LibriVox and the Cornucopia of the Commons

Or why “Have Fun!” is the most important thing you’ll ever hear in the LibriVox fora.

From a classic discussion of self-interest as applied to shared grazing-land:

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin (1968)

This is quoted at The Cornucopia of the Commons by Dan Bricklin (2000) who further says, in regard to the peer-to-peer music sharing network Napster, but it applies to LibriVox too:

What we see here is that increasing the value of the database by adding more information is a natural by-product of using the tool for your own benefit. No altruistic sharing motives need be present, especially since sharing is the default. […] In our case, we find the Cornucopia of the Commons: Use brings overflowing abundance.

More information, in our case, is more recordings. A reader benefits by having fun in contributing, and sharing is implicit in the LibriVox model — it’s made effortless (for non-admin readers, at least.) All the work is in activities such as recording, editing and proof-listening. Also, the act of sharing (cataloguing) has been refined over the years to be as easy as possible for admins, though it still remains a non-trivial task.

In a follow-up piece, Dan says:

Instead of making you feel bad for “only” doing 99%, a well designed system makes you feel good for doing 1%. People complain about systems that have lots of “freeloaders”. Systems that do well with lots of “freeloading” and make the best of periodic participation are good.
Blog post by Dan Bricklin (2005)

In this sense, recording one short poem is as welcome as a full solo of War and Peace, because the most important consideration is the happiness of the contributor. LibriVox, as it is strictly defined, is a community around readers, so I don’t think it’s possible to have freeloaders as such. However, if one equates “freeloader = listener”, the system still benefits from them, in that it can provide a source of fun for some readers to see how many listeners they have (as measured vaguely and unreliably by, one of many file distribution methods) and also sporadically by feedback via the forums or other contact methods. Many contributors start as listeners, so here, success breeds success: more recordings, more widely distributed, bring in more people wanting to participate.

This is, in my opinion, also part of the reason not to have any sort of direct reviewing system. It’s largely meaningless within the “have fun” framework! By the time a file reaches a listener, the initial fun has already been had, and it’s just an (enormous!) added bonus when subsequent audiences also “have fun”. A Cornucopia indeed.

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