My post about Wikipedia and public goods prompted an interesting response from Judd Antin at Berkeley’s School of Information. He makes a number of sharp points, but let me focus on this response to the idea that free-riders don’t hurt Wikipedia:
This completely depends on what your goal is. On the one hand, sure, once you reach critical mass, the marginal cost of providing the good is zero (or near-zero), so who cares how many free-riders there are. On the other hand, there are lots of benefits to adding to the group of contributors. Wikipedia isn’t perfect – not even close. It’s wrong on a lot of topics. It’s poorly written in many places. It’s skewed heavily towards CS and popular culture, and away from things like history and literature. There’s a lot to be gained for Wikipedia by converting free-riders to contributors. And let’s not foget about the many, many systems that never get to critical mass.
Notice the background assumption in this passage that the numbers of free-riders and contributors are inversely correlated. That is, it assumes that each free-rider is in some sense detracting from the overall effort by failing to contribute. And it suggests that a better-designed institution might be able to convert more of those free-riders into contributors and thereby increase the total value of the public good that’s being provided.
The problem with this, I think, is that it gets the sign of the correlation between free-riders and contributors backwards. That is, on the Internet, the potential audience is so enormous that the most effective way to get more contributors is to increase the total number of users. For Wikipedia, there isn’t so much a “free-riding problem” as there is a “free-riding opportunity”: the more free-riders there are, the easier it will be to recruit new contributors down the road.
Antin also seems to be under the impression that I’m suggesting that we need to “rethink 100 years of theory” about public goods, which is certainly not the case. Standard arguments about public good problems work perfectly well for in cases like national defense and clean air, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we need to re-think those cases. My claim is simply that the standard model (and especially the focus on free riding) just isn’t a helpful way to think about online content creation, a public goods problem with dramatically different characteristics from clean air or national defense.