Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Managing the Virtual Commons

Today I read an article by Peter Kollock and Marc Smith. The article entitled Managing the Virtual Commons was published in 1996 in the book Computer-mediated Communication. The article talked about the way online communities are managed so they survive, inparticularly Usenet. According to Kollock and Smith, “the Usenet is one of the largest is one of the largest computer-mediated communications systems in existence.” The Usenet is divided into newsgroups where people can post their though on specific topics. The problem is that there is only so much space to post, and for the group to survive this space must not be wasted. To properly manage these groups, both the problems and solutions must be analyzed.

The main reasons this space is wasted is because of free-riders and grandstanders. According to Kollock and Smith, free-riders are people that take information without posting any of their own knowledge, and grandstanders are people that post without regard to the topic. For instance, if the newsgroup is about Macintosh computers a grandstander may talk about PCs or anything else that may have nothing to do with the topic. A free-rider would basically ask a question and receive an answer, but never give answers to anyone else. I agree that this could totally lead to wasted space. Imagine going to looking for tour times at the White House and getting a website with quotes on auto insurance. This could lead to the fall of the community because you may not be able to trust that you will find legitimate information any more.

Later in the reading, Kollock and Smith go on to talk about some possible solutions that have worked in face to face communities. These solutions include aspects such as group size and boundaries, rules and institutions, and monitoring and sanctioning. Kollock and Smith suggest that by decreasing group size, making it harder to join, creating a list of rules, and moderating posts the Usenet community could survive. The most interesting point Kollock and Smith made in this section was about group size. According to Kollock and Smith, in a face to face community the bigger the group, the more free-riding there will be because these free-riders will be hard to notice, but in a newsgroup everybody can see who is free-riding because the post are seen by the thousands of members of the newsgroup. This is very interesting and very true. If you take a small college class and compare it to a bigger college class I bet you will find more students free-riding in the larger class than the small because in the larger class there is a less likely chance that you will be called on than in the smaller one.

I would like to conclude by saying that there still may be free-riding and grandstanding going on, but steps are being taken to keep this to a minimum. Newsgroups and forums alike are being monitored, and off topic threads are being moved to their proper place or deleted. I think that if we all stay conscious of what we are writing and where we are writing it that our internet communities will forever flourish.

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