Missing From the UGC Viability Discourse

    May 17, 2007

In this wave of the Internet economy, investors are self-consciously considering investing in plays that depend on "user-generated content." In the past, Internet investments were more haphazard. Today’s discourse is much more sophisticated.

So naturally, in discussions of the viability of burgeoning online communities, a big question is: why would anyone contribute? Why would you upload a video? Why would you write a product review?

Certainly the puzzle of how to induce someone to "give up" valuable information and to share and contribute their ideas is an interesting one. In spite of the apparent growth of the so-called "pro-am" movement, the impulse to contribute isn’t universal, so maybe it’s unnatural? Unlikely? Unrealistic to expect it from people? I guess that depends on how you look at it.

If you’re too much of a sceptic on this question, of course, you assume no bonds of reciprocity; no impulse towards gossip; no sense of duty; you in fact assume that we do not live in a society.

Now if you’re the victim of a survey research call at dinner, you might answer as the Alberta farmer did when I was making those putrid calls many years ago: "I’ve worked hard for what I got, and I’d like to keep it that way." Answering a few questions about attitudes towards the environment, and who he’d be voting for in the next election, would be tantamount to theft, in his mind.

But what if you’re part of a viable community, rather than just being interrupted at dinner?

What if John Rawls, the last century’s most pre-eminent American philosopher, was right? That we have a "sense of justice" necessary to be "fully cooperating members of society"? To figure out why any society would share values and information to the extent that they agree on how power and communications roughly work (eg. shared signals, common laws, etc.), philosophers like Rawls made certain assumptions. In some way these were based on modern empirical reality, given the structures of laws in most modern societies.

Rawls also defined the sense of justice — as "the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of cooperation." The fact that Elliot Spitzer brought major business leaders to account speaks a lot to the sense of justice that an Attorney-General must have if we’re to live in a just society, but the broader point is that his work was by and large endorsed by society.

Many online peering and sharing activities don’t require a sense of justice, but some do. There is something else at work in the reciprocal uploading of music and other content — it doesn’t require a "sense of justice," precisely — but it’s probably part of the same family. It is, at least, a sense of reciprocity or mutuality.

On RateMyProfessors or HotOrNot or something else entirely, the activity’s a bit more frivolous that a "sense of justice" would require, but again, it’s in the same family.

People writing book reviews on Amazon is part of a more mature – if often unfair – process of contributing to that general social discourse. This is starting to get more like what I’m talking about.

There are a great many communities that have yet to be built online, that look a little like some of the things we’ve seen so far, but simply aren’t yet as mature. Consumer Reports is published out of something like a sense of justice and is consumed mostly passively. These kinds of impulses will soon take a more contemporary, distributed form online, a more mature form than a click on a "Hot or Not" button.

Recent news items about Optionable, Inc., a trading firm somehow mixed up in a natural gas trading scheme with a much larger partner, BMO Financial, indicate that a habitual financial "whistleblower" began noticing unusual trading patterns in the futures markets. As she had done on numerous occasions in the past, the woman, a 51-year-old president of an investment club, began sending notes to regulatory authorities alerting them to the problems. One response might be to ask what’s special about this woman to cause her to have such an elevated sense of justice; moral outrage, even. Then again, if she plays in the same markets, she also has a vested interest in a level, transparent playing field. I’d like to think there’s a little of that in all of us. Whatever, you can’t argue with the fallout when information inevitably gets out. Optionable’s stock has fallen from $9 to 50 cents, and the company is now embroiled in scandal.