Q&A From The BBH Labs Post on Honesty

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Yesterday, BBH Labs wrote an interesting post commenting on some of my thoughts on internet transparency and gossip. The post itself, as well as the comments, are well worth a read. Since it’s one of my favorite topics, I naturally wanted in on the discussion myself, but as I started writing a comment on their blog, I realized it would probably be a bit long for a comment, and instead decided to make it a follow up post here.

Q: Is there any evidence of better behavior and less cheating?

A: I think we can see plenty of evidence to support the fact that the breakdown of brand privacy forces brands to behave better. User comments and ratings are in fact the backbone of much of e-commerce, and are really a form of digital gossip. Companies behaving badly are exposed all over the place. Companies behaving well are to some extent rewarded, even though gossip gravitates towards the negative for natural reasons (it’s often more expensive in nature to make the wrong decision than valuable to make the right one). On the individual level, Googling is a standard part of hiring these days, and cheating husbands and wives are exposed all over the internet every day. Just to mention a couple of examples.

Before language evolved, cheaters were easy to spot in small tribes, but not in larger societies. When language evolved, efficiency of gossip increased and we could now crack down on cheaters and reward contributers in bigger groups. Now, with the social web, gossip is made even more efficient, thus making it possible to spot cheaters and reward contributers in very large groups, spread out all over the globe. It’s the same basic psychology and the same economics behind it, but more efficient means of communication enable us to increase scale. The economics of gossip are very much the same as internet economics, or information economics in general: Providing gossip is virtually free, while receiving it can be very valuable. This creates growth. As a fun excercise, you can try applying these economics to the “piracy”-debate.

“Q”: On one hand it all sounds a little Utopian (and some might argue, less fun). On the other, it does sound rather attractive.

A: It may sound utopian, but it’s really not. I’m not talking about perfect transparency with zero transaction and coordination costs (which would be utopian and impossible). Instead, I’m talking about an increase in efficiency, which leads to a more precise control system that is harder to cheat. Harder, but not impossible.

And I really don’t think that it’s a question of attractive or less fun, but rather of us increasing our ability to coordinate as a species. An increase in ability to coordinate enables us to coordinate more quickly, thus becoming more adaptive to changes in our environment. Those who adapt the quickest to change will be the most fit for their environment, and the fittest will survive. If we let this continue without destroying the efficiency with legislation, this is where we will gravitate towards by Darwinistic law. It’s somewhat like asking if life became less fun or more attractive when language was introduced. I can’t answer that, and I don’t know if it’s a relevant question. I do think that it made us more civilized, and I think that the web will have the same effect.

Q: For other societal constructs, such as a nation/regime, hard to say. The world had pretty honest information on the Iran situation, but that didn’t make the regime behave more honestly. On the other hand if
victims in genocidal warfare in Africa had means of disseminating real time information would the world be more inclined to intervene and act more honestly by upholding basic human rights?

A: There are a few different questions involved here, and I won’t go into the specific situation for each country, but on the structural level you can say this: There is a huge shift in power going on all over the world. The monopolies of information distribution previously (and sometimes currently) held by institutions by economic neccesity, are falling apart. And this makes those depending on such monopolies less powerful. For these institutions, the social web poses a threat, and the only way to stop the threat is to stop entire services, and indeed this is what we are seeing in some of these regimes.

Unfortunately for them, this is also very costly in terms of not tapping into the growth engine of gossip and digital gossip that we spoke about earlier, and will leave them with the choice of handing over power by unblocking internet services or loosing out in the competition with free countries. Ultimately, I think and hope that fighting internet freedom is a loosing battle.

2 Responses to "Q&A From The BBH Labs Post on Honesty"
  1. Matthew says:

    Heya, great responses!

    Just a quickie: the thing I noticed that started to lead to lets say better commenting on websites, less trolling and in the future what you would call better behavior is actually facebook connect. Because more and more people are less hidden behind aliases, they might begin to troll less. Of course that is gonna be around for a long time; but the easier it is for us to use our actual online identity vs create an alias (in terms of opportunity and effort cost), the more I think we’ll see that behaviour coming out. You know, using those manners mom talked to you about.

    However, I dunno how long it’ll be before this environment you described begins to take shape. You said 25 years but, thinkin about it in generations — it won’t happen now, it might not happen with the kids coming up now, but maybe their kids? Is that then longer than 25 years out? What do you think? Just my musings…

  2. Hi Matthew!

    I think you are right about aliases being phased out in favor of real identities. If this will be Facebook Connect or Friend Connect or something else, I don’t know. But it will happen because the benefits of speaking as yourself will outweigh the benefits of anonymity. There is a reason that we are an ultra social species today, and that reason is that the benefits of being social and identified outweighed the costs and weeded out those who where anti social and anonymous. Would you trust and listen to somebody walking around masked at a party? The internet is no different from real life in this respect.

    The time period of 25 years was set by the interviewers, and is in fact not the time period I’m really talking about in the post. What I’m describing is 5-10 years away. Tops. Trying to figure out what the world will look like in 25 years is beyond my capacity.

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This blog is written by Walter Naeslund and has been around since 2007. The blog is about the journey of starting an advertising agency and a sneak peek behind the scenes of what goes on at the Honesty HQ in SoFo, Södermalm. It is also a blog about communication & technology. The blog has gathered almost a thousand posts over the years with several longer and shorter breaks. Welcome and enjoy.
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