The tragedy of the commons

As it regularly happens, I was looking for something else online (i think it was “diner’s dilemma”), and I came across “the tragedy of the commons” article published in Science Magazine 40 years ago. Here’s it’s Wikipediaversion. I know the term well from all those b-school and economic sociology classes, and was actually happy to be reminded of it. Because my first thought was “does that really still apply today??”, having in mind how people use common web resources & share them & collaborate. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that they really don’t have the concept of “scarcity” and “limited resources” in the same way that any previous generation did. This is not a trivial thing. It really defines not only the obvious question of how you market to these people, but a more general question of how they behave & relate to the world. If the brand’s values are built around scarcity then you are going to promote and advertise your brand accordingly and will never ever understand why people don’t react in the way you thought they would.

Here I mainly have in mind how people on the web not only not step over each other but actually help each other to build upon what’s already there. They are making things together (think all these additions to Twitter: tweetdrop, tweetdeck, tweetthistext that were built upon the basic service. this last one even lets you write stuff longer than 140 characters). In these cases, market externalities of using the same resource are positive, and not negative, as the tragedy of commons says. The more you use something, the more useful it becomes.

So now back to the article: it describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen. This sounds awfully familiar (think Black Friday and environment before anything else). Now think brands: they come to the web to colonize it: to “use” social media and “tap into” conversations. To describe this kind of behavior, the “tragedy of the commons” uses a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons). They are all entitled to let their cows graze. It is in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. No wonder then that people online often kick-out this herder-asshole AND all of his cows.

This post originally appeared on I [Love] Marketing, March 2