On the Commodification of A Priori Egalitarian Systems
(Why yes, I am feeling in an academic mood today. How could you tell?)
So, I'm sure you've read this study of the economy of Norrath. (For those of you who haven't: Norrath is the virtual world in the game EverQuest, and this paper is a fascinating analysis of its economy. Possessions in the virtual world are often bought and sold online for real money; you can even establish an exchange rate given these transactions, in which the Norrathian platinum piece comes out as stronger than the lira or yen. But if you haven't, read the article. It's fascinating stuff, and humorously written.) Now, as you might expect, all characters are created equally; everyone starts out as a Level 1 weakling with nothing to his, her, or its name. In EverQuest's many predecessors (note: I've never played EverQuest itself, but I'm familiar with MUDs, the ancestor of MMORPGs like EverQuest), the only way to build up your character was by expending time in the virtual world -- time spent improving your character's abilities, obtaining equipment and money, and forging friendships and alliances with other characters. But now, with the ability of outside wealth to influence a player's ability, one can substitute cold, hard US cash for expenditure of time in the world of Norrath. As Castronova notes, "Unfortunately the equality of opportunity is beginning to erode...It has become possible to start a new avatar and use US currency to instantly endow it with vast virtual riches and expensive equipment." (p. 15) I've seen enough complaints about rich kids buying their way to success to figure that this is an issue which makes people unhappy, and with good reason. (If you want to get all Marxist, you can insert the appropriate rhetoric: the bourgoisie, with their capital -- capital not even acquired within the world of the game! -- can use this capital to take advantage of the labor of the proletariat. Wasn't that fun?)
Now, Sony has attempted to prevent this kind of trading (not, of course, for any kind of socialist utopia reasons, but because they believe -- arguably correctly -- that the game's property is their intellectual property), but although they've tried to stamp out auctions in eBay and Yahoo, it's awfully hard to prevent the black market. Castronova says, "My impression is that the ban has had little impact on trading. Sony, effectively the government of Norrath, is fighting a war of trade restrictions that no government has ever won." (p. 19) The truth is, as long as these commodities have value to people, they will be bought and sold, regardless of what Sony wants to enforce.
It's hard to feel too worked up about this issue, since it is a game I don't play after all (although I suspect I might be a little annoyed if I actually did play the game). But an issue that hits a little closer to home is the Google vs. SearchKing issue. Now, of course I fully support Google; it's hard not to feel that businesses like SearchKing are a little sleazy. Google has always cast itself as the promoter of egalitarianism; their description of PageRank touts itself as relying "on the uniquely democratic nature of the web" and strongly emphasizes that only a page's merit will determine its PageRank. But reading through this article, and then James Grimmelmann's article in LawMeme (another excellent read), brought me to this open letter from SearchKing CEO Bob Massa. The letter, of course, portrays SearchKing as a company just trying to help those struggling little mom-and-pop web sites; you can make your own decisions about just how truthful it is, but Massa makes a very troubling point in his letter: "People are going to start selling PR [PageRank] regardless of what Google does. If there is value in it, someone is going to sell it."
And the simple truth is, regardless of whatever the truth may be about SearchKing's real mission, Massa is right. In the world of Google, a high PageRank is valuable, and, well, if a less-reputable site wants to offer money to a site with a high PageRank to get them to link to them...Google can try to go after the SearchKings of the world, like Sony can go after the obvious auctions on eBay and Yahoo, but on a practical level, there's no way to stop it. You and I might find it distasteful, and Google almost certainly has an interest in quashing it, since it reduces the value of their rankings without any compensation to Google, but that can't stop it from happening. Does this mean that I think PageRank is ultimately doomed? I have confidence that it's currently too impractical to significantly boost one's ranking this way, especially when the alternative of making a higher-quality site is available, but the fact that SearchKing had succeeded in improving the reputation of itself and its clients does indicate that it can be done. The invisible hand is just too powerful in these situations; a black market will always spring up even if the government tries to prohibit commerce in these goods.