What happened to the commons? You know the global commons of information, connectivity and creativity that was supposed to be created by the world-wide-web.
I was reading Charles Leadbeater’s book, WE-THINK, as I saw him speak at a recent conference. The book, written in 2008, took me back to the good old days when WWW meant win-win-win and many saw the Internet as creating a global commons that would lead to peace prosperity, individuality and creativity. Leadbeater gives the example of a public beach to illustrate the idea of the commons.
“As the day unfolds everyone takes their spot, adjusting to where everyone else has pitched their towel.” Page 49.
I guess Leadbeater, a Brit, has never been to the Jersey shore,
Not the shore on the Isle of Jersey,
But the New Jersey shore!
The point here is not to take a poke at Leadbeater or the arguments that the Internet creates a new commons that can benefit society collectively and individually.
The question is what has happened to the commons?
Gurus and pundits in the BF world (Before Facebook) worried about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – a situation where individuals destroy shared resources from exploitation. They gave the example of the Boston Common, a field open to all for free. Because it cost nothing to use, a commons is subject destruction from abuse as everyone takes but no one is required to give or support. “Corporate” types pointed to the tragedy of the commons as a reason why the Internet and other shared resources need regulation, control, or in other words commercialized.
The tragedy of commons concept remains valid. Its just interesting that in one way of thinking, Facebook has destroyed the idea of the commons in ways that other Internet companies, particularly Google have not. Wired Magazine made this argument in the August 2010 issue in a cover story on the “Web is dead, long live the Internet” . But I am asking what happened to the commons and how did it die from neglect rather than overexploitation.
Life in the year 4AF commonly know as 2008, or the four years after Facebook launched
Leadbeater’s book and others of that era were written in the PRE-FACEBOOK era. That is a world in which commercial control was based on access, pay walls, and proprietary software. The fear in in the decade BF was that commercial companies would quickly wall off the open field for collaboration, most notably Microsoft at the time.
It seems to have turned out very different, particularly in terms of the commons.
Depending on how you think about it, Facebook has either destroyed the original commons or it has created a new ‘commons’ out of its more than 800 million Facebook members. This is a walled commons where the price you pay is in accepting subtle forms of control.
Before Facebook it was possible to see the future of the Internet in a few ways. The internet was either going to be a giant commons with shared intelligence or a singularity with dominant players or a digital Balkans with corporate fiefdoms politely referred to as ‘walled gardens.’ Depending on how you think about it in 2012 AD or CE or the year 8 AF, in the first century of the Facebook Era, has turned out to be all of the above in different degrees.
The real tragedy of the commons is that it has become less relevant almost irrelevant in that the commons exists, but fewer people want to go there. Is it still a commons when there are no commoners using it? Now there are people using the traditional wide-open World Wide Web, do not get me wrong. But where thinkers less than a decade ago through that commerce would destroy the common, those ideas have been replaced with a tragedy based on social connection.
Facebook has created its own commons not by closing it off with proprietary software, pay walls and exclusive content, but by shifting the means of exclusion from commercial to social terms. Facebook has enticed consumers to become creators, providing a platform for social interaction and created a destination that draws people away from an open field.
Open Internet advocates will point out that Facebook is a walled-garden, not a commons. Facebook’s walls are built not on commercial/monetary terms, but by policies and rules that Facebook controls. Others are looking to do similar things.
Facebook is a commons in its own right, by virtue of its sheer size and based on the nature of its interactions.
I am not sure what the tragedy is in the Facebook commons. At one level the old tragedy of over use actually makes the Facebook commons richer and stronger. I can think of a number of tragedies in this new commons and I will suggest a few the next post but what do you think?
Have we resolved tragedy, or just replaced one tragedy with another?