The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory that can be applied to a number of fields, including ecology, anthropology, gaming theory, politics and sociology. Find out how this theory applies to the web!
Tragedy of the
*Respect, authenticity and design
Presentation delivered during the Web À
Québec conference on March 21, 2014.
1- Notes were added after the presentation
to facilitate understanding for the reader.
2- References can be found on the last
page of this presentation.
3- Originally, my presentation was called,
"Respect, authenticity and design".
Tragedy of the commons
Competition for access to limited
resources leads to a conflict between self
interest and the common good; the rational
consequences of which create a lose-lose
The tragedy of the commons is an
economics theory that can be applied to
a number of fields, including ecology,
anthropology, gaming theory, politics
and sociology. In this presentation, I will
show you how this theory applies to
In order to illustrate his theory, Hardin used
the example of a pasture shared by many
herdsmen, who each bring their sheep here
[The following part of the presentation was
All herdsmen know very well that if there are too many animals in the pasture, grass stocks will
become depleted, to the point of making grazing impossible. Although the benefits that these herds
generate will be enjoyed by one herdsman, the cost of depleted grass stocks is shared by all
herdsmen. Since costs are shared, but benefits are not, each herdsman is thus inclined to protect his
own interests. More sheep in a herd means more benefits. So each individual thinks about his own
costs and his own benefits, convincing himself that his actions will not have a significant impact on
global resources. This kind of behaviour may seem reasonable to the herdsman and justifies pursuing
his self interest despite the decreasing amount of grass in the pasture, which will inevitably result in
the total depletion of common resources.
HARDIN, Garrett, The Tragedy of the Commons. Science ,13 December 1968.
Limitations: The pasture has a maximum
capacity. Once there are more than 5
sheep, the pasture cannot renew itself.
Each herdsman is focussed on his own self
interest (that is, having more sheep).
Each one thinks, "If I don’t take advantage,
the other herdsman certainly will, so I had
better get moving!"
The tragedy (dwindling of common
resources) is inevitable.
Solutions to the tragedy
Self-regulationThere are many solutions to the tragedy of
Namely: laws, permits, privatization and
Email Spam Law C-28
On the web
If we apply this concept to the web, we find numerous examples, including email, online file
sharing services (Napster), social media and free services requiring registration. These are all
services (albeit intangible) that are limited, but the price to be paid is not always monetary
(service is shut down, loss of pleasure in using the service, time needed to complete a task,
Similarly to the environment,
external regulation is not enough.
Each one of us must act to protect our
Bit Torrent ﬁle sharing Hacking Intellectual property
Napster is shut
User conﬁdence Dark patterns User apathy
On e-commerce sites
User confidence is a limited resource. In fact, for
creators of e-commerce sites, it is a most
Without that confidence, users won’t make
For us, that means no more
The problem is that many website creators and
developers use deceptive practices to increase
for using ﬂames as a
[Yes, I used flames as a transition in the original
Dark patterns are elements used
in interface design to trick users
into doing things on a website,
such as inadvertently signing up
for an e-letter or paying more
on a purchase.
These tactics boost the price
of your average shopping
The advertised price is $19.95.
Since I don’t need any accessories, I click on
Problem 1 - Default settings indicate that I want
12 blankets and one dolly.
Problem 2 - To remove these items from my
cart, I have to click on the text and not on the
big yellow button.
Next page, same problem. The site once again,
by default, adds a large amount of accessories
to my order.
The total is now $104.60. That’s about $80 more
than what was advertised.
It also increases the
number of site visitors.
For example, videos (often posted on
Facebook) that require you to share it with all
your friends before you can view the clip.
Many sites still use opt-out, rather than opt-in, practices.
For example, for "Presumed organ donation", visit: http://
eUK.pdf and http://www.bmj.com/content/338/bmj.a3162
"The Taskforce strongly believes that successful
implementation will deliver a 50% increase in organ donor
numbers within five years."
But this isn’t really illegal, is it?
These practices aren’t illegal. But they still lead to tragedy
and depletion of resources!
Acquiring another sheep isn’t
But if users become more apathetic and don’t
use our services, then we have a
Creative patterns are elements used in interface
design that foster emotional engagement among
users and create promoters of the website. These
elements inspire visitors to say
"Wow!" and encourage them to share. See also,
To read about the Cupcake Effect, it’s here: https://