The Death of Voting
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Disclaimer: I am not arguing that curation rewards should be removed. In fact, I currently receive more rewards through curation than through authoring posts. I am simply arguing that Steem/Steemit can survive without curation rewards. I would love to hear your thoughts about this.
I have been very interested in the recent debate about the different economic models offered by Steem and (theoretically) offered by Synereo. On the one hand you have Steem, which uses a straightforward order-of-stake weighted algorithm for determining curation rewards, along with a time penalty for early voting. On the other hand, you have Synereo, which supposedly will allow for a type of free market in users' attention.
Along with this debate, there has been a slight resurgence in the discussion about curation rewards themselves, what the positives and negatives of this system are, and whether or not such a system is even necessary. There are some who suppose that Steem cannot survive without a direct financial incentive to encourage voting (such as the current curation rewards). It is hard to take such a claim seriously, since there currently exist countless social media sites that offer no financial incentives for participating period, let alone paying users to vote.
Steem Can Survive Without Curation Rewards
The short story of this argument is simple: millions of people already vote on millions of posts per day on hundreds of social media sites that offer no financial incentive to vote. How can you argue Steem will fail without curation rewards, when Reddit has orders of magnitude more users and no curation rewards? It doesn't make sense to argue curation rewards are necessary to promote voting when almost every existing social media platform has found success with no financial incentives for users to participate.
The long story of this claim requires thinking about what motivates users to vote. As Mises said, all economics ultimately boils down to understanding human action and psychology. So, I have tried to compile a list of motivations that may continue to encourage users to vote assuming there were no curation rewards.
- Voting is a social activity. Why do people 'like' their friends' posts on facebook? Why do they retweet Twitter posts that they like? Why do they re-pin posts that they like on Pinterest? I would claim that the vast majority of these 'curation' activities across social media platforms are purely that, social activities. By showing support for each other's content, interacting, providing feedback, etc..., we build our social network and form closer connections. Friendships and relationships will motivate people to vote on content.
- Voting to earn author rewards. Clearly if there were zero other incentives to vote, people would at least vote for their own content in order to try to get a share of the author rewards. If this were not the case and no one voted for anything, I could write a short post, vote for myself, and claim the entire amount of author rewards for myself. Clearly that will never happen, because people would continue to vote, at least for their own posts.
- Voting to promote content you like and ideas you support. Regardless of curation rewards, there are some who will continue to vote on posts that they find entertaining, motivating, or valuable. People will continue to vote for posts that promote causes they support. In fact, even with curation rewards, it is likely that many users derive more 'value' from the act of promoting certain posts than they do in terms of curation rewards received from a post. This is especially true given that the majority of users already receive nearly zero curation rewards. In a purely mathematical sense, most users would be better of working a minimum wage job than they would be browsing articles and voting. Nevertheless, they are here doing just that.
- Altruistic voting. There will inevitably be kind, altruistic individuals posting on behalf of worthy charities, organizations, and individuals that are in need. Since voting is essentially costless, and author rewards are very real, voting for these types of posts will likely be attractive to many people, especially those who support such organizations elsewhere.
- Voting to retain members. Anyone paying attention to the platform can see that there is a reasonable amount of displeasure with the current distribution of author rewards. Whether or not that displeasure is warranted is another discussion which I will avoid. Nonetheless, many users claim that valuable content from new members is being lost in the news feeds as whales pile on votes to already established members with large followings. Of course, obviously this is the case. It is the obvious outcome (whether good or bad) of the curation system. The system rewards identifying valuable content. The best indicator of post success is previous post success by the same user. Therefore, people pile on votes to posts by those with previous valuable posts. This is common sense. It was the obvious outcome from day one. Nevertheless, there are now other incentives at play. If enough people are upset with this system and leave, the loss in value of your Steem Power could be far greater than any curation rewards you could have received along the way. Even without curation rewards, some users will continue to vote for new users in order to make them feel welcome, and some will continue to vote for posts that they believe are under-appreciated in order to make content creators feel more valued on the platform.
- Voting to maximize return on investment. This point follows from the previous one. If whales repeatedly vote for the same users, other users will get disheartened and leave the system. At a certain point, the value of Steem will drop so far that curation rewards cannot make up for the loss in value of their account. Therefore, at that point, whales would be better off financially to vote in such a way as to maximize user growth and retention, rather than to maximize curation rewards. It is likely that this feedback mechanism will suffer from a very long delay time, and significant damage could be done to the reputation of Steem/Steemit in the meantime. Even without curation rewards, dolphins and whales will continue to vote for content that they believe increases the value of the platform.
Voting Extremes: @wang vs. @robinhoodwhale
One useful method for considering the effects of an economic theory is to look at the extremes. In regards to curation rewards, I believe the two greatest extremes are the case of the actor solely motivated by financial rewards (i.e. @wang), and the actor solely motivated by benevolence and altruism (i.e. @robinhoodwhale).
Disclaimer: It is not my intention to make @wang out to be a villian, nor is it my intention to make @robinhoodwhale out to be a saint. They were just the two accounts that best represented the extremes I have in mind.
@robinhoodwhale (the altruistic voter)
The question is, would @robinhoodwhale continue to vote if curation rewards were removed? The answer is obviously yes. It has been the stated intention of the Robinhood Whale project to promote valuable content from less well-known accounts. The motivation behind this project is to increase user retention, spread value to more accounts, and help struggling authors to be noticed. In comparison to this motivation, curation rewards are a far lesser concern. It has been stated from the beginning that an investment in @robinhoodwhale will probably not directly yield a valuable return on investment, but rather can result in a return on investment in the form of a better user experience and, possibly a related appreciation in the value of the Steem token.
@wang (the financially-motivated voter)
A more difficult question is, would the purely financially-motivated voter (i.e. @wang) continue to vote in the absence of curation rewards. I would argue that, if he is intelligent (and I personally believe he is very intelligent), then @wang would realize that it makes financial sense as described above to maximize the user experience and retention by contributing towards other whales' efforts to discover and promote valuable content. Increasing the user experience and improving public perceptions of Steem/Steemit could ultimately yield a return on investment through the appreciation of vested Steem Power far greater than potential curation rewards at the current Steem Power valuation.
It has not been my intention in this post to argue the merits of keeping or eliminating the current curation rewards system. I am simply trying to point out that Steem/Steemit can certainly survive without them. Whether or not eliminating them would be a GOOD decision is another matter, and a question for another day. However, eliminating curation rewards would not be the death of voting, nor would it spell the end for Steem.