Some basics from the economics of pollution

I have taken to characterizing “keeping the bad stuff out” of user-contributed content resources as a pollution problem. What can we learn from the long-standing economics literature on pollution (traditionally about environmental pollution)?

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Polluting user-contributed reviews

A recent First Monday article by David and Pinch (2006) documents an interesting case of book review pollution on Amazon. A user review of one book critically compared it to another. Immediately following a “user” entered another review blatantly plagiarizing a favorable review of the first book, and further user reviews did additional plagiarizing.

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Keeping bad stuff out: Making a play on social news sites?

About a month ago, some rumors were about that Google was about to acquire Sun Microsystems. The news got hot when blog stories claiming an acquisition was imminent were promoted to the front page on community/social new site Digg.com. It pretty quickly became clear that the rumors were largely unfounded. What hasn’t been quickly resolved is whether or not someone tried to manipulate Digg, possibly to cash in on speculative trading in Google or Sun stock.

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Old problem: how to evaluate effort by programmers?

Microsoft’s Performance Evaluation System Roils Coders
This is a nice recent example of an age-old hidden action problem for managers: how to compensate brain workers, whose effort is intrinsically hard to monitor? The story here concerns Microsoft’s performance incentives for programmers. According to a recent report (by an organization that is trying to organize a union at Microsoft, so take the tone with a grain of salt),

The way it works is that under this system, managers can only give out so many high marks. If everyone on a manager’s team did 4.0 work, only two of them might be able to get them.

Benchmarking is a standard, almost necessary way to assess performance in an organization with a large number of brain workers, but no benchmark system is perfect, and it’s not obvious which will be the best system for a given environment.

Another technical “screen” without incentives design facing trouble

MathTrek: Cheating CAPTCHAs
CAPTCHAs (“completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart”!) are an increasingly common technical device to try to “keep the bad stuff out” of many services: users are asked to type in a word displayed with distortion that is easy for most humans to read, but difficult for image recognition software, before they can access various services.

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