Monday, 2 March 2009

Playing Nice For the Wrong Reasons

We were sold the story of being mainly self-interested, mainly rational actors interacting in market places. And the internet has shown that we have all these social, empathetic relationships with deep, authentic motivations that are nothing to do with selling and spending.

Clay Shirky

The Observer, Sunday 15 February 2009

One hears this sentiment a lot these days, particularly from American web pundits. It sounds like a lingering echo of the utopianist strains of early web propaganda; it's a rhetorical move positioning the web as a signal force in a new flourishing of hierarchy-smashing communitarianism against the old alienating and atomizing intellectual myths of “maximization” and “rationality.” The idea's intellectual sources include the recent widely touted corrections (e.g. behavioral economics) of some of the excesses of neo-classical economics and possibly the U.S. sociological tradition stemming from “functionalism.”

Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly that we often cooperate or collaborate on the web out of more or less benevolent – if not truly altruistic – impulses. But it’s also obvious that “deep, authentic motivations” aren’t the only incentives for acting in, or even just joining, groups. Significant “shallow” and “inauthentic” motivations impact social behavior as well. “Ignoble” motivations like esteem accumulation and status achievement – which are both distinct from reputation – significantly impact people’s behavior in social settings. Indeed, much of the functionality on the social web already has an esteem function baked into its primary or legitimate function. As a simple example, posting reviews is as much about displaying expertise or simple likes and dislikes as it is about helping others choose. As a rule, people genuinely like to play nice and help each other. But they’ll play nicer and help more if you also let them compete for group defined goods that are neither “authentic” nor “deep.”

Sticking with Clay Shirky, in his latest book he recognizes that there is a place for some sorts of less than noble rewards online. For example, he considers “vanity” and reputational benefit to be valid motivations for contribution. But the mention of reputation notwithstanding, he focuses on intrinsic, non-material motivations like self-esteem, the desire to produce something good and the need for communion. What he doesn’t talk about are the powerful extrinsic, non-material motivations involving the attention of and positive evaluation by others in your group. You contribute partly for the esteem your contribution can get you. And this holds true even if the esteeming group is minuscule. Indeed, it’s often the case that the smaller the esteeming group, the more valuable the esteem (“selling out” after all is the trading of esteem for popularity).

If we’re honest with ourselves, it seems pretty clear that some of our motivations for social interaction on the web (and elsewhere) are self-interested, operate by some sort of market principles and are neither authentic nor empathetic. We engage in behavior that is intended to "maximize" some in demand good – esteem – relative to the costs we're willing to bear. Other things equal, the greater the potential esteem the more cost we're willing to bear. Esteem seeking definitely isn't ideally authentic behavior: you can get it only to the extent that it’s not apparent – to yourself or others – that you’re actively seeking it. And although esteem seeking involves empathy – it assumes taking the point of view of others in order to determine the most estimable move – it’s not an “empathetic” motivation in the laudatory sense intended by Shirky. But, of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t genuinely like helping and hanging out with others. It just means we have both sorts of motivations.

Shirky clearly recognizes this fact since he qualifies the whole thing with "mainly." Most likely, he just wants to make the point that we often act socially for the non-optimizing, genuinely pro-social reasons we say we act. Our actions are generally genuine and not cynical. But this is the tricky part: I don’t think that recognizing the importance of esteem to most contributors automatically commits us to cynicism. Furthermore I don't think that the distinction between Shirky's "good" motivations and my market-like esteem considerations is all that clear and easy to maintain in the first place. Esteem, like self-interest generally, is what Philip Pettit and Geoffrey Brennan call a standby or virtual cause of behavior. It’s not what’s directly sought from your actions, but if esteem wasn’t provided, you’d be less likely to behave that way. It’s a bias that steers us rather than an explicit principle that guides us. Esteem – the positive evaluations of others by the norm-based standards of whatever reference group you’re using – is the emotionally powerful implicit incentive within social groups that maintains conformity while allowing constant competitive evolution. Seeking it isn’t necessarily cynical, rather it's inextricably woven into group-focused behavior.

Why on earth are we so afraid of “rational motivations” that we have to banish them almost completely from talk of group action online? Beats me. Anyway, as someone who has to design interaction spaces online I think it’s dogmatic, maybe even superstitions, to think that esteem motivations are somehow less real or powerful because “inauthentic” and self-serving. After all, in public goods experiments, we are shown to be conditionally cooperative, meaning that we cooperate with a self-serving bias. If norms of cooperation or reciprocation aren’t sufficiently salient or aren’t otherwise maintained, we tend to stop playing nice and settle for getting all we can. The desire for esteem and status can actually get people to observe and stabilize cooperative norms for purely self-centered reasons; they’re self-serving incentives for pro-social behavior . We should design accordingly.

In the next couple of posts I’ll look more closely at esteem seeking, Shirky’s book and the popular bias against instrumental motivations online. I’ll use the example of the development of the Linux operating system to illustrate the distinction between two different versions of social capital as well as two different takes on the free rider problem. Of course, both of them will utilize the idea of esteem along with Bourdieu’s idea of the “economy of symbolic goods.”

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