Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
13 min read

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(C)2005 K Bjorke

While the flow of published entries on photorant has been slow for the past few weeks, there’s still been some writing going on — writing that has stayed in draft form until either the ideas shape up or I have the time to beat the shape into them. This is one of a couple of rambles that arc tangentially off group discussions from flickr.

You may consider it incoherent babble, that’s fine. Feel free to tell me so.

A perennial topic on flickr forums (and other community sites, like is the question of “how do you choose what to post?” a question which seems to inevitably lead to a split of the participants into two camps: those who wish everyone would post far less, and those who claim that the internet is a free medium, it’s a free country, and doggone it they paid their $40 to have the right to upload as much as they darned well please. Both sides have a point, and they are both arguing from a stance of self-interest. Which makes me think of flickr etc. in economic terms, very much like a farming-town commons, as in Gerald Hardin’s well-known theorem: “the tragedy of the commons.”

(The short version of the theorem: the “tragedy of the commons” is a description of what might happen to a village which operates a communal pasture or “commons.” If each villager acts entirely out of self-interest, those who raise the most cattle on the land will gain the most, even though the village as a whole manages the pasture. There is an incentive to consume more than “your fair share.” If the pasture is overgrazed by too many cattle, then the entire commons may become useless — everyone suffers a long-term harm for the sake of the short-term gain of a few, whose greed destroyed a shared and finite resource)

The growth of technology makes it easy to ignore the principles of Hardin’s tragedy. Bandwidth keeps increasing; the ability to export text, images, videos, and more becomes simpler; the disk space to store it all expands faster than it can be filled. If the resource grows faster than it’s consumed, then the tragedy can’t take hold (in fact, the “tragedy of the anticommons” is an expression used when resources are mistakenly under-utilized).

The technological infrastructure, however, is not the shared, common, finite resource that we need to worry about fatiguing. The finite resource is your time. And my time.

If you get 150 RSS notifications about blog posts and photos in a single afternoon, and 140 of them are disposable and time-wasting, how many are you likely to look at? 150 at first, but when it becomes clear that the efficiency of the exercise is less than 10%, there’s a strong chance that you’ll come to spend your eye time elsewhere entirely. At that point, the over-grazing of the fixed resource — your eyeballs — has eliminated the chance for any of those RSS senders to actually show you anything good.

The pattern is not unlike spam — a small number of email users, acting out of self-interest, massively over-use the features of the internet, a resource whose cost is borne by all users. The net result is that all users end up losing mail to less-than perfect spam filters, or giving up on email entirely after a few bad experiences with their children receiving grotesque bestiality pron. Everyone loses for the limited benefit of a greedy minority. And ironically, the valu e of spam address databases declines the more they are used and over-used. When spam was rare, its efficiency — the rate at which people actually read and responded — was much higher.

Too often flickr, blogs, photoblogs, and other web-based media emphasize quantity over all other considerations. It seems humans just can’t get enough numbers, they must continually keep a quantifiable score: whose photo has the most comments, which blog has the most posts, which group has the most members (“‘B&W’ has 1300 members while ‘monochrome’ has only 75! ‘B&W’ must be way better!” — when in fact the two groups have almost identical image feeds). Everywhere numbers, churning like a grand stock market. Who contributed the most pics to the group pool? Which tag has been used more than any other? While these quantizations have some use, it seems inescapable that the metrics eventually become the goal.

Yet even as users spend more time posting more material, they are reducing their own contribution to that fixed resource. If you are on flickr for 40 minutes and spend 30 of them uploading, tweaking tags, and sending to groups, and then ten minutes looking at the tip of the iceberg from your contacts’ photos, then you have contributed more to the supply than the demand. The valuation goes down for everyone.

Now this is old territory for regular photorant readers — the armchair analysis of web-value economics has been mentioned in posts like this one. But if we accept an analysis in “tragedy” terms, is it possible that solutions to the problems it creates might likewise be similar? Because many solutions to the “tragedy” problem exist.

An obvious solution is to restrict access. In the specific case of flickr, groups can be invite-only or may otherwise restrict membership — and a group may not accept posts (or even sometimes be viewed) without such a priori vetting. This method tries to improve the signal-to-noise ration through elitism — decried as snobbery by some but applauded as forward-thinking protection of long-term communal interest by others. Such restrictions can likewise be created among blogs via blogrings and other associations; or simply through obscurity, e.g. such under-populated but content-richer flickr groups like staged portratiture or painted self-portraits. In such groups the barriers to conceptual entry are high enough to stave-off casual abusers.

Rules can be instituted, either informally (as on flickr groups whose admins may ask members not to post more than, say, three or four images a day) or formally (as on contaxg, where the software can actually enforce such a restriction). Exclusionary tactics work to a degree, but they do flow against the “something for everyone” promise of the web and the “personal publishing revolution” we keep hearing about.

What the web doesn’t yet seem to have realized is some sort of transactional system of limitation. Hardin suggested the solution to “tragedy” problems (such as global overpopulation) was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” which seems to me like just pushing the problem back a notch — doesn’t the mutual coercion itself become a new sort of communal resource? Given the inevitable imbalances in ability to coerce, doesn’t it imply that those who might coerce the most would have the most to gain? Historical high points like the guillotine and Stalinism both started from an ideology of avid fraternité and comradeship.

Of course, the capacity for coercion on the internet is somewhat limited. We can guard our own borders: Bayesian anti-spam filtering, blacklists and whitelists — but to directly corce or deny service to another user is just plain illegal (and close to impossible, as the international community has discovered when trying to squash the proliferation of sites owned by, say , Al Quaeda).

One form of coercion that does seem to have impact (though still not absolute) is the inertia of branding. It’s tough today to start a news service when brandnames like already dominate that space. Internet-specific brands like dpreview and wonkette have real clout. And brands that extend beyond the net, like CNN’s, carry very big sticks indeed.

This has been one of the negative ramifications of the past weekend’s KRON blogger meetup — KRON’s promise to run a directory and aggregator of Bay Area blogs. This is a space already occupied SF Bay Bloggers, operated for the past couple of years just a couple of yards away from my desk by Courtney. KRON, with its broad public familiarity (within the Bay Area, at least), has the potential to up-end the apple cart, re-defining the local blog map at its whim due to the marketable power of its name.

Similarly, KRON’s announcement of a bay-wide aggregator has the potential coercive power of the editor’s pen. To centralize the regional blogosphere, to run TV adverts to draw away the fixed resource — public attention — to KRON’s own site (and, one assumes, its advertisers) at the expense of the health of the local blogging community is a very real danger. KRON may not even perceive its own actions as being counter to the nature of blogging. Blogging gets its character from eclecticism and individuality. To choose what to aggregate and declare it as “representative” functions not just to promote a few voices, but also to extinguish others.

Back in the late 1950’s, British economist Ronald Coase came up with a possible counteracting force to some of these effects. The Coase Theorem suggests that markets (including the web) should naturally balance themselves because interested parties will bargain privately to resolve such “externalities” — side effects.

But Coase theorem requires something few bloggers and flickerati consider much — clear-cut property rights. The only property rights a blog or a flickr poster has, ultimately, are the ownership of their intellectual property in terms of copyright. Yet it has become fashionable for citizen web posters (bloggers and the like) to discard the exercisability of this right, encouraging the use of public domain and open content licensing terms. Meanwhile corporations have simultaneously been busily lobbying the government for ever-more restrictive and long-lived copyrights whose beneficiaries are not creators but distributors, such as Disney’s extension of Mickey’s copyright and the RIAA’s riding herd on the DMCA. One doesn’t hear about open-license Hillary Duff movies.

While bloggers’ use of licenses like those of the Creative Commons encourage some kinds of sharing, the boat may run aground if mainstream media makes a move on open content — the force of corporate branding may overwhelm the benefits of retaining control over your intellectual property. If content can’t be used without cost by a corporate site, they simply won’t use it — but their grip on the public’s limited resource of time may mean that intellectual property that can’t be freely attached for profit is automatically marginalized. Something of a paradox, and one that was left un-addressed when KRON described their aggregation scheme, one that would clearly fall within the realm of commercial use, if material appears on their site. Will they just ignore what they can’t freely acquire?

Can individual bloggers et al use their one tool of “mutual coercion” — copyright — to assert themselves? Time will tell. But it seems clear that a common resource — creativity — stands to be unduly consumed for the benefit of a few corporate opportunists. The trend, across mainstream media, is already clear — what creators make is worth less than the right to control and distribute, and corporate lobbying of copyright law shows that media companies intend to make that legally enforceable.

Back to the problem of flickr glut. How can it be combatted? A transactional model may be something worth pursuing, and thus far the one I’m imagining is one I haven’t seen on the web.

It seems to me that web sharing ought to do more to recognize the value of both parties who share — the party who provides material on the web (pictures, writing, flash animations, etc) and the value of looking at it. While it’s rare in the regular day-to-day world for an artist to actually pay someone to look at their art (an obvious exception might be vanity book publishers), we do have the notion in the language: WORTHWHILE.

When something presented to you is “worth your while,” you have the expectation that you will gain as much from seeing it as the creator gets from presenting it to you. It’s currently difficult to filter out the worthwhile from the less-than-worthwhile, but perhaps that should not be so. It’s possible to think of a few models.

Those models could be based on explicit ratings, on implicit ratings from favorites lists and tags, on blacklisting and squelching (preferably with expiration dates) — all of which have been tried in one form or another. What about TRADE?

Imagine a flickr-like system (or perhaps just a “gated area” in such a system — not just for images but any media type) where you could upload all you want, but you had to earn the right to post your stuff in a group pool. What would that mean, if the riht to publish was not entirely free (even if the cost was marginal)? If you were given an allowance of, say, two posts per day, where would you spend them? How about an allowance of one? Or less? If you could save your allocations from day to day, how would you manage them? What if you couldn’t save them? What if you could trade them with another user? What would you trade them for? And what might you do to “create wealth” — that is, what service could you provide beyond your postings to expand the overall number of posts? Could thoughtful reviews and comments be worth the right to post more often? To distribute more widely? Could such rights be simply purchased with plain old cash, either to the service company or even on occasion to individual viewers?

It’s possible that a self-restricting system would fail, probably due to being cheaply “bled” by external sites linking into it, subverting it for the sake of high volume. But volume would not be the goal, though it’s easier to measure then the quality and value of content.

What would be the incentive to self-interest for posters? The value of an involved audience, who would need to be more than anonymous click-through viewers. And the incentive for the viewers? They would know that the posters were actually working for their audience, rather than just bombarding it. There would be prestige value in being active as either party, and that in itself could be an exercise in self-interest.

Followup: June 16, 2005

On reflection, the last part of this post suggests a museum-style model for a web site. Like a regular museum, it is hard to get your material into, but (in the case of large museums) is central to a community. What public web galleries don’t have, that real-world galleries do have, is a curator. When you go to the met, it’s not with the assumption that you will hang your own paintings there at will (with one recent famous exception — which thankfully has not (yet) spawned a copycat meme).

Curation has its own problems, of course — most-notoriously the one that curators, being human, will inevitably slide towards actions and selections that will serve their own best interests.

Some museums have web sites themselves, but few (any?) museum web sites seem to go after the notion of serving a web community. They always are, at their core, a brick-and-mortar enterprise.

Another alternative is the stock house model. This seems to exist for visual art (primarily photos, but also illustration like clip art). Like a museum there is some vetting of work, but usually that primarily involves a particular artist signing a distribution contract with a particular agency. Then the agency has a financial interest in making sure that once artist “A” has shown them work they think will sell, that such work get shown to as many potential buyers as possible. For a potential buyer, the agency’s web site is more than a bit like flickr’s image collection — keyword searchable, full of lots of thumbnails, and for those who want to see more images more clearly, the option to pay for what they see. So the element of “trade” is quite evident — it’s the dominant purpose of the site.

The standards of “quality” tend to be quite high. What’s absent, again, is any notion of community, or discussion. What’s also lacking is an interest in imagery that’s likely to veer too far from what’s considered commercially viable. While there are certainly exceptions but in general the flavor is… generic. For every VII there are couple of dozen agencies selling the standard “designer-friendly” fare: people in suits talking on the phone, images of dollar signs and city skylines and many, many fluffy white clouds.

And yes, I know about Delete Me.

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