Three ways to beat the tragedy of the digital commons

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The unique power of social media is its dearth of gatekeepers. This unfettered access to people and information allows the world to converse, connect and collaborate with individuals who have different ideas. Perhaps ironically, this openness to disparate voices also makes social media subject to an economic principle called “the tragedy of the commons.”

Tragedy of the Digital Commons

The ability for individuals, because of limited oversight or gatekeepers, to act independently—establishing branded profiles on social networks according to each one's self-interest—can create the risk of polluting the space to a point where noise prevents anyone's voice from being clearly understood. In economic terms, this "… depletion of a shared resource by individuals, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group's long-term best interests," is what is referred to as the tragedy of the commons.

A few years back, IBM conducted an audit of branded profiles across social channels and  discovered that we too had a 'tragedy of commons,' with thousands of what appeared to be “IBM brand-owned” profiles. Some were real, others illegitimate. But, when everyone tries to create a “one-stop-shop” on the Web, you get a messy, messy mall. Those who established these branded profiles likely embarked with good intentions, however, they unfortunately put self-interest (quite rationally) at the forefront of their thinking. Rather than considering how this new profile fit into a broader brand strategy, they wanted to create a pipeline of information from IBM that showcased their interest in the product or initiative they were responsible for, perhaps without sufficient regard to the broader brand presence. 

How to Solve the Problem

For every organization, the social media landscape is a commons. Protecting it is an ongoing effort that will require the ability to bring together different viewpoints and make the optimum trade-offs, by promoting cooperative collaboration, creating incentives for users to invest in the social media landscape and—when absolutely necessary—restricting access.

  1. Cooperative Collaboration: Integration and collaboration around a single strategy to deliver high-value experiences for customers and members.
  2. Creating Incentives: Build an active, engaged membership that respects the values and philosophy of the organization.
  3. Restricting Access: Create a curatorial team that determines who has access to the resource and when.

Cooperative Collaboration & Creating Incentives
We developed a dynamic and personalized internal system called The Digital IBMer Hub to educate and enable IBMers about how to better integrate and collaborate in service of authentic, open, and trustworthy communication about the work we do for clients at IBM. We also published Social Brand Engagement guidelines that offered IBM's marketers and communications staff clear instructions and resources for operating profiles and pages on third party social sites that represent IBM in an official capacity.

We have empowered as gatekeepers, a select few (Social Business Managers) who possess the critical thinking and training necessary to accurately evaluate and use social media's constant flow of information to lead IBM in being essential to every client's success. As trusted gatekeepers, they're responsible for shaping how the public interacts with the IBM brand, properties and IBMers on social media. Individuals in this role also empower colleagues to make the most of social – but also to restrict its use when it goes off the rails. In the digital commons, think of them as Smokey the Bear – encouraging you to enjoy the forest, but also warning against the perils of thoughtlessly burning it down.

Perhaps most importantly, we have developed a means to celebrate the most effective individual IBMers and managers of official brand profiles – IBM Voices, a visualization of our best social media content from across the globe. By celebrating these top performers, we set the cultural precedent for the right kinds of behaviors through a positive incentive.

Restricting Access

Because "failure to offer employees full access to social media seriously threatens an organization's competitiveness," it's important that we temper our use of restricting access. At IBM, we published Social Computing Guidelines in early 2006, encouraging IBMers to participate. We intuited (and later learned first hand) that, as my colleague, Susan Emerick puts it in The Most Powerful Brand on Earth, “Brands need to respect the employee's desire to develop their own reputation…the greatest impact occurs when both the brand and the employee understand and integrate each other's strategies.”

In many ways, data is the new natural resource – and when it comes to your brand presence in social, this is just one way that marketers and professional communicators must be the stewards of a whole new environment.

How does your business protect its' digital commons and what can brands do to avoid tragic mistakes?

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