Tragedy of the Commons

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Garrett Hardin


Street photography is not just a photographic process any longer but a cultural ethos, an obsessive way of seeing the world as always possessable, to be acquired, collected, managed, and ultimately sold.

When people call some of the worst technologies that plop out of Silicon Valley “creepy,” this is what they mean: They are referring to the street photographer ethos of looking at people and the world as images for the taking to be reused for their own purposes.

Nathan Jurgenson


When we choose to say something in public, we choose to broadcast it to the world. The world is then able to talk about it. That is how it works.

Hamilton Nolan


The industry’s widespread individual challenges to user boundaries become a collective assertion of the right to challenge—that is, to perform actions which are known to transgress people’s internally set or externally stated boundaries. The competitive advantage, perceived or actual, of boundary violation turns from an “advantage” over the competition into a requirement for keeping up with them.

Betsy Haibel 

Nathan Jurgenson’s post about Finding Vivian Maier got me thinking about public spaces and the tragedy of the commons. While referring to this as the “street photography ethos” is a bit of a “not all street photography” troll, there’s more than a kernel of truth in that description. It’s not street photography which is the problem, rather it’s the increasing sense that because anything in public is legal to capture and share, that it’s okay for anyone to appropriate and share all of it even if it means behavior that even kids know is inappropriate.

We live in a world were upskirt cameras get crowdfunded and there are whole online communities dedicated to creepshots. We have corporations opting us into things without consent, media companies skimming twitter conversations, and governments gathering metadata. None of this is illegal. Nor should it be. But that doesn’t make any of it appropriate.

I don’t want to raise my kids to do the right thing just because doing the wrong thing could get them busted by the cops. I don’t want them to define “right” as “not illegal,” or even worse, “whatever they can get aware with.”

Nor do I want to legislate “right” by making everything that seems inappropriate a crime. That way lies madness.

But I’m worried. I’ve lived through a time of unprecedented voluntary information sharing where I’ve gotten to know people all over the world just by interacting with them on the web. I’ve seen all kinds of wonderful street photography and, while I don’t shoot street myself, I do enjoy mostly-unfettered access when I walk around the city with my camera. I’m expecting both of these worlds to constrict. Tremendously.

In many ways I can see it happening already.

I’m seeing people on Twitter contemplating leaving because it’s no longer fun. While I disagree with the Twitter eulogy, there is something there. Some of it is the shine finally rubbing off the new toy. Some of it is the sense of loss by it no longer being an exclusive club.* But a lot of it also feels like disillusionment with the permanent web and the way it’s playing out. Instead of a situation where the “can’t make any mistakes ever” aspect of being a politician gets eroded as people realize how insane that standard is. More and more people are finding out that they’re being held to the same standard.

*Including all the classist, rascist, etc. elements implicit in this view.

Say one stupid thing on Twitter and you can lose your job. Create a hashtag that spreads like wildfire? Your whole timeline will get data-mined and cherry-picked and shared by the media.

This is an impossible standard.

It’s no wonder people may be getting tired. It’s no wonder people are playing with newer apps that purport to delete messages or anonymize content. Even us old-fogies on the web are finding ourselves migrating back to IRC for this kind of thing.* Or at the very least we’re using Twitter DMs a lot more than we used to.

*My Means and Ends post covers some of this territory already.

We’re retreating from the public space because we no longer trust it or it’s become a hassle to deal with. Or both. This sucks.

It sucks for the public space. It sucks for the people who are unable to leave it and as a result have to put up with the increasing exposure and victim blaming there. It sucks for the people who have to keep changing their behavior to avoid that space. And it sucks for the people who need a vibrant public space in order to do what they love.

Not that I know what to do about it big picturewise. I’ll keep teaching my kids how to behave in public while also teaching them how to protect themselves. I’ll try to do the same myself. And I’ll cross my fingers and hope enough of the rest of us remember that doing the right thing is a higher standard than doing the legal thing.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

4 thoughts on “Tragedy of the Commons”

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: