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.