Even Online, People Seem to Require Payoffs for Civic Participation

In this month’s issue of the libertarian-minded Reason magazine, Bill Eggers makes the case for what the headline of his piece calls “Crowdsourcing Social Problems.”

Perhaps the lesser-known of the writing Eggers brothers, this Eggers is co-author of last year’s The Solution Revolution, and for years he has studied the promise of a newly connected people to address some of the modern world’s biggest challenges. He and co-author Paul Macmillan’s approach is premised on the idea that individual citizens can and should take a more active role in finding and executing solutions to social problems.

In his Reason piece, Eggers explains the nuts-and-bolts of making that happen. Clearly, it doesn’t matter much that the Internet makes it possible for citizens to collaboratively address the flaws modern life if people don’t actually grab a mouse or pick up a cell phone and do it. Eggers, though, has found examples of real people getting engaged in the work. To wit:

In 2006, instead of continuing to spread its landfill costs among citizens, Wilmington decided to spread its landfill responsibilities. The city contracted with Recyclebank, a company that calculates, via RFID cards in trash bins, the volume that each family recycles. Recycling translated to points that customers could then redeem at local businesses.

Within months, Wilmington’s recycling rate jumped to 65 percent, according to the city. The avoided landfill fees meant that Recyclebank was paying for itself. And city retailers churned up new business.

Instead of changing the culture, Wilmington simply changed the incentives. This is the premise of economics: In the right system of incentives, individuals shoulder the work of prosperity, be it the long-term prosperity represented by recycling or the short-term prosperity represented by performing better at work.

Eggers starts to get at something in this last paragraph that’s worth exploring. Many of the examples in his piece hinge on people getting something in return for their service that goes far beyond mere civic pride or psychic reward.

Those incentives range, but can include access to resources, whimsy and real-life cash. There’s reCAPTCHA, where online users navigate through a spam-blocking interface and, in the process, help digitize old books. There’s Finland’s micro-tasking Digitalkoot that makes a game of transcribing library materials. Or, of course, Recyclebank, where users get credits to spend at shops in their town. Those tradeoffs are central to these models. It says so right in their respective slogans: “Stop Spam, Read Books,” “Angry Birds for the Thinking Person,” and “Rewards for Yourself and the Planet.”

Rewarding people for good behavior has long been a part of public policymaking. Just this morning NPR had a story on “Save to Win,” wherein people are encouraged to put money in their savings accounts not because it’s the smart and responsible thing to do, but because they could also win a prize.

But the way Eggers frames the cutting edge of “crowdsourcing solutions” suggests an admission that we’re hardly in a era of Wilsonian sacrifice, of victory gardens and meatless Mondays. (Of course, World War I carried its own incentives, but prevailing over the Central Powers was removed enough to not count as a personal motivator.)

Eggers makes a compelling case for where technology-based, reward-driven problem-solving works. It also challenges, gently, the idea that the stumbling block for greater participation in public life was, in part, that people didn’t have the tools to do it easily. Maybe incentives simply serve to focus attention, but it makes one wonder if we’re at the point of accepting that people need to get something concrete before they’ll help fix things. Are there counter examples of where that’s not true?

Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

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