If every shepherd grazed their sheep on a common parcel of land, the land would suffer from overgrazing and be destroyed. Hence, the tragedy of the commons.
Any common, shared, resource is susceptible to being destroyed when the benefits of its use accrue to the individual and the costs are shared among the group.
In a group (or community), the social capital (the strength of connections between members of the group) is the common parcel of land. Any individual can tap the social capital for personal gain. Looking for a job? Ask the group. Need help on a problem? Ask the group. Looking for emotional support? Seek it within the group.
If every member asked to borrow a phone charger, seek help on a work problem, or ranted about their boss tomorrow, the group would implode. This sets an upper limit on what the commons can sustain.
When the group’s social capital is low, when members are too few or too loosely connected, you can tap out the social capital pretty quickly.
Chris lists some effective ways of overcoming this tragedy of the commons. 3 ideas stand out (1) Define who has the right to use the resource and for what purpose (2) Make the individual who benefits pay the cost (3) share knowledge.
Let’s adapt these a little:
1) Be clear how the group’s social capital can be used
If you don’t want people asking for help to find a job, say so. That’s a big drain on social capital for an individual’s benefit.
2) Make the beneficiary pay the costs
Force the beneficiary to answer future questions, share their best tip or piece of expert knowledge, or (at minimum) personally drop a note to those that tried to help and thank them – perhaps ask if there’s anything they can help with? This pays the cost of getting the response.
3) Monitor and share system knowledge
Involve a broader group to monitor and highlight problems. Is any one individual taking more than they give? Do they feel used? Is each contribution adding or subtracting value to/from the group?
Imagine what happens when you ask a question, members also have to commit to answering questions and thanking those that help them. I think that’s a system that scales well and overcomes the free-rider problem.