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October 23, 2005

Good News – People are Social Animals

It turns out that we voluntarily do thing we don’t get paid for, even for strangers.  Sometimes we even do good anonymously.  Now go figure.  What a way to screw up the economists’ models.

This aberrant and apparently unmotivated behavior was the subject of lots of discussion at Union Square Ventures Sessions event in New York last week. We were talking about Web 2.0 stuff (aka Bubble 2.0) and voluntary and collaborative behavior are a big part of what’s going on.  Would be nice to know why it’s happening and if it’s going to continue before making any big bets.  Are all the volunteers going to present a bill someday? To whom? How much?

Yochai Yochai Benkler (pictured here) who’s a Law Professor at Yale led off the discussion and pointed out that, within our local communities, volunteer behavior is common and expected.  What’s confounding economists is that it seems to be spreading.  Obviously the urge to help is nothing new.  Imagine the effects of Katrina, or the tsunami, or the earthquake in Pakistan if there weren’t volunteers willing to help and even more people willing to give money.

But why do tens of thousands of people contribute to wikipedia? Many do so anonymously so, for them,  it’s not for glory.  Some are pushing ideas that they have a commercial and emotional stake in; others are correcting obscure facts and inserting commas where they belong.

Having a problem with Vonage? Don’t want to wait on hold for Vonage tech support or hold your breath until an email is returned?  Go the Vonage User Forum.  You may get help from a paid Vonage rep there.  But there’s a very good chance that you’ll get help from a stranger with a strange screen name first.  You’ll never know who that helpful person is.  Could well be a smart ten year old.  But someone who doesn’t know you wants to help you.

Joshua del.icio.us gets its social value from the tags (bookmarks) people put on documents.  Some of this tagging is selfish: I tag documents so I can find them again.  But many taggers apparently tag in order to help other people find relevant documents.  They are putting in more than they are taking out.  Joshua Schachter (pictured here), the founder and CEO of del.icio.us, is both the enabler and beneficiary of this voluntary behavior.

Open source software is largely (but not entirely) about volunteers.

Lat week I blogged about Chris Anderson’s speech in which he talked about amateurs (volunteers) successfully competing with professional writers and journalists.  CNN is soliciting the public for photographs and videos of Hurricane Wilma before it has even reached Florida.  “Be sure not to endanger yourself or anyone else, however,” their lawyers apparently told them to say.

I think the urge to cooperate and contribute to the community is baked into our genes.  Seeing other people acting cooperatively sets off a rush of hormones that makes us want to cooperate as well – and vice versa.  In the old days cooperation was local because local was the only sphere in which most of us could contribute or cooperate. Remember “Think Global, Act Local” bumper stickers?

But on the Internet everything is local.  Anyone who can afford Internet access and has free time can provide volunteer tech support to anyone else worldwide – languages permitting.  Anyone can contribute to wikipedia or wiktionary or add open source software to a collection.  Pretty much anyone can (and does) blog.

So I twisted my beard (pictured below) and decided that we volunteer and act cooperatively on the Internet for no more profound reason than that we can.  We’re programmed to want to help and, given the opportunity, that’s just what we do.  A lot of Web 2.0 is about giving us that opportunity.  There is a profit opportunity in enabling people to do what they want to do.

Michael_2 Consultant Michael Parekh (pictured here) was a Sessions participant.  He’s already blogged a thoughtful piece on who does and who should get paid for “peer production”.

You can read the full transcript of the first part of this discussion here.  You’ll get access to more transcripts and blogs like this one on Sessions topics if you subscribe to this del.icio.us feed http://del.icio.us/rss/tag/usvsessions.

Sitting next to me below is Chris Anderson, Wired Editor In Chief and discoverer of the Long Tail.


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