Just over a decade ago as social media tools started to go mainstream, with blogs, Twitter and Facebook, they were touted to be saviours and purveyors of democracy. A new and open world would rise and shine. Each social media service that launched seemed to promise some kind of cool new interaction.
Today, it seems they have tapped into a global undercurrent of aggressive toxic masculinity, enabled surveillance states, been compromised by competing political ideologies and caused a whole new degree of social angst.
Much of this can be attributed to one causal factor that plays out across any social network. It’s known as “the tragedy of the commons.” It happens to ALL social networks and it’s a problem none have figured out how to solve.
In summary (via Wikipedia): “The tragedy of the commons is a term used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource systems where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary for the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action” in more apt terms for social media, it refers to everyone having equal access to a platform. Some call it the “tragedy of open access systems.”
Take for example, Twitter, open to anyone and now battling both the issue of “fake news” as well as cyberbullying and trolls. Or Facebook dealing with “fake news” as well. In less nasty terms, LinkedIn which is supposed to be a place for business discussions, yet some share their newborn baby’s picture. And increasingly, aggressive political views.
There is a second tension at play here; the purpose for which the social network was designed. Twitter, again, for example, was supposed to be a tool for ambulance paramedics to communicate faster and easier with hospital ER facilities. But This is secondary to the tragedy of the commons.
A social network could fight it, but it would take draconian measures and likely cost eyeballs, which means less clicks and that means less advertising revenue. LinkedIn could deploy a Machine Learning tool that automatically deletes baby pictures. Facebook tried this with nudity, to poor effect.
The overall effect of the tragedy of the commons hasn’t taken down a social network yet. It may never, but it will always impact the promise of the platform made to those it tries to attract. It may also alter the course and use of the platform. As a result the platform may evolve into something entirely different from that which was intended. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, especially if it then becomes more monetizable and consumers perceive greater value than before. As is the case with Twitter.
The tragedy of the commons has crept into every single social media tool ever created. Not a single one has stopped it entirely. The impact varies by platform. Often, any correction that happens is the result of the community teaching other users the social norms that are acceptable on a particular platform. In sub-networks, like Reddit and other forums, this can be quite effective as they are smaller groups (mostly) and therefore rules can be ore easily applied and governed.
Any startup looking to create some new form of social network should take into account that the tragedy of the commons will absolutely happen. How, when and the form it takes can’t really be determined, but it can be monitored and possible deflectors and mitigators put in place as it happens. Usually though, that is better left to the users who will naturally make others aware of acceptable norms and behaviours.
Startups should think about this factor, as well as the type of system they are building, how the tragedy of commons impacts feedback loops and can impact the value proposition which guides the promise consumers expect from a social network.