The Cornucopia of the Commons

Apologies to Dan Bricklin! While chatting with him before doing a podcast interview for his software licensing podcast series, he mentioned that I’ve been <a href="attributing to Clay Shirky one of the seminal insights that has shaped my thinking over the past couple of years, when in fact it came from Dan.


The insight, which Dan outlined in his paper, The Cornucopia of the Commons, is as follows: There are three ways to create a collective work: 1. Pay people. 2. Get volunteers. 3. Architect your product in such a way that people create collective value by pursuing their individual self-interest. By way of example, Yahoo! built their directory using method 1. Many open source projects as well as shared content projects like Wikipedia use method 2. But many of the great successes of the internet age have discovered method 3.

The genius of Napster, for instance, was the simple choice of opt out rather than opt in for the default value of P2P sharing. If you downloaded songs, you automatically served songs as well. This setting meant that people built the network just by using it. Along with Larry Lessig’s book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which emphasized the importance of fundamental architectural decisions in shaping the fate and ultimate direction of technologies, Dan’s essay led me to formulate the idea that the architecture of participation is a fundamental axis on which we ought to evaluate internet-era technology projects.

I made the mistake of confusing Dan’s insights with Clay’s, alas, because both of them made keynote presentations at our P2P Conference in 2001, and both were published as essays in our 2001 book Peer to Peer. Clay’s talk/essay was entitled “Listening to Napster”, a title that echoes Dan’s key point. (I even remember asking Clay about this point, saying I couldn’t find it in the essay but remembered him making it, and he didn’t make the connection either.) Oh well, Clay is the Oscar Wilde of the tech generation, so I’ll just have to excuse myself by echoing a remark from celebrated wit Dorothy Parker: “I never try to take the credit. We just assume that Oscar said it.”