Category Archives: complexity economics

Mapping online community management practices: can I have a little help with my thesis?

I know: I am quite old to be a student (I am 52, if you like numbers). Still, learning is a lifetime thing, and in this period of my life I am doing part of my learning as a Ph.D. student at University of Alicante.

My thesis concerns online communities. I view them in a network perspective; I model them as networks of interactions, and study the network topology in search of the signs of collective intelligence. My real interest, however, are societies at large: I view online communities as “toy societies”, complex enough to be interesting but simple enough for rigorous empirical analysis. In the end, I would like to be part of the adventure of modelling social dynamics. I think that is important, because, if we figure it out, we can use the knowledge to build better online communities, and, in the end, better societies.

It is a fantastic journey: along the way, I learned Python, NetLogo, some R, and quite a lot of network math. I also brushed up on my statistics and econometrics. I also took brilliant courses and wrote neat stuff. But now it is time for this journey to end, and for me to move to the next phase. The good news is that my thesis is almost finished. The bad news is that it is not quite finished. For that, I need your help.

I have been reading up on the literature on online community management, in search of what I am calling policies. These are simple rules of the type “to obtain x, do y“. Which policies does the literature on online communities recommend? I ended up with the following list:

  1. Invite users to join.
  2. Welcome new users when they sign up.
  3. Engage with users, to encourage them to be more active and make them feel welcome.
  4. Mediate conflict.
  5. Tweak and optimize the user experience (if you consider this to be part of community management).
  6. Encourage interaction between members.
  7. Organize real-world meetings.
  8. Acknowledge members for their contribution.
  9. Support volunteers.
  10. Other?

So, here’s how you can help.

  • If you are yourself stewarding an online community, no matter how large or small, please fill in the survey below.
  • If you know someone that does, please send him/her my way.
  • Reshare this link on your Facebook/Twitter: (redirects back to this page).

You will earn the gratitude of an aging student that really wants to grow up to be a scholar!

The Black Briefing. Why well-intentioned policies fail so often, and what you can do about it

The Salzburg Global Seminar turned out to be a starter for many interesting conversations. We will follow up on them in the months to follow.

Halfway through the seminar, I realized that many people assumed that their main problem was to have the ear of the policy maker. If they could do that, policy makers could just effect change in the desired way. I find that to be a dangerous oversimplification.

Therefore, my contribution to the Salzburg deep dive was the Black Briefing. It was a rather bleak talk on what government really is (an agent, subject to evolutionary pressure to survive and grow). I also briefly covered what would-be reformers and change makers can do to factor the nature of government into their plans.

You can download the Black Briefing slides and text. Credit for the title goes to the mighty Vinay Gupta.

Albert O. Hirschman

Exit vs. voice: reacting to decline in 2017

So you are worried, restless, outraged. In a little over a year, you have watched cynical, myopic politicians manipulate electorates into making disastrous choices. Meanwhile, precious attention is being diverted from issues that really matter, like climate change, privacy, inequality and regulating AI. You know you will personally have to bear some of these costs, even though you had no part in those choices. You are seeing your rights reduced (Brexit), your national prestige sinking (Trump), the effectiveness of your government curtailed (German elections), your non-white or wrong-surname friends and family members being humiliated and made feel unwelcome (all of the above). Now what?

One of the heroes of my youth, Albert Hirschman, has an answer to that. You can do one of three things:

  1. Exit. Refuse to touch the problem, and leave your nation or community behind to deal with it. They made the mess, let them clean up.
  2. Voice. Engage with the status quo. State your concern and grievance, and try to change it through applying some kind of pressure.
  3. Loyalty. Suck it up, and live with it. It’s not that bad after all, at least not for you personally.

Loyalty is, of course, far and away the most popular method. This is because most things in human affairs work reasonably well. With your attention absorbed by corporate greed, climate change and the refugee crisis it is easy to overlook that traffic laws and the drinking water infrastructure work quite well, at least in my corner of the world. Most people will simply stay loyal and move on. But what if you can’t live with it? Do you exit or voice? and how?

In 2017, as I pondered these questions in relations to my own life and work, I stumbled onto two new books that argued different corners of the question. 

The first one is Lobbying for change, by my countryman and co-conspirator Alberto Alemanno. Alberto, a legal scholar, makes a resounding case for voice. His experience as an activist and campaigner taught him that decision makers are often much more open to take on board ideas and suggestions than you might think. This, he argues, is especially true when ideas and suggestions come from citizens, because a citizen’s economic interests are thought to align with that of society as a whole, or at least of large groups within society.

Alberto’s main intuition is this: citizen lobbying is fuelled by discontent, but it ends up producing greater societal cohesion. This is because lobbyists are by definition not themselves decision makers. So, nothing they do will work if it does not channel that discontent into a proposal that benefits them, and that the other interested parties can at least live with. In order to protect her interest or argue her cause, the citizen lobbyist cannot but help the common good. The book then proceeds to plot a course for anybody willing to be a citizen lobbyist to become an effective one. In a way, it’s a user’s manual for Hirschmanian voice.

An aside is in order. Of course, in the lobbying game “interested parties” are only those who sit at the table and argue for themselves. Those who don’t (because they are politically weak, like the Roma in Europe, or because they are not human, like the climate) are fair game, and they have generally not fared well even under advanced democracies. This is, however, a problem with voice in general, not with Alberto’s contribution. In fact, citizen lobbying is meant to be cheap enough that weaker and even non-human parties can find at least some voice.

The second book is Walkaway, by science fiction author and Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow. It is firmly in the exit camp – even in its title. Doctorow is an interesting author, one of a small milieu of SF writers who write honest-to-God philosophical fiction. It’s a bit like reading Gulliver’s Travels: characters spend a lot of time explaining each other the economic, philosophical and technological foundation of the imaginary societies they live in. Doctorow stands apart from other authors in this group in that he is by far the most concerned with economics : in fact he himself claims that Walkaway is really about the Coase Theorem.

Walkaway imagines a near future society where open source technology is advanced enough that people can drop out of mainstream societies in a relatively order manner, and live off the land and dirt-cheap open tech. And they do: the combined effect of automation and mounting income and wealth inequalities make it so that meaningful employment is almost impossible (unless one enjoys serving the only healthy market, that of really rich people). People are knee deep in student debt. Most of humanity has simply nothing to offer to “the economy” and the society it supports. So they walk away, and provide to their needs with the same logic that Wikipedians build Wikipedia. Initially this gives rise to a sort of dual economy, with a large fringe (maybe 5% of the population?) living in Walkaway. Later on, the mainstream economy kind of eats itself, so that the share of humans in Walkaway rises significantly. Walkaway itself becomes a sort of mainstream, with super-rich people and their minions continuing to run places like London and Singapore, but not much else.

Walkaway argues for exit because it lays out a political strategy that leads people to winning by refusing to engage. Cannot get a decent job and pay your student loan? Walk away. The police evacuates the open source compound where you live? Walk away, rebuild it 50 kilometers down the road. They take that down too? Walk away. In the book, walkaway “wins”, but that’s not even the point. The point is that you can make a better life for yourself by not engaging with the system.

Like most people reading this, I am very dissatisfied with some of the things that are going on in the world right now. I can not live with them. Which one is it going to be, voice or exit? I have been a voice guy all my life, but now I wonder. I can see a game – theoretical argument for exit: if you commit to voice, the powers that be can stall you forever, while you exhaust your energy for change in endless negotiations. Exit – walkaway – has a key advantage: if you execute well, its results do not depend on your opponent. If you believe Doctorow’s intuition, if enough people exit your opponent are going to be badly hit. That gives you potentially significant clout as you walk away.

So, I guess, at a minimum, voice should not be taken for granted. Engagement and participation should be economised, and always be underpinned by an ever present, credible, threat of exit. “Credibility” in this sense means building as much autonomy as you can. This is what we are looking into at Edgeryders And you? Are you closer to the voice or to the exit camp?