Selfish altruism

Stephen responds to my contention that we’re all selfish brutes:

“People like to create content, and they like to help each other – they aren’t inherently selfish; there’s lots of evidence to show they want to share, even if there’s no benefit to themselves. What they don’t feel the need to do, though, is to provide institutional-type content to institutional-type repositories.”Stephen Downes

And I agree, to an extent, in that we are, by nature, altruistic individuals (it’s hard wired, we’d be stuffed without it) and are certainly less motivated to help out institutions (although, ironically, that’s what most of us do, all day, every weekday) BUT it’s important to recognise that at the same time we are inherently selfish… and that that’s no bad thing.

Because, if you want *anything* social on the web to succeed you have to pay *much* attention to that.

This is the point where I reveal where I lifted much of my thinking (and those gmail / social bookmarking examples) from, Derek Powazek’s Design for Community and 2006 post Design for Selfishness where he argues that:

“While it’s true that the net can inspire altruistic sharing of people’s time and talent, you still have to offer those people something for their troubles. If you have to pick between designing for altruism and designing for selfishness, pick selfishness every time.

People are selfish, and that’s okay. People are selfish with their time. They should be – there’s never enough of it. And they’re selfish with their attention – after all, if you pay attention to everything, you’d never get out of bed. Finally, and most importantly, they’re selfish with their talent. Writing that post, uploading that photo, participating in your virtual community … all of that is work for me. So what are you going to do to make it worth it?”Derek Powazek

It’s a post anyone trying to start anything on the web should read, consider, and apply to what they’re doing.

LOR and other ‘crowd’ applications particularily.

And when you’re done, read about how crowds (if you do get them together) are not necessarily always wise. Brilliant stuff that many of us trying to create the web ignore on a daily basis (myself included!)

We could do with a little less utopianism when it comes to social software and the web, education in particular.

2 replies on “Selfish altruism”

  1. I think there is a good point here – but t is badly described as the ‘selfishness’ of users.

    Perhaps a better word ight be the ‘pragmatism’ of users.

    For example: someone asks m a question in an email. Happens often enough. I pop online to ferret out an answer, and in so doing bounce across dozen websites.

    My behaviour will exhibit the traits of ‘the selfish user’. I will want return for my attention; I will not want time and effort wasted,

    But my act was inherently an unselfish act – I was trying to help someone else, for no return.

    People are inherently pragmatic, even the idealists. They go with what works, they make choices on the basis of present need and interest, etc.

    But this is *very* different from selfishness.

    How do I know?

    Because people, when accessing my site to attend to their own ‘selfish’ needs, are often very generous in ways they don’t have to be.

    They leave comments, they send emails, they recommend the site to their friends – all things that have nothing to do with serving their own interests, but behaviors which are eminently practical.

    ‘Selfishness’ is a political philosophy, one that forms the essence of most conservative thought. It is not – contra the Conservatives – an essential attribute of human behaviour.

  2. You help people who email you… sheesh ;)

    OK, selfishness is probably a bit on the strong side semantically speaking, but I think that we can draw a definite line in the sand – especially when looking at successful and unsuccessful web services – which separates ‘pragmatism’ on the one hand and ‘social’ and ‘non-social’ altruism on the other.

    1. Getting a blog: pragmatic (with possibly a hint of social altruism)
    2. Commenting on Stephen’s blog: Social altruism (with possibly more than a hint of pragmatism)
    3. Anonymously donating / supporting a blog: Non-social-altruism

    With the exception of projects like Wikipedia – which to a degree writes it’s own rules – projects (like LORs) that are based on mostly (or only) 2 & 3 are doomed to failure.

    The best thing to have is a blend… but I would suggest that the more you add to 1. the higher your fundamental chances of success.

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