Thursday, January 15, 2009

Putting a price on your social network

Edward Castronova is an inspiration to many of us interested in virtual worlds and MMORPGs. He set the tone for much of the research in this field with his classic 2001 paper on the economy of Everquest and his book Synthetic Worlds. I'm not such a fan of his later work, but that's beside the point. Ted decided about a week ago to put his theory on virtual economies to work by announcing that he would start using Serios. The Serio is a virtual currency that can be attached to e-mail messages. It’s a product of Seriosity, Byron Reeves’ company. The economic principle behind it is that Serios are scarce (as is attention), so the more Serios I attach to a message, the more important it is to me. The receiver - who is assumed to attach value to this virtual currency as well - will read the messages with the most Serios attached first and may even ignore the ones without Serios. Ted announced that he "will not be responding to emails that have no Serios attached." See his complete announcement and the reasoning behind it on Terra Nova.

The principle seems elegant enough at first glance, but Castronova's announcement drew massive criticism. There were two main points made by the detractors, one practical and one more fundamental. The practical problem was that Serios only work with the Microsoft Outlook client. So Mac and Linux users complained that they were now automatically cut off. The fundamental problem was best described by Randy Farmer (himself a virtual world pioneer as the co-designer of Habitat in the 1980s) in comments to Castronova's post on Terra Nova. What his point boils down to is this: I have invested time and energy in building a social relationship with you and now you are going to throw that out the window and are making me pay for your attention. I don't think so. Quote: "You can view this as success (you'll now get less email) or failure (you've burned pile of professional reputation), your choice."

After trying to argue his case - using an ill-founded metaphor involving the role of gifts in social relations, which was adequately refuted by Thomas Malaby - Castronova caved with his announcement on Terra Nova yesterday that he would go back to trying to read all e-mails, not just the ones with Serios attached.

This post may come across like a case of schadenfreude, but that is not what I am trying to express here. I honestly applaud Edward Castronova for initiating this public experiment. And especially for sharing his rationale and the outrage it created and for admitting it didn't work. A seemingly sympathetic idea turned out to have many pitfalls. Trial-and-error, this is how we learn.

Ted’s apologies were accepted by Randy, by the way.

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