Disputing the enclosures of digital commons (1): gaming commons-based reputation systems

Excerpted from TOM SLEE:

“In the digital world, sharing-economy sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor are built on reputation systems, which are digital commons prone to erosion. The value of these systems is their trustworthiness, so the work of tending them must be non-commercial: payments for ratings automatically tarnish the integrity of the system. But once the reputation commons has become sufficiently valuable, the temptation for hotel owners, visitors, and others to game the system for private gain becomes significant. A restaurant rating placed by a competitor restaurant is not easily identified, and so disputes proliferate as reputation systems become more widely used. It is up to the site owners to handle the erosion.

Sadly, the approach of some “sharing economy” companies is to ignore the problem. TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer dismissed the issue of reputation gaming, saying, “One or two phony reviews: who gives a shit?” Brian Chesky of apartment rental service AirBnB claims that when it comes to screening apartments, “It turns out that cities can’t screen as well as technologies can screen. Companies have these magical things called reputation systems.” But reputation systems are not magic.

The importance of occasional bad reviews is not immediately obvious and varies from context to context. A few bad outcomes completely break some regimes (there is a reason the supply of heart surgeons is not governed by open recommendation systems); for others, such as the entries in Wikipedia, scattered inaccuracies are less important. Accommodation sites have had their share of damage, misuse, and rape, but Chesky and Kaufer emphasize the large number of successful transactions on their systems, gauging their success by the average user experience.

But incumbent licensing regimes, so disparaged by sharing-economy advocates, are evaluated differently and with good reason. The severe consequences of extreme incidents lead, over time, to demands for rules that are stricter than crowd-based ratings. The value of the system is determined not by the average but by the worst possible user experience. So far, there is no sign that sharing-economy sites are taking serious measures to treat the rare calamities with the central importance they deserve: The commercial incentives of sharing-economy entrepreneurs make them bad stewards of the reputation-system commons on which they rely.

Harvey writes that, in co-opting the uniqueness of an open common, capital “produces widespread alienation and resentment among the cultural producers who experience first-hand the appropriation and exploitation of their creativity and their political commitments to the benefits of others.” Many digital commoners have experienced such an alienation moment, a realization that the common they thought they were tending is, in reality, a private estate, made green and fertile with voluntary labor and then sold lock, stock, and barrel to the highest bidder.

Woody Guthrie wrote one of the great commons songs: “This Land Is Your Land.” After Guthrie’s death, his daughter Nora entrusted piles of his previously unheard lyrics to radical musician Billy Bragg, who put them to music and turned them into a pair of successful albums in the 1990s. When entrepreneur Michael Birch was putting together social network Bebo.com in 2006, he reached out to Bragg, who — frustrated by the music industry’s treatment of musicians — gave him advice on how to build an “artist-centered environment.” But the two “ignored the elephant in the room: the issue of whether he ought to consider paying some kind of royalties to the artists.” Bebo was to be a common after all, and the tending of commons must be done in a sharing, non-commodified way. In 2008, Birch sold Bebo.com to AOL, pocketing an estimated $600 million. The sale led Bragg to write that “if young musicians are to have a chance of enjoying a fruitful career, then we need to establish the principle of artists’ rights throughout the Internet — and we need to do it now.” This site, it turns out, is not your site.

Whole online communities have experienced their own similar alienation moments. Goodreads, a social space for book lovers, was sold to Amazon, triggering an angry backlash among members whose voluntary contributions built much of the site’s value. Academic reference manager Mendeley, which long employed a rhetoric of openness, alienated its user base by selling itself to Elsevier, a company with a reputation for resisting open-access publication at every turn. Undeterred, Mendeley still pronounces that its “real power lies in what it does with the collective data from users.” Tumblr’s owner David Karp may not be “about the money,” and the owners of Zipcar may believe that their company is “about the people who make it a reality: a team that works hard, members who believe, and organizations that are making conscious decisions for the future.” Nonetheless, they didn’t mind selling out to Yahoo and Avis, respectively, and alienating their commoners when the price was right. Early collaborative sites like IMDB (another property of Amazon) and CDDB (now owned by Sony Corporation) also turned out to be not commons but private estates, tended by sharecroppers.

Techno-optimists tend to credit technology alone for fostering digital commons and downplay the nontechnical work of many commoners. In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky highlighted Couchsurfing, a site where young global travelers can arrange to visit and host each other, as a healthy digital commons. Couchsurfing started life as couchsurfing.org, not couchsurfing.com; even the code that ran the site was provided by the Couchsurfers themselves. But the site did have owners, and in August 2011, they incorporated and accepted $7.6 million in venture funding. As the company’s market value has grown, the Couchsurfing community has deteriorated. A long-time Couchsurfer laments the days of “art gatherings, bonfires, a weekly meet up at a bar, café gatherings, potlucks,” now lost.

The community’s former strength turned out to have little to do with technology. As a commenter at Quora writes:

The old Couchsurfing thrived with a very haphazard and underfunded management structure precisely because local volunteers around the world believed they were part of a cause bigger than profit. Local collectives were highly tied to their local communities … The technical architecture of the new systems is much better, but paradoxically the ‘professional’ product development process fixes things that were broken on purpose. In other words, Couchsurfing evolved around certain quirks and inefficient processes that actually became critical to the health of the social trust platform.

Over 5000 Couchsurfing members have joined the forum We are Against CS becoming a for-profit corporation.

Contrast Couchsurfing with Hostelling International, a venerable network of national youth hostelling organizations that has remained resolutely nonprofit. Over 100 years old, it is still going strong and ”currently provides 35 million overnight stays a year through more than 4,000 hostels in over 80 countries.” Some people do support themselves through the commons of hostels — some work in the hosteling organizations, others are paid to run hostels themselves — but it’s orders of magnitude away from the sudden injection of millions of venture-capital dollars.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.