The public sphere and its business models

Free speech versus market-clearing speech

December 23, 2023 — June 15, 2024

bandit problems

Connecting invasive arguments, free speech, memetics, journalism, the sociology of information, technical and speech standards, and epistemic communities.

What are the relationships between business models for aiding communication, and the actual things we would (or claim we would) like communication to do? How can we fund judicious and informed debate and still sell advertising?

1 Management of the discourse commons

Figure 1

A powerful idea that I want to return to.

Nadia Eghbal, An alternate ending to the tragedy of the commons point to the failure of online discourse as an issue of management of the commons:

My big takeaway from the patterns Ostrom identified is that sustainably managing the commons requires a high degree of context among participants. Most failure outcomes can be traced back to context collapse. This is true whether you’re an open source project or someone with a large Twitter following.

Ostrom paints an eerily accurate picture of the problems we see today:

…no one communicates, everyone acts independently, no attention is paid to the effects of one’s actions, and the costs of trying to change the structure of the situation are high

Whereas in the sustainable, “smaller-scale” CPRs she looked at,

…individuals repeatedly communicate and interact with one another…[When individuals] have developed shared norms and patterns of reciprocity, they possess social capital with which they can build institutional arrangements for resolving CPR dilemmas.

Ostrom’s framework is more about managing physical resources like trees and water and stuff. But we can maybe imagine casting civil discourse as a metaphorical resource and then ask ourselves: are we doing any of the things that science suggests we need to do to manage it?

I like this because it slices up the debate in a more productive way. The least thoughtful of free speech proponents often seem to be arguing for a discourse commons that is everywhere ungoverned and tragic. But we know that this insane for normal commons resources. Sustainable commons management happens through institutions. They can be bottom-up or top down, they can be codified laws or they can be property lights or something informal and trust-driven. But when institutions are missing, commons management does not work, and if the only way I can read my news feed is by scrolling through troll flamewars then I can’t read the news.

In this sense arguing for “free” speech is ill-defined. Instead we might need to solve for a different criterion.

On what terms am I prepared to commit the constrained resource of my attention to a community discourse? How many “die in a fire faggot” attacks am I prepared to weather to comment on a news story? What credentials am I prepared to show to earn someone else’s attention?

As with other commons management institutions, we can imagine that this is a contextual thing. We can have different norms inside communities, inside schools, inside workplaces…

Crucially there is no connection between the state (say) declaring some speech illegal, and an individual community deciding that it is not appropriate inside this community.

I’m sure I can come back and make this point more compactly somehow. TBC.

2 Incoming

I would like to have a link on the difficulties of coordinating on justice via mob rule, public shaming and petitions, wherein we look at the coordination problems, and separate the problem of identifying injustice/inefficiency/existential threat, and the problem of calibrating a political response. Sideline in altruistic punishment and feedback loops. TBD.