What’s in a game? Free-riders and the participation problem

Major online communities such as Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot are at the cornerstone of the social web: crowd-sourced content hubs that tackle the difficult task of collecting, evaluating, and promoting quality user-generated content. Loosely related, these platforms all perform a similar task of meta-moderating—or curating—content by tasking users to submit, up vote, or bury content based on its perceived value.

Source: Reddit.com

The only way to stratify the wealth of content they gather and distinguish it within these communities is to use intangible tiers of reputation and visibility. The idea to convert currencies of attention and reputation directly into positive feedback (ie. ‘Karma’ points) provides some tangible marker of digital success. The more popular or approved a piece of content is, the more visibility it—and its creator/poster—gains. The reputation-based Web is all about communities, participation, and peering; it is not, however, about authorial control or objectively professional qualities. Regardless, they are popular to a staggering degree and produce and promote untold amounts of content every minute of the day.

Inside and behind this content overload is a fundamental question of motivation: why does anyone contribute at all?

It seems that the mechanics at play here are some of the most interesting  qualities disseminated in economics, maths, and psychology: specifically, the ideas behind game theory.

The essential kernel of game theory is easy to grasp. Game theory is founded on a very simple but powerful way of schematising conflict. The underlying mechanics of John Von Neumann’s theory of economic games models the behaviour of perfectly logical parties interested only in winning. The dilemma of online producers and consumers alike resembles a game where players can only win by having access to quality content. Communities like Reddit and Slashdot expose this content through necessary participation, but those who contribute nothing still benefit from the results even if they put in no work to achieve them—often known as the free-rider dilemma.

The free-rider game is originally based on public transport, but remains true for modelling online communities. It posits that those who are willing to pay for the use of the railway system subsidise those who do not, because a single non-paying commuter is unlikely to bankrupt the whole system or take up an unreasonable amount of room on the train. Reddit users can easily rationalise lurking or browsing to their heart’s content, because their non-participation has a minuscule effect on the health of the system and the entire systems keeps chugging along.

And here’s the thing: the free-riders are right. They can reap all the benefits of vibrant, online communities without contributing any energy themselves. It is perfectly rational and provides the best possible outcome for the end-user. There is nothing wrong with thinking this way, that is, until everybody starts thinking ‘rationally’. Individually rational action—letting others do the participatory work—leads to a collectively irrational outcome: no one has any access to content—the trains stop running. The bargain of leeching off the system is a fiction; and ultimately, the only bargain offered by non-participation is a Faustian one.

But, since these repositories of user-generated content represent a kind of online collectivism that mired in an anonymous tide of mass mediocrity it is almost impossible to rely on anything other than the altruism of enthusiastic amateurs to produce meaningful work. Web 2.0 has demonstrated a frightening degree of indifference to participation as beautifully outlined by Jakob Nielsen’s treatise on participation inequality, and the intermittent contributions of idle users cannot be relied upon. However, the reputation-based currencies (such as ‘karma’) that these content-aggregators employ might as well be labelled as the bribes they are, because without an overt reward system, these communities would languish.

Source: Nielsen Group

With that in mind, these communities are resoundingly successful at encouraging contributions. Even if their scoring systems can be criticised as self-aggrandising, self-indulgent, and insular, the economics of reputation do directly encourage users to actively work within the rules of the system: it is effectively bribing them to participate. And in doing so, the system becomes universally more valuable to everyone. So long as users participate actively in posting and rating content they are organising the platform and allowing content to move properly through the system. Sure their internet points may be relevant only to their digital peers, but they are a powerful motivator so long as they derive some meaning from their boosted reputation.

Remembering that most-users don’t participate—and that they’re perfectly rational to do so—I’d love to hear why some of you do choose to get involved!


4 thoughts on “What’s in a game? Free-riders and the participation problem

  1. Wyatt

    Another great post, Michael. The ‘free rider’ dilemma is certainly an interesting one. One wonders how the (unofficial) ‘content creators’ of sites like Reddit and Digg feel about the ‘unwashed masses’ benefiting from all their hard – and likely anonymous – work. The “fundamental question of motivation” you addressed is, in my opinion, perhaps the greatest roadblock to the further proliferation of Web 2.0 sites reliant on user-generated content. I believe the future of these sites lies in the robust promotion of user interaction – more specifically, in the dangling of certain electronic carrots.

    Weiss (2007) argues that potential contributors should be rewarded and recognised, using ‘enticers’ such as daily and weekly contribution prizes and publically-viewable user contribution metadata. This could theoretically foster an environment in which users could ‘compete’ with one another, potentially spiking user-submitted contributions drastically. I find myself agreeing with Weiss’ argument wholeheartedly – a prize is always an excellent motivator, no matter how small or ultimately meaningless. Hopefully, we’ll see a great shift towards recognising and rewarding user contribution to Web 2.0 sites and platforms in the very near future.


    Weiss, T. (2007, January 9). Improving contribution behaviour in web 2.0 [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.trendsspotting.com/blog/?p=4

    1. mjjfeeney Post author

      Yeah, the question of incentives is always going to be tricky. I do love the metaphorical ‘carrot-on-a-stick’ of semi-tangible rewards. That Weiss article is fascinating too! I wonder if there’s a pattern of irregular rewards or reinforcement (something like a Skinner Box ) that could compound that even further.

  2. Jason Leiper

    As a trainer of many years, I’d have to say that I simply enjoy communicating ideas and knowledge. It is up to me to provide the right atmosphere for people not to be too self-conscious to build the knowledge further. However I don’t expect many of my students to teach a class that I would go along to. Unless of course they promoted something different to what I’m teaching that interested me.

    How often does the 90% of “lurkers” look at topics from different subject headings – or are they looking for some specific information (perhaps after a google search) and once they have read it, leave. Could the 10% of people be seen as immersers and therefore Reddit, Slashdot etc are environments that they want to spend a lot of time in. Immersers may seek extrinsic reward/recognition from like minded people? They take care to publish thoughtful, worthwhile content – well you hope so anyway.

    This ‘free-riders dilemma’ could be seen as being the audience that the 10% of contributors may require. Or indeed be the people that may follow certain contributors because they seek out their knowledge, advice or general insight. Many times, I have read articles by people that I respect/follow/learn from and do not comment because I feel that my comment has little to add due to a nascent understanding of the topic or the “me too” cringe. I am not sure that I am losing my soul in anyway by learning something and not feeling ready to contribute. Perhaps I look at these type of sites as a learning or knowledge acquisition opportunity.

    I certainly don’t feel like a “lurker” – a harsh and pejorative word used again by Nielsen that seems to force an assumed agreement when surrendering authorial control is being asked for.

    If these sites want closer to 100% of the community to contribute, you will get a greater percentage of mediocre things to read and then we get the old problem of having to sort the wheat from the chaff. Voting crap down takes time. Time I could be reading something from the 10%.

    1. mjjfeeney Post author

      Absolutely agree Jason.

      I agree that the tide of mediocrity is all-consuming at times, but the only problem I can see is if the loudest voices are the worst. I too am all too inclined to read something and digest it on my own–without offering feedback. I worry sometimes that by keeping my comments to myself I’m not giving the author the attention they deserve, and that choosing to contribute could help raise the level of discussion.

      It’s a thorny issue and I’m still trying to feel it out; thankfully, high-quality feedback like yours rescues my blog from this plight!

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