A lot of attention has been paid to the recent action by Twitter to permanently ban (exclude) a sitting President of the
United States of America. However, as is so often the case, everyone seems to be missing the vastly more intriguing bigger picture here. To an objective observer, what is most interesting about Twitter’s banning of President Trump is the fascinating case study this action represents in terms of the “tragedy of the commons“.
For a bit of background, the tragedy of the commons is a concept first introduced by William Forster Lloyd in 1833. Lloyd was an English economist and he released a pamphlet where, per Wikipedia, “he postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.”
A “common” in this context refers to public land that is free for anyone to use. Lloyd’s concept was resurrected in 1968 by Garrett Hardin’s article “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The name stuck. Since Hardin’s article, the concept has been applied to anthropology, economics, environmental science evolutionary psychology, game theory, politics, sociology and taxation. In short, one can sum up the tragedy of the commons as a situation where individual users deplete or spoil a shared resource by acting contrary to the common good and in their own self interests.
Now, over the years, there have been attempts to apply the tragedy of the commons to the digital world with varying degrees of success. The arguments tend to fall along the lines of overuse of digital resources causing pollution in the physical environment or a “pollution” of information causing things like misinformation, crime, terrorism, confusion, manipulation, etc. We have actually argued similar things when discussing open source here and here. And that goes as far back as 2008. What can we say? We’re brilliant and way ahead of our time like that. Can’t argue with awesome.
Back patting aside, we would argue that Twitter banning President Trump is a fantastic example of a digital, tragedy of the commons. To understand why this is the case, however, we need to define what it means to “consume” Twitter, demonstrate how Twitter can be classified as a “common good” and exactly how this common good “failed”. Let’s get to it.
OK, consumption. To fully “consume” Twitter (participate) you need to be able to read and be able to post. Only being able to read Twitter is akin to only being able to look at the scenery of some common land but be unable to graze your cattle on it. If you are unable to fully utilize a common resource, then that does not count as true consumption.
OK, Twitter as a common good. In the interests of not having to write an entire treatise on economic theory let’s summarize. Goods are either private, club, common or public. Goods are classified into these categories based upon their degree of excludability and rivalry. Excludability is the degree to which something is limited to only paying customers. Rivalrous and non-rivalrous pertain to the degree to which consumption reduces the ability of others to consume the resource. Common goods tend to be non-excludable and rivalrous.
Is Twitter non-excludable? Sure, up until they banned President Trump for life, Twitter was very much non-excludable. Anyone with Internet access was free to read and tweet on Twitter. Is Twitter rivalrous or non-rivalrous? Eh, that’s more of a gray area. One could argue that Twitter is rivalrous, non-rivalrous or even anti-rivalrous. Again, in the interests of not having to write a treatise on the subject, it’s somewhere on the spectrum of rivalry, meaning that there are at least some aspects of rivalry that fit the attributes of a common good. For example, once a username is claimed on Twitter, no one else can use that same username. Also, it is not zero cost for Twitter to scale as consumption increases. Those are examples of Twitter being rivalrous.
OK, so Twitter can reasonably be thought of as a common good. Sure, it’s an arguable point. One could also reasonably make the case for Twitter as a public good or, less likely, a club good. But, again, without authoring a treatise on the subject, we think that the definition of Twitter as a common good is best.
So, how did Twitter “fail” in a manner consistent with the tragedy of the commons? Well, the short answer is President Trump. By permanently banning President Trump, Twitter voluntarily threw the switch between non-excludable to excludable. Thus, Twitter effectively failed as this once common good suddenly became most decidedly excludable and thus no longer a common good. In other words, the self interests of a single individual “spoiled” the common good and thus Twitter #failed as a common good and became yet another victim of the tragedy of the commons.
Let’s review, the tragedy of the commons is a situation where individual users deplete or spoil a shared resource by acting contrary to the common good and in their own self interests. President Trump acted in his own self interests to such a degree that he caused Twitter to become exclusionary versus non-exclusionary. While perhaps not an “according to Hoyle” tragedy of the commons, this is still an example of commons collapse disorder. We just made that up. But anyway, that is why this case is so fascinating, this episode demonstrates that “over consumption” is not the only way in which a tragedy of the commons event can occur, which is wild.
If you think we here at The Objective Observer are crazy. Rest assured, we are not the only ones that think in these terms. There is an amazing article in The Hill that came out while we were still in the process of writing and editing this article. The article argues that Twitter and Facebook need to become nationalized public goods. The article doesn’t mention tragedy of the commons by name, but if Twitter and Facebook; the same logic holds for Facebook as well, had succeeded as common goods and not victimized themselves via self-inflicted tragedy of the commons, then you wouldn’t need to nationalize them in order to fix them. Both Twitter and Facebook have failed as common goods because they have firmly crossed over the line from non-excludable to excludable and thus, by definition, can no longer be considered common goods.
And, just to wrap this up, there is an element of irony here. There can be no question that President Trump’s use of Twitter greatly benefitted the platform. President Trump was a marketing gold mine, constantly keeping Twitter relevant and in the news. Tremendous irony then that Twitter chose to commit “Suicide of the Commons”, effectively killing themselves as a common good, over this one “selfish” consumer.