Finding the Mouse

Cognitive Surplus circles back around to that first video, ending on the story of the little girl looking for the mouse to interact with Dora. “Here’s something four-year-olds know: … media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.” The lure of interactivity is what makes our MMO world so compelling. The gameplay rarely beats what you can get in most single-player games. We are here for the shared world, for each other, and in some cases for the chance to help build that world we share. I hope that we are building a world full of people used to changing the world, although I fear that we are instead conditioning people to expect incremental personal achievement in a world that reverts back the moment you stop paying attention.

: Zubon

Start Small

Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large; people who are fixated on creating large-scale future success can actually reduce the possibility of creating the small-scale here-and-now successes needed to get there. A veritable natural law in social media is that to get to a system that is large and good, it is far better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it bigger than to start with a system that is large and mediocre and working on making it better.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

EVE Online is a good example of the former. I have about a dozen MMO examples of the latter.

: Zubon

Shirky’s Call to Action

The choice we face is this: out of the mass of our shared cognitive surplus, we can create an Invisible University–many Invisible Colleges doing the hard work of creating many kinds of public and civic value–or we can settle for Invisible High School, where we get lolcats but no open source software, fan fiction but no improvement in medical research. The Invisible High School is already widespread, and our ability to participate in ways that reward personal or communal value is in no imminent danger.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

: Zubon

Communities Managing Civic Value

Assumptions that people are selfish can become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating systems that provide lots of individual freedom to act but not a lot of public value or management of collective resources for the greater public good. … Conversely, systems that assume people will act in ways that create public goods, and that give them opportunities and rewards for doing so, often let them work together better than neoclassical economics would predict.

[I]n some cases the group using the resource can manage it better than either the market or the state. Such arrangements among the group often rely on repeated communications and interactions among the participants. [Elinor] Ostrum’s work noted that such shared management often relied on mutually visible action among the participants, credible commitment to the shared goals, and group members’ ability to punish infractions. When these conditions are met, people with the largest stake in the resources can do a better job both in managing the resource and in policing infractions than can markets or government systems designed to accomplish the same goals. [Zubon notes: see also Ronald Coase, both for Coase Theorem and theory of the firm.] … This internalization relies on the finding demonstrated by the Ultimatum Game; namely that people in social circumstances will moderate their behavior to be less selfish.

[P]rior to the present historical generation, motivating unpaid actors to do anything for the civic good was left to governments and nonprofits, themselves institutional actors. Today we can take on some of those problems ourselves, but the more we want to do so at the civic end of the scale, the more we have to bind ourselves to one another to achieve (and celebrate) shared goals.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

: Zubon

Creating Civic Value

These different kinds of participation don’t mean that we should never have lolcats and fan fiction communities–it’s just that anything at the personal and communal end of the spectrum isn’t in much danger of going away, or even of being under-provisioned. It’s hard to imagine a future where someone asks himself, “Where, oh where can I share a picture of my cute kitten?” Almost by definition, if people want that kind of value, it will be there. It’s not so simple with public and especially civic value. As Gary Kamiya has noted of today’s web, “You can always get what you want, but you can’t always get what you need.” The kinds of things we need are produced by groups pursuing public value.

We should care more about public and civic value than about personal or communal value because society benefits more from them, but also because public and civic value are harder to create. The amount of public and civic value we get out of cognitive surplus is an open question, and one strongly affected by the culture of the groups doing the sharing, and by the culture of the larger society that those groups are embedded in. As Dean Kamen, the inventor and entrepreneur puts it, “In a free culture, you get what you celebrate.”
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

: Zubon

Frozen Sharing

Sharing a photo by making it available online constitutes sharing even if no one ever looks at it. This “frozen sharing” creates great potential value. Enormous databases of images, text, videos, and so on include many items that have never been looked at or read, but it costs little to keep those things available, and they may be useful to one person, years in the future. That tiny bit of value may seem too small to care about, but with two billion potential providers, and two billion potential users, tiny value times that scale is huge in aggregate. Much creative energy that was previously personal has acquired a shared component, even if only in frozen sharing.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Our fellow MMO bloggers will be familiar with the phenomenon of getting comments or sudden bursts of hits on old posts. Dig those trailing comment dates as people still reminisce about AC2, wonder what happened at the end of Borderlands, and read your Death Knight leveling guide from 2008. Feel free to comment with a link your favorite “wow, people are still looking at this” post from your site.

: Zubon

From Personal to Civic Value

Increases in personal satisfaction, though, are not all that’s at stake. In terms of social, as opposed to individual, value, we care a lot about how our cognitive surplus gets used. Participating in [crowdsourced crisis information] creates more value for society than participating in [making lolcats]; making and sharing open source software creates value for more people than making and sharing Harry Potter fan fiction. The value from Ushahidi or open source software is more than the sum of the personal satisfactions of the participants; nonparticipants also derive value from the effort. You can think of this scale of value as rising from personal to communal to public to civic.

One such form is personal sharing, done among otherwise uncoordinated individuals; think ICanHasCheezburger. Another, more involved form is communal sharing, which takes place inside a group of collaborators; think Meetup.com groups for post-partum depression. Then there is public sharing, when a group of collaborators actively wants to create a public resource; think the Apache software project [or Wikipedia]. Finally, civic sharing is when a group is actively trying to transform society; think Pink Chaddi. The spectrum from personal to communal to public to civic describes the degree of value created for participants versus nonparticipants.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Our MMO world tends strongly towards communal sharing, where even our public sharing (a wiki for every game) is mostly of value within the community, but see tomorrow’s post about how that value expands.

: Zubon

Read the Wiki, Follow the Guide

Foray’s third condition for combinability is clarity of the knowledge shared. We communicate instructions about cooking in recipe form for a reason: by listing ingredients and ordering instructions in steps, a recipe is clearer than a purely narrative description of how to cook a dish. A rambling description might have the same informational content as a recipe, but the form of a recipe is clearer. As a result, once any field of endeavor acquires something like a recipe–a set of instructions for an activity, separable from the activity itself–it can circulate much more effectively among people who can understand it.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

: Zubon

PUG Life

…the Ultimatum Game has been tried in a variety of different cultures, and it turns out that selfishness and market forces are indeed correlated. The surprise is that they are correlated in the opposite way you might expect. Markets support generous interactions with strangers rather than undermining them. What this means is that the less integrated market transactions are in a given society, the less generous its members will be to one another in anonymous interactions.

Far from being incompatible with communal sharing, exposure to market logic actually increases our willingness to transact generously with strangers, in part because that’s how markets work. When I am selling something, the economic nature of the transaction actually erodes my interest in how (or whether) I know the buyer. The market acquaints people with the utility of making transactions with people you don’t know and with the idea, however implicit, that those transactions are an appropriate way of interacting with strangers.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

PvE MMOs, like markets, teach us to value strangers. Even if you think they are tremendous idiots, they are potentially of value to you. They stock the auction house and buy your stuff. They fill out your groups and rarely do so badly that they cause a wipe. You may have had quite a few random dungeon groups where you won without speaking to some of your teammates. It is hard to prey upon strangers, easy to coordinate with them, hard to suffer much at their hands, and very easy to squelch them if they are problematic. Putting your virtual life in strangers’ hands is just something you do on a daily basis. Jerks are notable rather than the assumed default. The closest we get to “nature, red in tooth and claw” is when many people want to click on the same thing at once.

Plato’s Republic is introduced as an argument against the view that justice is helping your friends and hurting your enemies. Markets (and MMOs) have done more for that view than philosopher-kings ever have, promoting a cosmopolitan perspective that strangers are more likely to be potential partners than threats. Once you are used to the view that you trade value for value, and there is no transaction to be had unless you both value trading/working together over what you can do separately, every transaction is a likely mutually beneficial one (otherwise you would not do it). There are MMOs where you kill anyone who is not obviously part of your alliance, but most of us are self-conditioning to view strangers as neutral-at-worst rather than neutral-at-best.

: Zubon

Self-Selection; Niche

This “go public to find people who think like you” strategy has created an unprecedented increase in the amount of material that is available to the public but not intended for the public — its creators are looking not to reach some generic audience but rather to communicate with their soul mates, often within a sense of shared cultural norms that differ from those of the outside world.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

WoW-blogging is very popular. Our biggest hits lately come from Guild Wars 2 news and exclusives. Meta-MMO blogging has a much smaller target audience of interested parties. Anyone can read it, just like anyone can read your Twilight/Haruhi Suzumiya crossover fanfics, but that is just a device to find the receptive population.

: Zubon