The Economics of Evil

pieterhpieterh wrote on 26 Jan 2012 01:15


In 2008 I'd been president of the FFII for two years and we worked hard to get people involved in the fight against software patents. We developed the rule of thumb that positive campaigns don't work. Every campaign needs a bad guy. So as I moved back to building open source communities, I wondered how this rule could translate to different kinds of community.

For some time I've been studying the creation of on-line communities. One of our principles in the activist world is that a community needs a bad guy.

Now, one of my examples for non-activist people is Wikipedia, which is one of the most explosively successful on-line communities. The question is, who is the bad guy in Wikipedia?

At first sight, Wikipedia is a purely positive thing. People contribute knowledge, discuss, edit articles. True, there are some idiots, trolls, and vandals, but overall the results seem to be great. So great that Wikipedia does better than any traditional expert-based encyclopedia. So, does this mean a positive community can work?

The other day some friends and I were discussing a new project to create a kind of wikipedia-style encyclopedia of art and antique objects. The question came up… what about edit rights? Who can edit? And in the answer, I finally understood why Wikipedia works, and why the bad guy principle is so right.

"Anyone can edit," I proposed. "But what about vandals, idiots, and trolls?" came the question. "Let them edit, it's part of the process. The original authors get annoyed, fix the articles, and get emotionally attached to the whole thing. The more edit wars you have, the more people care, and the stronger the community".

So, lacking a clear external bad guy, those people who make your life miserable when you try to do something useful may, in fact, be exactly what you depend on to get out of bed in the morning.


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