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Problem

All these terms sketch out the same problem. Namely that of initiating a successful network or (here) web-community. If there are no users it is not useful for newly arriving visitors, but unless it is useful, there are going to be no users to make it useful. John Platt described such problems as social traps. A social trap is a situation in which behaviour that brings small personal advantages, but greater social or long-term disadvantages, is perpetuated nevertheless. The opposite case, in which personal disadvantages keep people from engaging in behaviour which would have greater collective benefits, is called a social fence. In order to attain critical mass, a social fence is what has to be overcome.

Platt identified three kinds of social traps (and corresponding fences): individual traps, where, for the same person, the benefits work in the short term, and the disadvantages in the long term (smoking with risk of cancer is an example); missing hero traps, where a collective problem can be alleviated by the (for him disadvantageous) actions of a single individual; and collective traps, where the collective disadvantage can only be alleviated if most actors cooperate (a tragedy of the commons such as the overgrazing of a common pasture is an example). Critical mass problems are social fences that can be classified in between the missing hero and collective trap types.

The existence of social traps indicates that the free market, or even free choice, can sometimes lead to sub-optimal or even detrimental outcomes. A particularly hard to tackle type of social trap are nested social traps; what Platt calls social chains. These are situations in which multiple social traps interlock and reinforce one another. An example of this is gang violence in poor neighbourhoods (poverty induces crime, crime makes police appear dysfunctional, gangs offer some protection, but perpetuate crime and violence and thus poverty). In case of academic hypertext applications there might also be adverse social chains such as those between career-advancement and journal-publications.

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