Comedy of the Commons


The Comedy of the Commons is an economic concept, developed as an opposite model to the tragedy of the commons (where individuals acting in their own self interest cooperatively deplete a shared resource, to the detriment of the group). In the ‘comedy’ individuals contribute knowledge and content for the good of the community rather than extracting resources for their own personal gain. Examples of this are free and open source software and Wikipedia. This phenomenon is linked to ‘viral’ effects and increases in prominence as individuals contribute altruistically and for social gain. The term appears to have originated in any essay by Yale law professor Carol M. Rose in 1986.

This outcome is more likely when the cost of the contribution is much less than its value over time. Information has this property. For example, it costs very little for a Wikipedia contributor to enter knowledge from their experience into Wikipedia’s servers, and very little for Wikipedia to serve that information over and over again to readers, generating great value over time. Unlike the pasture of a physical commons, information isn’t degraded by use. Thus the value of Wikipedia increases over time, attracting more readers of whom some become contributors, forming a virtuous cycle.

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