Externalities and the changing nature of the internet

Cory Doctorow has written a thoughtful and interesting article for the Guardian, which argues that pricing externalities will inhibit the creation of public value.

…the infectious idea of internalising externalities turns its victims into grasping, would-be rentiers. You translate a document because you need it in two languages. I come along and use those translations to teach a computer something about context. You tell me I owe you a slice of all the revenue my software generates. That’s just crazy. It’s like saying that someone who figures out how to recycle the rubbish you set out at the kerb should give you a piece of their earnings.

If every shred needs to be accounted for and paid for, then the harvest won’t happen. Paying for every link you make, or every link you count, or every document you analyse is a losing game. Forget payment: the process of figuring out who to pay and how much is owed would totally swamp the expected return from whatever it is you’re planning on making out of all those unloved scraps.

It would be easy to nitpick at the way Doctorow uses concepts like externality rather freely, but that would miss the point of the essay. Underneath those semantics I think there’s a big idea he’s trying to get at, which isn’t really about externalities at all: it is the complaint that things previously available for free are now priced. It is about the intrusion of money into a creative community.

Think back to Dan Ariely’s discussion of social and market norms. The idea is that we act differently in situations where we perceive as market situations, relative to social situations. In particular, we are less generous towards others and less likely to feel guilty about our breaches of social etiquette when we’re in a market situation. Importantly, once a market norm is introduced into a situation it can destroy the social norms very quickly. Social norms are all about trust and once people feel taken advantage of that trust breaks down and turns into a feeling of betrayal. For example, people may enjoy sharing on Facebook but, once they feel that Facebook is trying to take advantage of their personal information for monetary gain, they feel betrayed and no longer trust it. Social and market norms don’t mix well.*

What Doctorow has identified is a social norm of generosity without expectations that previously pervaded web communities. There are companies, such as Instagram, who took advantage of that to build up a large stock of specific investment and then attempted to monetize it. Whereas we expect our bank to try taking advantage of us (market norm), we feel personally offended if Instagram attempts it (social norm). Consequently, there was a huge outcry about Instagram’s attempted change in their ToS, and that loss of trust could damage the firm permanently.

As attempts to monetize online activities continue it is likely that these conflicts between profit motives and social norms will become more common. Companies recognise how valuable it can be to create social norms in their interaction with users. However, that generates tensions with their quest for profits, which can ultimately end up destroying the social goodwill that is the backbone of their success.

* It occurs to me that this may not hold for economists who are trained to think of everything as a market. Perhaps they will just have to believe the experimental work on the matter rather than looking to their intuition!