We are here today with a distinguished guest that sits outside the realm of social media, but is rather a Political Science professor. (In fact, he was a professor of mine once upon a time). Before all of you think that I have lost my mind, let me explain further. Professor Patrick Regan is an expert in conflict management resolution and game theory, having authored several books including Organizing Societies for War, and the upcoming Sixteen Million One (excerpts found on his site). Thanks for joining us today, Professor.
1 – What do you think about social media in general?
Social media is new and fascinating to me. It is not a medium that I grew up with, so it is a bit harder to get use to, but I can certainly see how this forum for communication can fundamentally change the way people react to public problems. We can see this, for instance, in Tibet today. The Chinese government has overwhelming capabilities to suppress the Free Tibet movement, but the movement has what you refer to as the social media on its side. China quickly tried to shut down as much of this as possible. China is not alone is recognizing the immense power of the social media, as political campaigns today will attest.
One of the downsides – if there really are downsides – to this medium is that conventional forms of communication get marginalized. At first this shows up as loss of profit, of which I am little concerned, but without of viable free and open conventional press we will suffer from the potential abuse by those in power. At least in the short term there needs to be some balance. The unfortunate inclination is for conventional media to respond to the challenge posed by the social media by consolidating and brining less and less variability and initiative into the conventional media. Sounds like doom and gloom, and in the end the more open media will win.
2 – You might not have drawn a parallel of your field of expertise with social media in the past, but I believe there to be striking similarities between social media and game theory, more specifically the prisoner’s dilemma. Cooperation (friending users) is key. What is your take on this?
Game theory provides for us a way to think about choices, how choices are made under certain types of constraints. Your expected payoffs from some action matter a lot, and how you conceive of your expectations and the value of the outcome is a function of information. Game theorists ask questions about how resolved the actors are to press for their preferred outcome, and the like. Cooperation is a bit more difficult if both sides are committed to getting their way, and game theory can show us why. We also know from game theory that the frequency with which we expect to replay the game matters a lot. If it is a one off game, just do what is best for you. But if you’re going to see this person again, then cooperation might be a better strategy. I think this is what you mean by ‘friending users’ – though I bet that word is not in the Webster’s dictionary! The more information we have about those we interact with the more opportunity we have to shape outcomes that are mutually beneficial. Now in principle, if you have a lot of information – at least if it is one-sided information – then there is the opportunity to coerce or exploit as well. A free, open, unregulated social media portends to reduce one-sided information and increase the frequency of interactions over ideas.
3 – There has been a great deal of controversy in the largest social news site, digg.com in which many of the top site contributors were planning a revolt and were getting ready to organize on a live podcast. Toward the end of the podcast, the founders of Digg came on to directly address the crowd and respond to their questions. Typically, Digg has not been very responsive to its users as of late. Do you feel that the Digg founders resolved the conflict in an effective manner?
I am not an expert on Digg.com, though I have read a bit about the revolt. Compromise borne of concessions approaches a necessary condition for a negotiated settlement. Absent concessions, stable outcomes pretty much have to result from a disparity of power, and therefore from coercion. The very first concession in any bargaining environment is the agreement to discuss. By implication if you agree to discuss then you agree that there is some point on which you would give. It might not be enough to settle the dispute, but the recognition is one that implicitly points to the potential for movement. As I gather it the Digg folks did this. Did they come all the way across the table? Not to my knowledge. One way to think of this is that they don’t see it as what we would call an iterative game, but rather each move is a one shot deal. My sense is from reading about this is that the contributors see this as a repeated game. They want compromise and the Digg folks want to coerce behavior.
The protest might be one way to demonstrate that repeated plays are valuable, and maybe the norm. But the protesters also have to realize that successful negotiations most often require concessions from both sides. They can’t expect to be completely coercive any more than they would accept that from Digg. The real key would be demonstrating to Digg that they get a better outcome if they see this as a repeatedly played game or interaction.
4 – More on Digg. The following month, there was a Digg Town Hall event in which the founders had a live webcast where questions could be asked (although they had a list prior to the show, so live participants were not given true voice). Was this an effective method?
It seems that it is effective if both sides play the game. It might not be how I would organize a negotiating session to sort this out, but it sounds to me like some of the contributors bought into it. Better, maybe, to offer to bring an agenda to the table around which discussions or negotiations can take place. By what I understand of this relationship the contributors participate on Digg.com for the personal sense of value (I get my views out there); Digg.com folks do this either for a job or the potential to sell it to a start up venture, that is take it commercial. The contributors would have to demonstrate that Digg.com has no value without the contributors, but also to show that they value Digg.com over the long haul.
Maybe you should all try to get a mediator to sit down with you to work this out. Seems pretty simple on the face of it.
5 – One of the key elements in trying to resolve conflict is the underlying assumption that both sides are rational. Do you think that both sides of the fence are being rational here?
Rationality refers to cost benefit maximization. It could be that the Digg folks are under some sort of constraint to diversity their portfolio of contributors so that they can set this up to be more commercially viable (I’m just guessing). If that is so, then they might be acting rational by compelling diversification. The Contributors might also be seeing their personal viability being challenged by the new constraints on making the headlines. Both can be considered rational in a maximization framework. Is there middle ground? Sure seems like it to me. It almost seems like people aren’t explaining motives and with a clear idea of why each side is being so resolute, concessions might actually be easy.
6 – For those that are not familiar with the prisoner’s dilemma, can you expound on it a bit and how you think it falls within the social media world?
Prisoners dilemma is just a way to think about how choices are made. In the dispute with Digg it is whether to open the process up to the most prolific and interesting or creating diversity. This is a bit like cooperating and defecting in the prisoners dilemma game.
To my mind the idea of a prisoners dilemma is useful for many types of social interactions, the social media might be but one. We use to use it to understand the arms race, the ending of civil wars, and the like. It is really just a way to think about the value of cooperation over defection, and under what conditions can both side rationally conclude that doing the “wrong” thing is right. Everyone knew the nuclear arms race was silly, but both sides went happily down that silly path, and appeared quite rational in doing so. Funny how the world works!
7 – Do you think that social media may one day find its way into your political / game theory teachings? How would you see something like this come about?
I teach a lot about Osama bin Laden this semester and I suspect that much of his communication might fall under what you would describe as the social media. So if his form of communication meets such standards, then the world’s most sought after villain is making great use of social media. But I think I’ll leave you and your readers to figure out whether he is leading, following, or uninvolved with social media.
Thanks for stopping by, Professor Regan – you’ve been a wonderful guest!
It has been a pleasure.
If you would like to see more about Professor Regan, here is an interview he did after doing research for his latest book: