Monday, October 11, 2004

Rational Choice Theory

With a little help from a good friend, Jeannie Johnson I found a theory that relates to a previous discussion of online communities and self-interest. It's called the Rational Choice theory. The long and the short of the theory states that we all have desires, and that there are costs (monetary, social, psychological, etc.) associated with obtaining these desires.

My thoughts are that by raising the desire, or lower the cost, you can get people to act a certain way. Marketing departments do this all the time. They make commercials to convince us that we need an SUV, Ovaltiene, or a riding lawnmower. They try to raise our desires. Conversely, by lowering cost, you can also affect action. I do not like Ford vehicles, but if somebody offered me a new one for $4, then I would buy it. Well, I would consider it anyway... This works in economic models, but also works in describing human nature. I have the desire to be with my family and the desire to watch Napoleon Dynamite. If I watch Napoleon Dynamite, the cost is that I'm away from my family. I must weigh the costs against the desires before I come upon a rational decision.

So, taking that back to online communities. I would argue that the advent of these online communities are not because somebody has convinced us that we need to belong to a community (remember, the internet is not a corporate phenomenon, no single entity 'built it'). The desire of individuals haven't raised, rather the technology has lowered the 'cost'. It used to be that the cost of obtaining news was to wait until 6:00, or buy a newspaper, or listen to the radio at the top of the hour. Now the cost is to type into a browser. The cost of finding people who have similar interests, and actually conversing with them, has also lowered dramatically. I argue THAT is why online communities have organized.

I think I could demonstrate this phenomenon with the online group geocachers. The level to which this group has organized, the extent they now reach (globally), at the price they charge (Free), is amazing. The desire has always been there, and the ability to do so has been as well, but the cost was too high. Now the cost of accomplishing such a feat has decreased to a level so low that people are willing to just make it happen.

I don't know, what do you think?

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