Section 4

Artefacts as Public Goods and Generalised Exchange

By the nature of the mode of communication, CMC has been said to have changed "the costs and benefits of social action"[1]. Messages sent to a CoP are sent to the public domain and become community artefacts, and thus public goods, through interactions by participants taking part in "interactive broadcasting"[2]; once received they can be forwarded on to one and sundry. This has been described as a "gift economy, in which help and information is offered without the expectation of any direct, immediate quid pro quo"[3].

The concept of gift differs from the traditional economic viewpoint of commercial transfer of goods: "gift economies are driven by social relations whilst commodity economies are driven by price"[4]. Such an economy built on 'generalised exchange'[5] is also one employing social capital ("the ability of people to work for common purposes in groups or organizations"[6]) and relies on participants to offer up information to the CoP (and beyond) without the expectation of immediate reciprocal return on their investment of time and effort. There is, however, a trusted relationship between the individual and CoP by way of ethos that implies that at some point in the future they may well themselves be the beneficiary of this 'generalised exchange' system by virtue of their own contribution(s) motivating others.

This can be illustrated by personal experience: in December 2001 I sent a message to the CI discussion list asking if anyone had personally archived the messages of a particular thread which had been posted during the first quarter of the year. Normally the messages are automatically archived by the list software and viewable through a web page but the hard disks holding the archives had crashed making them inaccessible. Within a few days I had received several emails (off the list) with offers of help, encouragement and the relevant messages themselves from unknowns and one person I had actually met in person on placement! I had included a comment to a post of a few hours before which I perceived to be related to the subject I was looking for; whilst my comments might have prompted more replies to my request than a request by itself may have, this shows how far the reach of this concept of generalised exchange goes. I also see it as an analogy of how a distributed community memory works. After Newell and Simon[7]: although both external (list archives) and short-term memory (my archives, and certainly those of others) had failed, access to distributed long-term memory (those with archives who responded) provided the desired results.

From its conception until it runs dry, a thread is developed through the process of the multilogue. An artefact as the product of this process may not exist as anything other than a thread of multiple messages, rather than a single explicit articulated statement or synthesis, or even as a changed cognitive state by whose process an individual's or CoP's 'prior knowledge and expectations' has been augmented. Being broadcast to the community and being developed by the participation of its members, it follows that this is a public artefact or, as Kollock suggests, a 'public good'[8]. He characterises such a good as being a) nonrival: that its consumption by one leaves 'enough and as good'[9] for another: its original state remains undiminished, and b) nonexcludable: to a degree, it is impossible for others to stop others from using and benefiting from it. Information in the digitised form in which it is communicated through the interactions of the CoP is intrinsically nonrival: as a digital object it can be read over and over again; multiple copies can be made and distributed without ever unintentionally reducing its parts or whole. Furthermore, messages broadcast over the network to a CoP are in the public domain, recipients cannot be prevented from forwarding a message outside of the list. Moreover, they often coexist as externalised and distributed memory of the CoP in list and personal archives.

Kollock (1999) goes on to describe how recent ICT developments have influenced reductions in the cost of producing public goods, increases in their perceived value, and improvements in the production function of the public good. Following Moore's Law, the costs associated with the creation, development and distribution of digital public goods will continue to decrease. The resulting increase in the diffusion of ICT has seen a growth in the potential audience of public goods and thus potential co-creators and beneficiaries, who are still coming to realise the potential for cooperative and coordinated group action. The reproduction function refers to the amount of people required or who participate in producing a public good in proportion to the amount of public good produced. This could be viewed in the context of Mackay's Conditional Probability Matrix referred to earlier in that, in relation to its selected domain (audience), the effect the selective information content (of the public good) has is the change brought about in the cognitive state of the recipient(s). CMC, with its global reach, has seen the number of people needed to produce a public good reduce to just one. Thus, with the decrease in costs involved in producing a public good, the potential of the scale of its impact has seen a dramatic increase in the efficiency of its production function.

There are, inevitably, limitations in the extent to which public goods as community artefacts can be beneficial. Whilst there is an undefined potential audience of beneficiaries of a public good, its existence per se does not guarantee an audience outside of a CoP. Also, the 'social dilemma' is overcome only when the individual aligns himself with the ethos of the CoP. Finally, Kollock uses the analogy of 'lowest hanging fruit'[10] to refer to the phenomena of digital public good creation: the supply of "interesting digital goods that can be provided by single individuals whilst ignoring duller, more complex, but no less useful public goods"[11]. He predicts, however, that further cost reductions will make more 'low hanging fruit' available, thereby increasing the frequency of selective information content broadcasts.



1.Kollock (1999), p.221.

2.Etzioni (1999).

3.Attributed to Rheingold in Kollock (1999), p.220.

4.Kollock (1999), p.222.

5.Attributed to Ekeh by Kollock (1999), p.222.

6.Coleman in Fukuyama (1995), p.10.

7.In Davis (1987), p.241.

8.Kollock (1999), p.223.

9.Part of the Lockean proviso alluded to by Volkman (2001).

10.Kollock (1999), p.235.