Punishment, Self-Interest, and Cooperation – Why the Altruism of Web2.0 Doesn’t Exist


Every day I tell myself to let this Web2.0 grudge go. I need to stop blogging about it before I alienate everyone else on the web, most of whom think Web2.0 is the way of the future. But every day I come into an office that works on embedded software. Most of you have probably never heard of embedded software. You probably didn't know there were programmers who don't code for the Web.

There are tons of problems to be solved in the embedded world, and ample opportunity for bright entrepreneurs. So I get a little aggravated when somebody launches yet another social networking site or whatever other Web2.0 idea they have that has no way of making money yet gets $5million in VC funding primarily from the hope that Google will buy them someday.

Many of these sites don't create any value the way most new companies do. They siphon off attention and make people less focused. Many of these sites aren't making people more productive, they are making people waste more time. Their value is that they entertain. How do I know that? Because I was caught up in it. I was on these sites multiple times a day for months, afraid I would miss something cool. Only when I realized how shallow my thinking had become and how much I had lost my ability to focus deeply did I begin to cut back and ignore them. I don't need to be in touch with everyone, all the time. I don't need to see what they are posting and saying and tagging and podcasting. I need to better myself, not entertain myself.

What I really need is a way to jam more code that runs lighting fast on tiny little processors in mobile devices. I need more memory but a smaller footprint. I need to be able to port code to the plethora of embedded systems in hours, not days or weeks. That is the kind of solution that would improve my life. So please forgive my Web 2.0 grudge, but understand that it exists because I see these smart talented people all focused on one tiny area of business opportunity, while the solutions I need are often being ignored.

But getting back to the point, every time I stumble upon evidence against Web 2.0 ideas I feel compelled to show it to you, even though most of you probably don't care.

The first thing I've been meaning to point out is that the Business2.0 story on Digg claims they have 180.000+ registered users and 6 million page views a day. And you know what it takes to get to the front page? Sometimes fewer than 100 "diggs." Even the most popular stories only get a few thousand. That is less than 1%. The moral here is that the people don't want power. They don't want to vote. They just want to be in the know. So they read the site, but they don't participate. There is no wisdom of crowds or power of the masses or anything else. It is the same model as old media, except the editors are now self-appointed. It reminds me of the Despair.com poster on conformity. The tagline is "when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

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The second thing I want to point out is new research showing that people cooperate more in systems that offer chances to punish freeloaders. Wait. Isn't Web2.0 about altruism? Isn't it about the goodness of our hearts to share and help others? It won't work.

People contribute to something because:
a)they have a selfish reason to
b)they don't want to be punished for slacking

A small percentage of the population enjoys doing things just for the sake of learning, exploring, helping, etc, and we hold them up as examples of why Web 2.0 is the future. But that isn't altruism, it's selfishness. Those people do those things to fill personal needs of ego, knowledge, or whatever. Altruism happens when there are selfish reasons to be altruistic (i.e. to go to heaven, to take the tax write off, to look good in your social class, to support a cause you personally want to see advanced).

The point of all this is if your business model is built on the goodness of people's hearts, it is going to fail. The real Web 2.0 isn't about wisdom of crowds, new models of behavior, or being more social. And it certainly isn't about altruism and giving valuable things such as knowledge and time away for free. The real Web 2.0 is about control. It's about letting each user control their own interactions, and that is why people like it. At the end of the day, Web 2.0 is about being selfish, and the projects that will succeed are the ones that are embracing that fact.

  • Rob, you are approaching Web2.0 idea from the customer side. But actually Web2.0, in my opinion, is about technical details of how web technologies evolve. Common people (customers) shouldn’t know about it, non web developers shouldn’t know about it neither. Web2.0 just says that in average people have more powerful browsers these days (supporting CSS formatting, AJAX, XHTML) and that people spend more time in the web these days. Saying that your site is Web2.0 is the same as saying that your site is formatted using CSS. And it doesn’t mean that it has better value for customers at all.

  • Punishment increases cooperation? That’s not what the study suggests.

    Look carefully. If the “teammates” are allowed to reward (or not) according to contribution then cooperation increases. And if teammates are allowed to self-select their associates again they cooperate more freely.

    That’s an improtatnt distinction. “Punishing” bosses ruin collaboration and cooperation in other studies. So punishing isn’t the cause of increased cooperation. Peer pressure is. IMHO of course.

  • “Web2.0 is the way of the future”

    I think Web 2.0 is a way of saying that we are over the dot-com hype. We have learned some lessons from the bust and we are ready to create meaningful tools and content that will make our lives better.

  • Rob

    But note that people punished freeloaders even when it cost them to do so. It was that ability that encouraged cooperation. You are right that punishing bosses can ruin collaboration, but for groups without hierarchy, the threat of punishment is what creates part of the peer pressure that encourages cooperation. If punishment wasn’t a factor, both groups would have done the same things.

  • Agreed. But I think it’s a case of peers enforcing “fairness” and “justice.”

    People react fiercely to injustice and unfairness. If the punishment is deemed unfair I’d bet the result would be different. Fairness, respect, self determination, predictability, and just desserts encourages cooperative behavior in other studies.

  • Anonymous

    A few different viewpoints:

    Like it or not, we are living during the Information Revolution – if you want to see action in embedded programming, all you need to do is go where information is being embedded (mobile & wireless) – I don’t think that the iPod’s developers would agree with that embedded programming is getting no love. If the Automation Revolution comes next (and I hope it does), then the embedded stuff will become sexiest – markets simply follow demand & the current “theme” is information.

    I disagree that web2 has anything to do with altruism – Web2 is simply the “bi-directional” phase (or feedback loop) of the information revolution. The browser is actually an embedded technology – embedded in the PC.

    Sharing and altruism need to be considered separately. Web2 has nothing to do with altruism but has everything to do with sharing. It is dependant on sharing; but it doesn’t matter if your motives for sharing are selfish.

    The glass-half-full angle on “freeloaders” is not that succesful communities punish anyone; but rather that in a succesful community, rewards are commensurate with contributions – valuable contributions earn valuable rewards. It’s just natural that non-valuable freeloaders don’t get rewarded but the members aren’t there to see anyone get punished – they are there to enjoy rewards in line with their contributions.

  • Aaron

    Hmmm. I found this post through a “Web 2.0” site.

  • This article is based on the presumption that people who do not vote for an article are not participating. This presumption is, of course, false. Digg’s participation rate is the number of people who look at the articles, not the number of people who think they should be ‘digged’.

    This article is also based on the presumption that a low participation rate in a larger group means that there is no participation, “here is no wisdom of crowds or power of the masses or anything else,” and that it’s no different from journalism.

    This presumption is also false. First, 1,000 people voting in favour (and many more deciding not to vote) still constitutes a crowd, and their actions still constitute participation.

    The difference between Digg and journalism is that anyone who wants to *can* participate. This is very different from a system in which decisions are made for you no matter what you say about it.

    Of course, the purpose of the article is to carp about freeloaders and to remind readers that there is no such thing as altruism. The author may well be convinced of this, though it takes a very selective filtering of the data to support this position empirically.

    What, for example, is the reward for typing this comment? I am more likely to be punished, via spam and hate mail. It doesn’t matter to me whether the author believes there is such a things as altruism. And if he wants to offer business advice based on this incorrect precept, that’s his problem.

    The problem is, the author is confusing between ‘altruism’ and ‘expressing oneself’. Take a site like Flickr or Deviant Art, for example. These are sites based on rampant sharing, on the wholesale giving away of artistic content for nothing. Altruism run amok! But they are also, more importantly, sites where people can express themselves, where they can be creative.

    It is true that only a certain percentage of the population wants to be creative at any given time, and in any given fashion. This is perhaps just as well; we are being drowned in free content as it is. There is too much altruism in the world for us to keep up!

    That’s why the whole freeloaders argument is uch a crock. There is no such thing as a freeloader, really. The members of an audience are not freeloading off the artists. They are giving the artist a reason to perform. Just so, the non-voting members of Digg are not sponging off the voting members. They are, rather, giving the voting members a reason to vote.

    When you view that people do, in Web 2.0 or elsewhere, as ‘product’, then you get skewed economics and skewed business models, as typified in this column. But if you see it more accurately as ‘interaction’ or ‘communication’, then you are closer to the heart of it.

    I mean, after all, if you cannot imagine writing a letter to your grandmother for any reason other than profit, then not only do you have a cold cold heart, you have also missed the whole point of what *really* drives an economy.

  • Rob,

    Nice column. Having been involved in a recent attempt at yet another redundant communal project, I would have to say I have reached almost exactly the same conclusions as yourself.

    It is not that sharing doesn’t work; it is that human nature, by default, is built to take first, give later. As another poster says above, when I go to a communal portal such as NewsVine.com, I rarely ever “digg” or “vote” to raise topics to the main page. I am there for the simple need to keep myself abreast of current events.

    Even sites such as myspace or facebook are built on the same premis. The only reason they are successful, is not because everyone loves to keep a strong social network, it is because it is built to give self-gratification first and foremost. i.e. “Building a social network based on self-promotion”.

    In order to a online community so succeed, self-gratification needs take precedence.

  • Nowadays the notion of altruism is degraded. Nevertheles, sometimes web2.0 is used not only for earning money.

  • That’s true anyway. And if he wants to offer business advice based on this incorrect precept, that’s his problem. The problem is, the author is confusing between ‘altruism’ and ‘expressing oneself’. Take a site like Flickr or Deviant Art, for example.