This week, one of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk, features one of my favorite Internet visionaries, Clay Shirky. I interviewed Shirky when his book came out back in April. The host, Russ Roberts, covered some of the same ground, but also explored some different topics, so it was an enjoyable listen.
I was struck by something Prof. Roberts said about 50 minutes into the podcast:
One of the things that fascinates me about [Wikipedia] is that I think if you’d asked an economist in 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, even 2000: “could Wikipedia work,” most of them would say no. They’d say “well it can’t work, you see, because you get so little glory from this. There’s no profit. Everyone’s gonna free ride. They’d love to read Wikipedia if it existed, but no one’s going to create it because there’s a free-riding problem.” And those folks were wrong. They misunderstood the pure pleasure that overcomes some of that free-rider problem.
He’s right, but I would make a stronger point: the very notion of a “free-rider problem” is nonsensical when we’re talking about a project like Wikipedia. When Roberts says that Wikipedia solves “some of” the free-rider problem, he seems to be conceding that there’s some kind of “free rider problem” that needs to be overcome. I think even that is conceding too much. In fact, talking about “free riding” as a problem the Wikipedia community needs to solve doesn’t make any sense. The overwhelming majority of Wikipedia users “free ride,” and far from being a drag on Wikipedia’s growth, this large audience acts as a powerful motivator for continued contribution to the site. People like to contribute to an encyclopedia with a large readership; indeed, the enormous number of “free-riders”—a.k.a. users—is one of the most appealing things about being a Wikipedia editor.
This is more than a semantic point. Unfortunately, the “free riding” frame is one of the most common ways people discuss the economics of online content creation, and I think it has been an obstacle to clear thinking.
The idea of “free riding” is based on a couple of key 20th-century assumptions that just don’t apply to the online world. The first assumption is that the production of content is a net cost that must either be borne by the producer or compensated by consumers. This is obviously true for some categories of content—no one has yet figured out how to peer-produce Hollywood-quality motion pictures, for example—but it’s far from universal. Moreover, the real world abounds in counterexamples. No one loses sleep over the fact that people “free ride” off of watching company softball games, community orchestras, or amateur poetry readings. To the contrary, it’s understood that the vast majority of musicians, poets, and athletes find these activities intrinsically enjoyable, and they’re grateful to have an audience “free ride” off of their effort.
The same principle applies to Wikipedia. Participating in Wikipedia is a net positive experience for both readers and editors. We don’t need to “solve” the free rider problem because there are more than enough people out there for whom the act of contributing is its own reward.
The second problem with the “free riding” frame is that it fails to appreciate that the sheer scale of the Internet changes the nature of collective action problems. With a traditional meatspace institution like a church, business or intramural sports league, it’s essential that most participants “give back” in order for the collective effort to succeed. The concept of “free riding” emphasizes the fact that traditional offline institutions expect and require reciprocation from the majority of their members for their continued existence. A church in which only, say, one percent of members contributed financially wouldn’t last long. Neither would an airline in which only one percent of the customers paid for their tickets.
On Wikipedia—and a lot of other online content-creation efforts—the ratio of contributors to users just doesn’t matter. Because the marginal cost of copying and distributing content is very close to zero, institutions can get along just fine with arbitrarily high “free riding” rates. All that matters is whether the absolute number of contributors is adequate. And because some fraction of new users will always become contributors, an influx of additional “free riders” is almost always a good thing.
Talking about peer production as solving a “free-rider problem,” then, gets things completely backwards. The biggest danger collaborative online projects face is not “free riding” but obscurity. A tiny free software project in which every user contributes code is in a much worse position than a massively popular software project like Firefox in which 99.9 percent of users “free ride.” Obviously, every project would like to have more of its users become contributors. But the far more important objective for an online collaborative effort to is grow the total size of the user community. New “free riders” are better than nothing.
I think this misplaced focus on free-riding relates to the Robert Laughlin talk I discussed on Wednesday. I suspect that one of the reasons Laughlin is dismissive of business models that involved giving away software is because he’s used to traditional business models in which the marginal customer always imposes non-trivial costs. Companies that sell products made out of atoms would obviously go bankrupt if they tried to give away an unlimited number of their products. ” We’ve never before had goods that could be replicated infinitely and distributed at close to zero cost, and so it’s not surprising that our intuitions and our economic models have trouble dealing with them. But they’re not going away, so we’re going to have to adjust our models accordingly. Dispensing with the concept of “free riding” is a good place to start.
In closing, let me recommend Mark Lemley’s excellent paper on the economics of free riding as it applies to patent and copyright debates. He argues persuasively that eliminating “free riding” is not only undesirable, but that it’s ultimately not even a coherent objective.