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The Tragedy of the Electronic Commons

By Howard Rheingold

When two attorneys enraged millions of Internet users by publishing identical advertisements on six thousand unique network discussions known as "newsgroups," they were attacking a tradition of cooperation. Now the same attorneys are flogging a book and trying to convince readers of op-ed articles that they have been the victims of elitist attacks by Internet intellectuals who oppose honest business on the Net. Citizens on and off the Internet need to understand exactly how these hucksters are trying to deceive us, before we lose a precious resource.

For many people, these thousands of newsgroups have constituted a worldwide, multimillion member, collective thinktank, available twenty-four hours a day to answer any question from the trivial to the scholarly. If you have a question about sports statistics, scientific knowledge, technical lore -- anything -- someone has the answer. This magical knowledge-multiplying quality comes from the voluntary effort of many people who freely contribute expertise. That power of a large group of people to act as a thinktank for each other is vulnerable to misuse. A small number of malefactors can mess up a good thing for a large number of cooperative citizens.

The network is valuable because it helps us filter information. A raw flow of unrelated information is no good if you have to sift through a thousand irrelevant items to find the one you need. Computers can organize information, even the kind that accumulates through informal discussions. Newsgroups enable people all over the world to have conversations about topics of mutual interest, and to search those conversations for valuable information -- a computer-assisted knowledge-gathering agreement that benefits everyone. If you want to discuss or find out about pedigreed dogs or semiconductors, the vast but organized conversation makes it possible for you to read only the newsgroups devoted to the topics that interest you.

Out of more than six thousand different newsgroups there are probably a few whose readers might be interested in the services those attorneys offered. But when they deliberately attached their message to every newsgroup (a practice known on the Net as "spamming"), they diminished the value of the Net. If every newsgroup becomes a hodgepodge of advertisements along with the freely exchanged information and conversation, then it no longer makes sense to have six thousand newsgroups, and every person who uses the Net loses the ability to filter information that way. What if you went to your traditional mailbox every day and found one letter and two bills buried under sixty thousand pieces of junk mail -- postage due?

For hundreds of years, herders grazed their cattle and sheep on common land. As long as no individual tried to graze too many cattle, everybody benefitted from the common resource. When too many people asserted their self-interest above the interest of the commons, overgrazing destroyed the value of the common land. Biologist Garrett Hardin described this catastrophe as "the tragedy of the commons."

The lawyers' actions conveyed the message that their personal commercial ambitions were more important than the value of the commons. And that is the message they have been preaching -- get yours while you can, and ignore the protests of those who value the online culture of information-sharing. If these carpetbaggers prove successful, will others follow? How far can a network of cooperative agreements be pushed by the self-interest of individuals before it loses its value? When a flood of irrelevant announcements swamps newsgroups and mailing lists, what will happen to the support networks for cancer patients and Alzheimers' caregivers?

Next week: The Net Strikes Back.

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Copyright 1994, Howard Rheingold