My first reaction to Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article “Tragedy of the Commons” was that Hardin must be some sort of pinko commie fascist hippie. Arguing in favor of coercion? Advocating human breeding limits? Stating that private property and inheritance is unjust? My second reaction was that the article must be a joke, some satire along the lines of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Isn’t limiting the freedom to breed about as ridiculous as eating one’s children?

Communist, prankster or not, Hardin’s points are backed by sound logic. Ecosystems are limited in the size of population they can support. Poor parents with many children may actually end up with less decedents than poor parents with fewer children, as the families with fewer children are better able to care for the ones they have and thus ensure their survival.  By giving people all of the freedom of ownership and none of the agency, they are less inclined to treat things right– look at how customers treat rental cars.

The parallels between this article and the internet are many. Biology is the study of the beings in an ecosystem, a network of all the life on Earth. The internet is an ecosystem as well, a network of humans and computers. It is interesting that the article was written by a biology professor, as this fact reiterates the sense of digital media’s evolution.

Growth can only happen until the point that a population becomes greater than its environment is capable of handling; then the size of the population must either stagnate or decrease. We see this all the time in digital media. Technology is growing at a rapid rate, but there will come a point where broadband can’t get any faster or servers just can’t get any more powerful. The number of IP addresses is finite, and many people are asking whether the internet is running out of space. Twitter shows the Fail Whale when more people are on in than the servers can manage.

The family analogy is also apt. A poorly designed, poorly managed website runs the same risk as the poor family; it is often better to provide a good experience for a small number of users than a poor experience for a large number of users. The well-treated users will tell their friends, while the undershot users will look for alternatives.

With these parallels, the internet seems capable of falling victim to the Tragedy of the Commons. If it belongs to everyone, no one will take care of it– right?  Wikipedia seems to have proven this statement wrong. As Margaret Mead so eloquently stated,  “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” Small amounts of passionate individuals frequently take over projects as their own, even though they receive no physical reward from doing so. Benkler writes of Wikipedia in The Wealth of Networks,

Wikipedia does not include elaborate software-controlled access and editing capabilities. It is generally open for anyone to edit the materials, delete another’s changes, delete the desirable contents, survey archives for prior changes, and so forth. It depends on self-conscious use of open discourse, usually aimed at consensus. (p. 72)

The classic Tragedy of the Commons scenario involves shepherds. If one shepherd allows his sheep to graze on a few extra blades of grass, everyone suffers in the long run. However, were this Commons run in the same manner as Wikipedia, a dedicated evangelist would swoop in and plant more grass immediately upon discovery of this additional ovine munching. Were the grazing to get out of control, the dedicated evangelists would take measures to ensure it was stopped. And they would do this all for personal satisfaction, not monetary gain.

One cannot argue with the limitations of nature, but the conscience that Hardin so derides may be what sets the Internet apart from the Commons. There is a greater motivation involved than just money, one that cannot easily be regulated or taxed.