction in collective action dilemmas is that the deficient equilibrium will dominate in the absence of mechanisms that alter the payoff structure. Identifying and explaining the operation of such mechanisms has been the subject of a wide range of research. Contribution, cooperation, and trust are more likely to emerge when actors know that they will interact in the future, i.e., repeat games cast a “shadow of the future” (Murnighan &. Roth, 1983). Reputation effects are reason this shadow effects dilemma situations. Actors “do the right thing” in order to protect their reputation, an important mechanism for generating trust in online settings (Kollock, 1999). In-group membership due to identities based on roles or on group affiliation can foster contribution when embedded in social ties (Snow, Zurcher & Exland-Olson, 1980). Social ties, that is, the connections between individuals, are an important reason that people contribute to collective goods (McAdam & Paulson, 1993). Finally, selective incentives, in the form of valued goods (especially social incentives like approval), are only available to those that contribute and are important foundations for sustaining contribution (Coleman, 1990; Hechter, 1987). In the absence of the mechanisms like those described above, cooperation and contribution are harder to sustain, and are more likely to devolve into defection.

(Fisher, 2005, p. 94ff)

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