Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Information: public good and private good (Identity mashup Day 2)

So I just got an insight from the Trust, Fairness and Sanctions in Digital Communities session that I think we need to think through in creating a reputation system on GlobalGiving. (Our first experiments around that are around the feedback systems we created for progress reports by project leaders.)

There was a short back and forth amongst the panelists about the value of information that is widely available vs. known only to a few. Judith suggested that information widely known is not as valuable--and Bill suggested that actually the opposite was true. I think it actually comes down to the type of information we're talking about. Judith was probably thinking about the point she made yesterday, about fashion being a signal of access to information--in this context, it's really clear that the more people have access to this type of information, the less valuable it becomes. ("Oh that was so yesterday, everyone is wearing/listening to/watching it now.")

But some information, e.g., the knowledge that washing hands can prevent cholera, has public and private dimensions that actually change over time depending on how widely the information is shared. So to play out this exapmple further, here's what happens to the information about handwashing and cholera. When cholera is running rampant, there is huge private value in knowing that handwashing helps to prevent your catching cholera--you benefit personally from this information. And in addition to the absolute good of not catching cholera, you could also get additional satisfaction of surviving when others do not (there's a lot of literature in economics recently about a phenomenon that us ex-Sovietologists pondered for a long time, which is that people are happy when they are relatively better off than others).

As the information about handwashing and cholera becomes more widely shared, though, you get the public good emerging, which is that cholera becomes less prevalent, and the odds of your catching cholera (and that your obsessive handwashing helps keep cholera at bay) comes down. The public good has increased, the private good goes down.

Now not all information is like that, but I think Judith had a good thought that there probably is a taxonomy of information that can help us sort through the different implications of the private vs. public value of information ...

And that ties nicely into the conversation that Eli(zabeth) and I were having last night about whether project leaders should have control over what they reveal about themselves, and the reliability of self-reported information. I think the bottom line question for this is whether the information has any public good aspect that might override the private good of the project leader.

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