Nothing is free in an exchange-based economy

Barbara Kahn, Dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami, appeared on Nightly Business Report August 25, 2009 to comment on the new book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” by Chris Anderson. Kahn rightly points out that even when consumers seem to be getting goods and services for free, they are actually exchanging something other than money that can be just as valuable like “…their time, loyalty or trust.” Kahn notes that “Free television isn’t free; it costs your time and attention and that’s valuable to advertisers. Facebook users invest their network of friends, which ties them to a system and that is valuable.”

In these examples the consumer is not paying money, but the companies providing the “free” services are leveraging the consumer’s contribution to generate revenues and profits from other sources, primarily advertising. We live in an economy based on exchange and very rarely is only one party the sole contributor to that exchange.

Twitter’s “Tragedy of the Commons”

The “tragedy of the commons” (Garrett Hardin, 1968) is a concept in economics that describes how a group of self-interested individuals can destroy a shared (and free) resource. Hardin’s classic is example is a group of herders who destroy a pasture as each herder maximizes his/her number of grazing cows to make the most use of the shared (common) pasture. The tragedy is that the destruction of the pasture is in no one’s interest even as maximizing use of the pasture may be in each individual’s interest. It seems Twitter may have brought the tragedy of the commons to the internet.

In “Can Twitter Be Saved?,” Mark Gimein writes that Twitter will collapse from the sheer volume of users and messages if users do not focus and reduce the number of their feeds, and if Twitter does not develop some automated tools for helping users filter out the garbage from the useful. Gimein’s description of the typical Twitter behavior strikes me as a classic tragedy of the commons scenario: users (herders) barrage their followers with messages in an effort to attract the limited and finite resource of attention (the pasture). Access to this attention is free and messages effortlessly accumulate for all to peruse, so it is no wonder that many users liberally sprinkle “Twitter-space” with chatter and, in parallel, follow as many users as possible in an effort to attract as large an audience as possible.

While charging for anything on the Internet is tantamount to heresy, Twitter may be forced to set up some kind of fee structure to have any hope of constructing a more useful (and efficient) experience as the number of users appears ready to engulf the entire planet. Here is one example of what Twitter can do (my own unsolicited advice):

1. Charge a small fee to join, say $10/year; perhaps even charge $50-100+/year for corporate accounts where identity is authenticated and validated by Twitter. This fee mainly captures some of the immense value that people get out of the service and provides some funds to develop the automated tools that Gimein recommends. It also gives users one extra sense of ownership and, perhaps, an incentive to act responsibly. Of course, venture funding could easily replace subscription funding but only in the short-term. Someday, Twitter will need to generate sustainable revenues from something (even if it is charity!).
2. Charge a very small fee for messaging. There are many ways to do this, but the fairest method would be to charge something like a penny for each tweet past some high daily or weekly threshold. This provides the financial incentive to focus messages.

One might reasonably ask why Facebook does not face a similar problem with a tragedy of the commons. I suggest that Facebook is not a commons where anyone can and will attempt to siphon off a user’s precious attention. On Facebook, users typically only accept links to friends and family and people one or two degrees separated from that closed network. Because users either know or know of everyone in their network, there is an automatic incentive to ration attention-grabbing activity. Users are their to share their lives and to participate in the lives of others. There exists a huge incentive to focus one’s network on the things that really matter in one’s life and not to drown those moments and memories with trivialities and incessant self-promotion. Facebook does not need pricing to encourage self-regulation: it has self-interest working in lockstep with group-interest.