The Cornucopia of the Commons

Some time back, Tim O’Reilly (The Architecture of Participation) echoed and applied some observations from Dan Bricklin (the Cornucopia of the Commons) about the architecture of Napster and  other significant web-based systems. The individual details are well worth reading, but here’s the summary form. There are several common models for how to build large datasets that are valuable to people:

  1. Pay people to build it (Bricklin calls this “Organized Manual”). Examples include the original Yahoo! directory of the web, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. There’s an variant that represents smart algorithms rather than just human effort (Bricklin: “Organized Mechanical”): this is how Google has built its indexes. But it still represents a significant monetary investment by somebody who probably expects something in return.
  2. Get volunteers (Bricklin’s “Volunteer Manual”): Wikipedia is the preeminent example here, along with Linux, the Open Directory Project, and a great many open source projects. People do this work because they value the end result, and the project coordinates and magnifies those efforts.
  3. Architect in such a way that individual self-interest creates collective value.

Napster (the original peer-to-peer version) was proposed by Bricklin as a prime example of the third model: simply by listening to your music (within the Napster ecosystem), the default settings meant you were also sharing that music with everybody else. Quoting Bricklin:

What we see here is that increasing the value of the database by adding more information is a natural by-product of using the tool for your own benefit. No altruistic sharing motives need be present, especially since sharing is the default.

This is Bricklin’s Cornucopia of the Commons (an allusion to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons): a system designed in such a way that use brings overflowing abundance.

(You might think blogging and twittering are like this, but they’re not. Nobody tweets because it has direct, inherent value to them: instead, it’s an outgrowth of a narcissistic, self-centered open, generous belief that what i say might have value to others. Few of us would do it if nobody else was listening. )

Models for Data Creation In Biblical Studies

All that (and Napster!) is now history, and i don’t want to get distracted by the peer-to-peer model that made Napster so powerful (Bricklin argues that’s not the reason it succeeded), or the legal issues that led to its demise. Instead, i want to reflect here on how these principles apply to Biblical studies and software.

With Logos 4, we’ve launched a major expansion of our Biblical Knowledge, by expanding Biblical People, adding Places and Things, and building around the large set of concepts we call the Logos Controlled Vocabulary. This was accomplished through the Organized Manual method: we paid a bunch of people (me included) to architect and populate this data, in a major development effort that stretched over several years. You could view the vast network of links that make Logos more than just a collection of texts as an extension of the same principle (through the resulting software program doesn’t look so much like a database). It represents literally hundreds of thousands of hours of effort in book markup and design, along with lots of “Organized Mechanical” algorithmic work.

There are also lots of examples of Volunteer Manual projects related to the Bible. The Sword Project is like Linux for Bible software. e-Sword has a smaller group of developers, but the same framework of a volunteer effort which is given away. Open Scriptures is building a platform and API for others to use in building Bible-based applications. Web 2.0 efforts like YouVersion let people tie their reflections directly to the Biblical text, and numerous projects have sprung from the Wikipedia mold like Theopedia. My own SemanticBible projects are much more limited, but in a similar spirit.

Logos has been active with the Volunteer Manual approach as well. The Logos Topics website combines our Organized Manual data and architecture of topics with user-contributed extensions of additional terminology, links within Logos, and even links to other websites. This lets us do some neat things like extending the desktop application content through user contributions on the web. Like Wikipedia, these are altruistic contributions from people who want to share their knowledge with others.

Sermons.logos.com works in a similar fashion: if you’re a pastor who writes down your sermon, and you’re willing to upload and share it, lots of others (both on the web and in Logos software) can benefit from what you’ve created. This is closer to the Cornucopia of the Commons model, but it’s still a voluntary and indirect process: my sermon doesn’t get shared as a natural by-product of my preparation activity.

The Cornucopia and Bible Study

The interesting question to me is how to achieve the third model, where my own use of a tool provides a direct benefit to others through a network, not because i’m behaving altruistically but simply because the system is architected to work that way. This is closely related to the whole Web2.0 meme (can it really have been five years already?!?) of “software that gets better the more it gets used.”

One thought: lots of web sites use RefTagger to provide a nice pop-up of Bible text for their readers, a benefit that enriches the experience of visitors to their site. Twitter users can similarly use ref.ly to shorten Bible references, which, like RefTagger links,  in turn resolve to references on Bible.Logos.com.   Could those links be converted into data indicating, for example, the relative popularity of different verses, and then displayed back to users?

Aggregating users’ operation of Logos software (in a suitably anonymized fashion, of course) could also provide data on the most popular resources, searches, and topics, which could then be turned around into recommendations (“Looking for a Bible dictionary article on ‘marriage’? Here are the ones our users have found most useful ….”).

But none of these seem to me to accomplish the full promise of the Cornucopia of the Commons. There has to be more here than simply harnessing popularity (though sites like Digg and del.icio.us have shown how useful that can be). I’m still trying to imagine what data sets could be created by people who are already committed to Bible study, as a normal outgrowth of what they do anyway. Any thoughts? Please share a comment.