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08 Mar, 2010 – one comment

the bucket brigade

This is how the internet works.

The things you find interesting, useful, beautiful, and amazing are ideated, constructed, and distributed to you via a bucket brigade, of sorts.

Would it be fair to solely credit the last person in the chain for stopping the fire? Of course not.

In any collaborative system, there has to be a mechanism to reward the individual members of the chain. For example, in an economic market, companies pay their suppliers for intermediate goods. These prices are negotiated and the company chooses the most optimal supplier for their final product.

This simple rule is crucial to building a robust community on the web. We should use this concept, based around the profit motive, to encourage and reward activity within a community. It will not only strengthen relationships between agents, but it will also reward varying types of participation inside a community. As agencies build communities for their clients, or crowdsourcing collectives for themselves, it will be important to allow a wide range of participation and reward members for even their smallest contributions.

Some examples of the bucket brigade, and how reward is spread …

Threadless not only distributes profit directly to the designer of each tee, they also reward users, in points that can be exchanged for products, for linking to products (like an affiliate program), and for taking a photo of themselves in the tee (to help legitimize the product page and sell more tees).

Stack Overflow rewards an extremely wide array of behaviors with badges that are tied to the profile of each of its users. In addition, each users collects reputation points based on his/her participation and the community’s score given to that participation.

I use Twitter as an example because of the Retweet Function that was recently adopted by the system after it was a common custom between users. While I think it hasn’t been implemented perfectly, I believe it was necessary to featurize that behavior to strengthen the community and its metrics.

Did I miss your favorite community? Drop me a comment and tell me how they reward their users.

By the way, I stole the term bucket brigade from Professor John Holland, the father of genetic algorithms. In the 1970′s, Prof. Holland was trying to build a self learning system based on how the brain works – specifically, he was looking for a way to mimic how a pathway in the brain will be reinforced and strengthened over time. He realized it could work in the same way that the market does – by the profit motive – and by distributing value along the supply chain of artificial agents (in his case, he was trying to reward specific rules being used by the system). If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest this paper by Holland and colleagues.

Interestingly enough, 4chan actually mimics a good deal of Holland’s original learning system. 4chan is a limited board – it can only hold so much information at one time and when something new is added, something old is destroyed. Therefore, there’s an inherent cost in adding something to the board. And a user wants to optimize the value of whatever they’re posting to earn cred from the community – so the best strategy is to play on what’s been successful in the past. This is how a meme is constructed. A user grabs a popular image from a past thread and improvises on top of it, remixing it, and posting it. Successful remixes will then be grabbed by other members of the community and adapted from there.

Through this process of remixing, a meme is strengthened, just as a pathway in the brain is strengthened through learning.

A single meme has an incredibly long bucket brigade helping it come to life. And while, on 4chan, there’s no system functionality for distributing value to the members of that supply chain, the users facilitate this role all on their own. Check out the video below from Know Your Meme on the meme, Advice Dog. You could also argue that Know Your Meme is helping to spread value between chain members by creating these videos.

You could also argue that users of 4chan were angry at Cartoon Network because they were trying to be the last member of the bucket brigade claiming sole credit for the work itself (by not attributing it to the community).


A quick reminder: if you’re headed to SXSW, come to my panel!

One Comment

  1. Katie Fitz
    Katie Fitz June 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm .

    i really love this post! it’s funny, the purpose of brigades originally was to save your town from burning to the ground. will be interesting to watch how the BP spill evolves across the interwebs. will a meme surface that people spread because they know it is helping the situation? kind of like how after haiti the tweet that you could donate $10 by retweeting spread. which memes would get the “do-gooder” badge?

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