Framing idea for introducing newcomers to concept of public goods

The other day @wolftune and I were discussing the wiki about/intro page that I have been working on and we (well mostly Aaron) stumbled onto a framing that we think would be useful when introducing newcomers to Snowdrift. Specifically we were discussing how leading with an introduction to the concept/definition of public goods would be a good way to begin to illustrate the what and why behind Snowdrift; especially because many newcomers may not yet have a full understanding of the distinction between public/private/common/club goods, and some of those lines can get fuzzy at times. As most of us here know, in order for a good to be public, it must be non-rivalrous, and non-exclusive, but we thought an easy way to illustrate that distinction is with a simple sort of ‘test’ to be applied to any might-be-public-good:

  1. Is it rivalrous?
  2. Is it exclusive of the four freedoms, i.e. the freedoms to use, study, modify, and share?

If both answers are no, then it’s a public good! If the good in question is non-rivalrous but is exclusive of even one of these freedoms, it’s a club good. In some ways this might seem like a pretty obvious approach, but I think framing it as a test like this is useful and very succinct. Writing as someone to whom these ideas are still relatively new, I would get tripped up sometimes when confronted with an example of a good that granted some of those freedoms but not all.

Anyway, this is just sort of a seed of an idea, but we thought it might be a useful thing to include or even lead with in that About page (it could be useful on some other wiki pages too, like here maybe?), and that it was just worth sharing/discussing in a more general way too.

1 Appreciation

In the conversation, we got to applying this test. Concrete examples will force us to clarify the test itself so we end up with reliably precise questions. Examples off the top of my head:

  • Wikipedia?
    • Non-rivalrous to read (ignoring near-zero bandwidth server costs), but there’s rivalry around whose edits get accepted and stable officially (we can’t both edit the same sentence in conflicting ways and get our version on the main page). Take away: we need to clarify that the rivalrous question in general is fuzzy and doesn’t apply to the issue of publishing a specific recognized/endorsed/official edition.
    • Use with freedom? check. Study? check (we can see the raw markup, the history, and also the source code of the software that runs it) Modify? check (besides modifying directly, we can modify our own copy, and that is the test we care about). Share? check (it’s fine that it has the Share-Alike restriction that says you can’t remove the freedoms when you share it, but otherwise, sharing is unemcumbered and non-exclusive, anyone can copy and share.

So, updated fleshed out test questions:

Is it rivalrous or exclusive:

  1. to use?
  2. to study?
  3. to modify a copy?
  4. to share (i.e. publish and copy for others, both original or modified versions)?

Let’s consider another example:

  • Public park?
    • Use? There are often some restrictions on when use is allowed and restrictions on what the park may be used for, so it’s fuzzy and not unambiguously free from usage restrictions. It’s rivalrous at a point where it gets crowded or one type of use (e.g. some particular game) limits use for others
    • Study? sure
    • Modify (a copy)? Sure, if you copy a park by making another with the same design, you are free to modify that copy, but copying has practical feasibility issues. Modifying the original park itself is rivalrous to whatever extend it’s allowed anyway (which is usually limited)
    • Share? Yes

Okay, parks are clearly fuzzy and have a lot of aspects of public goods but have rivalrous aspects which make them more like common-pool resources, rivalrous but non-exclusive.

  • Public radio (e.g. NPR in the U.S.)?
    • Use? Sure, everyone can listen at once, no rivalry, no exclusions
    • Study? Well, how far does this freedom go? Do we need to have access to the unedited source materials to study how the stories were put together? Studying is free for the primary published material, and unlike software programs, we don’t really need the source material to know what the story is doing or how it works.
    • Modify (a copy)? Sure, privately copying and editing radio stories isn’t blocked for anyone
    • Share? NO! Even public radio has All Rights Reserved terms that require special permission for anyone to publish the stories. Each affiliate station pays for the right to do this. And sharing modified versions is only allowed up to where it counts as “fair use” under U.S. law.

So, public radio is a club good even though use is non-exclusive. The freedom to share is limited to an exclusive club.

Perhaps the Open Content 5 R’s could be a good alternative test. Retain, Revise, Remix, Reuse, Redistribute. Another good formal definition is the Open Definition which defines “Open Works”[1] Importantly, the Open Definition highlights access which all the other definitions seem to ignore or sideline, but that is key to public goods. It’s not enough to have freedom to use if accessing something at all is restricted or artificially limited.

We already reference the Open Definition among other definitions for required terms for projects at Snowdrift Wiki - Project Requirements

The question here is how to boil down these formal terms into something that is accessible to the general public and successfully pumps their intuitions.

I suggested that there are unambiguous public goods and semi-public-goods (or partially-public, however we want to say it).

So, we’re looking for a question everyone can easily ask even if they aren’t comfortable answering it at first. Something like “can anyone and everyone freely Retain, Revise, Remix, Reuse, and Redistribute the work?” If so, that counts as public goods.

One concern: I want people to focus on the economic nature of public goods, not just the question of whether publications are FLO. The FLO-digital-works test questions might be too narrow. Cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Gyre is economically a public goods issue. The result of the work benefits the whole world not some exclusive group, the value is non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. But it doesn’t fit the 5 R’s or 4 freedoms. The important thing is that it doesn’t fail the test questions. It just doesn’t apply. Use of a healthier world isn’t rivalrous or exclusive, nor is studying, modifying copies, or sharing… it’s just that copying isn’t something that applies at all.

So, maybe the test should focus on whether there are restrictions.

A carefully complete test

I’ve updated the test with my preferred and precise language for all the important points:

  1. Is it rivalrous? I.e. does one person enjoying the work reduce its availability or value to others?
  2. Are any freedoms reserved to an exclusive club? Particularly the freedoms to access the resource, to retain copies, to revise copies (with access to enough source material that revision is practical and not hampered), to remix, to use and reuse, and to share (both original and modified versions)?

I don’t like the verboseness of the explanations, but the two key questions are pretty short and clear. I didn’t include the freedom to modify the original/official version as that seems inevitably rivalrous, so while that could be either exclusive or non-exclusive, it can’t be a public-goods feature (or else nothing would be public goods).


Wikipedia passes the test.

Parks can pass the test only with notable qualifications (rivalry depends if there’s a risk of crowding; there’s no restrictions on the freedoms but they mostly are non-applicable)

Public radio fails the test (freedom to share is exclusive)

Environmental clean-up passes the test (with the caveat that the freedoms are non-applicable)

Let’s add one more: GitLab partially passes the test because the FLO part of their work passes, but the proprietary features are exclusive, so as a whole project, it fails the test.

We aren’t planning to fund stuff like parks let alone environmental clean-up work. But we could in principle expand to those things because they do have the core economic public-goods situation that we’re focusing on addressing. Clearing a snowdrift from the road is itself in this category. So, I think explicitly including this in the scope of the intuitions we give newcomers is important. It’s not enough that people understand that we’re funding FLO digital works, our priority is that people notice that FLO digital works are a type of public goods, and they need a concept of public goods in order to see that and then really have it click what the issues are here.

  1. Open Works are explicitly limited to computer-based digital publications by specifying that they must be in a machine-readable format, and it goes deeper than most other definitions by adding an Open Format requirement stating that works must be usable without the need for proprietary software. (Side-note, I was one of the committee members that created the updated Open Definition) ↩︎

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I struggle with this a bit when explaining to people. I don’t think it’s just the verbose-ness (although “non-rivalrous” is a mouthful); I think the main issue is how many new terms we’re introducing at once. Rivalrous, club goods, public goods… the only one we really care about is “public goods”. That requires an understanding of what public goods are not, but it doesn’t require them to remember the term for it.

So, I think something with a little less formal language might be useful here. Like:

Litmus test for public goods

  1. Is is naturally scarce?
  2. Is it artificially scarce?

These aren’t quite technically correct, but I think they’re close enough, and the concepts of artificial scarcity and “post-scarcity society” are slightly more well-known (people might at least have heard the term before).

1 Appreciation

This is good (avoiding the jargon of “rivalrous”). But the core point I was bringing up is that we need to clarify that the scarcity/exclusion in question refers to a full set of freedoms. So, I want people not to think that access to public radio is enough, we have to ask them to test the set of freedoms. Public radio fails because publishing/sharing rights are artificially scarce.

So maybe:

A. Is it naturally scarce?
B. Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?

If “no” to both, then it’s a public good!

Testing the test:

  • Wikipedia: No scarcity or exclusions, it’s a public good!
  • Public park: well, there’s some scarcity in terms of potential crowding, and copying is not really a thing… maybe sorta public good if there’s no realistic crowding or per-use wear-and-tear, but maybe it’s more like a commons than a public good
  • Public radio: not scarce, but yeah there’s restrictions on who can change and share it; not a full public good
  • Environmental clean-up (of public area like the ocean): there’s no scarcity to the benefits (we all benefit) and no restrictions (it’s just that copying and changing and sharing don’t really apply), I guess it’s a public good!
  • GitLab software (not the host service): well, it’s not scarce, but there are restrictions on who can copy, use, change, and share the proprietary features. So, not a complete public good.
  • Some unlicensed code on GitHub: well, technically that’s All Rights Reserved, so that amounts to restrictions, not a public good technically
  • Some gratis software stated that anyone can do anything with it, but with no published source code: well, only the guy with the source code can practically change it, so that amounts to one of the freedoms being exclusive, thus not a full public good.
  • Fish in the sea: naturally scarce, not a public good.

I think my updated 2-point test works and is the best yet. And “copy, use, change, and share” covers it enough. It’s missing “study” but the source question is captured by “practically”. I like including “copy” (a la “retain” from the Rs) because various other things like change/modify need to be understood as adapting copies not necessarily the original and because retention is indeed vital.

I absolutely love this discussion and think it will align well with the hopefully-accepted SeaGL talk!

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Proposing an update that doesn’t avoid jargon because full avoidance will confuse those who know or see the jargon. We just don’t want to rely on it. So, by using the jargon as test-name (not only 1 2 or A B), I think this is the best yet:

Is this a public goods project?

A. Rivalry test: Is it naturally scarce?
B. Club goods test: Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?

Notes on wording details

I’m not sure about “rivalry” vs “rivalrous” vs “rivalrousness” and about “club goods” vs “exclusive” vs “exclusions” vs “exclusive club” or similar. But I’m pretty sure that using a name for each test is ideal. I really like this format of “Test name: test question?”

One more note on the wording “restrictions” is great because it implies artificial. There are limits to who can practically change something just based on changes that require expertise to do, but nobody would call that “restrictions”. So, we can’t just say “can anybody freely and practically…” the question is definitely whether there are “restrictions on who…”

At this point, I think it’s pretty close to perfect in that every detail of the test serves a specific necessary purpose.

1 Appreciation

I still like “artificial scarcity” as a more well-known term, and I like using “scarce” in both questions to tie them together. Maybe something like

  1. Rivalry test: Is it naturally scarce?
    • Some more specific “litmus test” questions here, to explain how to answer the main question.
  2. Club goods test: Is it artificially scarce?
    • Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?
1 Appreciation

That natural-vs-artificial is super great and clear if we only cared about access.

However, the intuitions it pumps are the very ones I’m trying to get past in this topic. “Artificially scarce” gives everyone the sense that the resource could be available to everyone but it’s paywalled. It pushes everyone to say that public radio is not artificially scarce, and then they are set up to argue or feel jerked around when we say “yeah, but publishing rights are scarce” (that’s just a bad use of “scarce”).

“Artificially scarce” really only works for paywalls. The top priority for this whole topic is to aim directly at everyone right away intuiting that the freedoms are the key question and not something tacked on.

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Reflecting today, I think again the win-win is to have the jargon but not rely on it, and I think “exclusive” is a term we need to include. So:

Is this a public goods project?

A. Rivalry test: Is it naturally scarce?
B. Exclusivity test: Are there restrictions on who can freely and practically: (1) copy, (2) use, (3) change, and (4) share?

And this makes it easy to tie into the oft-used grid (which I’ve adapted in very specific ways that I think make it far more accessible than any other versions I’ve seen):


Note: that’s a screen shot from elsewhere because apparently Discourse doesn’t respect colspan and rowspan in tables. I don’t like the zebra-striping. I’d like to have it highlight the two No’s to point right to public goods.

HTML for table
      <th colspan="2" rowspan="2">Types of goods</th>
      <th colspan="2" style="text-align: center; vertical-align: middle;">Scarce?</th>
      <th rowspan="2" style="text-align: center; vertical-align: middle;">Exclusive?</th>
      <td>Private goods</td>
      <td>Club goods</td>
      <td><strong>Public goods</strong></td>

One more note: Wikipedia (and elsewhere) use “excludable” instead of “exclusive”, and I dislike that. Something is public goods not only based on whether exclusions are possible but whether they are actually done. Something is inevitably non-exclusive if it is non-excludable. But excludable things that are not actually made exclusive can still be public goods as long as exclusions are not added.

Overall, I think we should embrace this chart and the (improved) technical terms but frame them with the improved, accessible test questions. Then, it all needs to be presented in a clear order that succeeds at getting everyone to have the core intuitions. Once people have their intuitions sorted out, they are ready for understanding everything else we are focused on, crowdmatching, cooperation, etc etc

3 Appreciations

This is a really interesting thread. I don’t feel qualified to contribute much on the subject yet, but I wanted to say that having the visual of the table really helped my brain to process the information! I’d be happy to see that at an early stage of browsing the site, but I don’t think I’d want to be overloaded with all the details too early on.

4 Appreciations

I was thinking further about our framing of public goods.

I think we can and probably should take the positive angle about public goods and avoid direct negativity about club goods. All we need is to suggest that there are great reasons to care about public goods, and thus the need for a way to support them better.

In the past, I’ve often been critical and defensive about the injustices of club goods. They set up power dynamics that are often abused and we don’t get to see what we’re missing about all the potential evolution and creativity that is blocked, and so on. Going forward, I still think it’s okay to discuss the way the power around club goods can be abused, but obviously the power doesn’t have to be used badly.

I think we will thrive by simply emphasizing that the four types of economic goods exist, that public goods have value that is distinct, every sort of goods faces different economic challenges, and we are specifically focused on public goods. Just celebrate that. We can invite any club goods project to consider switching to public goods terms if they feel it’s the right decision for that case. We can say that we want to make that decision easier by providing a better method for funding public goods.

We’re still implicitly criticizing club goods by emphasizing the benefits of public goods. I just think the focus should be on how great public goods can be rather than on how bad club goods can be.

3 Appreciations

I agree about taking a positive angle, and I also think it would be easier to understand if explained in positive terms. Here’s an idea for doing that with the 2x2 matrix:
Public goods 2x2.ods (13.2 KB)

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I love this! Huge improvement. And it really lends to the shortest quip: “Public Goods = Free & Abundant” (or Abundant & Free, not sure what order is better). Or maybe “Abundance + Freedom = Public Goods”

An attempt at tweaking the wording:

  • Abundance: Can it be available to a practically unlimited number of people?
  • Freedom: Does everyone have the rights to access, use, copy, adapt, and share?[1]

I appreciate the points about copying being not always applicable in practice and that in all cases, adapting and sharing really are about adapting and sharing copies. I think it makes sense to clarify that stuff right away in any article or discussion. I’m less sure about whether it’s needed in the chart where we want truly minimal text.

  1. edited from "does everyone have the same freedoms" which was aiming to push against cases where some rights are reserved, e.g. commercial rights; I think we can't have a short sentence that captures all the nuances around copyleft or other details which will just need further explanation ↩︎

2 Appreciations

I like “Abundance + Freedom = Public Goods”.

Here’s a version with re-tweaked wording. I find “practically” problematic in that context because I’m not sure whether to interpret it as a synonym for “virtually”/“effectively” etc. or in the sense of practical vs. impractical.

Public goods 2x2.ods (14.3 KB)

However, after looking at the Wikipedia page about public goods, I’m wondering whether we’re stretching the concept a bit too much to match what we want to use it for? The terminology section says:

Non-rivalrous: accessible by all while one’s usage of the product does not affect the availability for subsequent use.

Non-excludability: that is, it is impossible to exclude any individuals from consuming the good.

There’s nothing there about copying, adapting, or sharing - just about access / usage / consumption, and non-excludability is described as about the inability to exclude people, not a voluntary decision not to exclude people.

2 Appreciations

Might it be more accurate, and easier for people to understand, to summarize what Snowdrift is about as “Crowdmatching for free software and free culture”?

Or maybe “Crowdmatching for free/libre/open goods”?

I know this requires many people to learn what free/libre/open means, but most people also need to learn what public goods means. I’m wondering if the concept of public goods, as understood by many people who are already familiar with it, doesn’t actually fully explain what we’re aiming to fund, and is easily confused with things like NPR and PBS (which the Wikipedia page on public goods cites as an example of a public good).

1 Appreciation

I love this conversation. I think the thoughts and challenges are really leading toward a great, clear, inspiring result.

I started a reply yesterday, and I’m going to flesh out an edited longer post soon. But some key points are:

  • we are in position to lead here, to refine and define the terms (not needing to absolutely defer to Wikipedia for example). Nobody has yet made the issues clear in the way we are working to do right here (more on that soon)
  • we should present a quadrant system, 2-dimension spectrum, not strict yes/no dichotomies; projects have various features and various rights, and each of them can be more or less abundant or free and the project overall can have a place in the 2-dimensional map
  • I think it’s essential we stick to “public goods” and see it as a much more winning rhetoric than FLO, and we can leave open the potential to fund anything that qualifies as public goods enough
    • “public software” is even a term people have proposed to deal with the flaws in “Free” and FLO and so on
    • economically and rhetorically, “public domain” really is the topic here, even though that has a strict legal meaning; we probably should use it in our explanation of public goods in longer articles
  • The status quo is largely to accept that public goods funding is not effective, so something non-public has to be the "product"
    • Real projects have many elements and they are not all public goods necessarily
    • NPR and PBS access rights are public goods, but they make a product out of the club-goods status of publishing-rights and rights to put in ads
    • This basic “what’s the product” framing is super useful. People point out that Facebook users aren’t the customers, they are the product, the customers are the advertisers
    • Nearly all projects seem to focus economically on club-goods or private goods aspects of their work.
      • This can be really well-expressed through discussions of examples
    • Today, public-goods parts of projects function as either (A) the primary focus that gets supported by the non-public-goods or (B) a way to get a share of the attention market in order to support the non-public goods (which become the primary purpose).
  • Our mission is to take on this core challenge of making public goods economically viable directly without reliance on non-public-goods. And addressing that challenge and the widespread cooperation needed to do it is basically the foundational issue for how to build the cooperative economy and society that we need, i.e. this is the meta issue (per Schmactenberger and others).
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@salt asked me to chip in, maybe he thought about something like this?


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@mray that’s neat! I I love how it expresses a continuum (instead of binary) and puts the focus on public goods.

I think “free” here still has the dilemma around vague meaning. I kinda think “open” is the best accessible term really. Maybe open + abundant.

Maybe “FLO” is the term, though we have the dilemma that FLO is not itself something naive lay people will understand. Also, we don’t usually apply FLO to Common Goods (FLO fish in the river?).

I have other continuing concerns and questions that are not yet clear enough to even myself to be ready to think about how to present them best. More on that soon.

Freedoms, rights?

I was thinking that freedoms can themselves be considered a thing or a feature of a product, but alternatively “rights” are a way to talk about it. Like, what is the “good”? Instead of it being the entirety of a project, we might talk in terms of features or qualities. I’m thinking in the direction of saying that for a particular project, the publishing-rights are a club good while access-rights are a public good…

Continuing my evolving thoughts

One realization: the traditional analysis as shown at Wikipedia (and which @Salt mentions is from Elinor Ostrom) has a core flaw that is perhaps the issue I’m pushing back on. By use of “excludable”, it is asserting that the economic principles at play are those of exclusivity. That framing fundamentally assumes that anything excludable should or will be made exclusive. Otherwise, why treat anything excludable as a club good? Obviously if there’s no exclusive restrictions on something, then there’s no club and none of the club-goods economics apply. We might note that it’s possible to lock something down, but the economic issues of clubs only come up if and when the restrictions are actually put in place.

We might, perhaps uncharitably, see the original model as presuming that anything excludable might as well be treated as exclusive. It’s like saying, “we only have to worry about the icky, wicked, difficult dilemmas about public goods and commons if we fail to lock things down”, as though the restrictions are the obvious answer. I could imagine (no clue how valid this is) Ostrom basically giving in to the privatization argument and saying “sure, privatization solves things, but I’m here to show you the limits of privatization by pointing out that some cases are impossible to privatize, so we have to grapple with commons and public goods!!”

By contrast, my assertion is that we don’t need to assume privatization-whenever-possible. We can flat out say that there are benefits to retaining FLO public and commons status of things. And as long as that status is retained, then obviously we do face the dilemmas, we are economically dealing with commons and public goods.

If a whole community accepts that some gardening tools are to be left in the community garden and there is no realistic threat of anyone taking them, then these could-be-private-goods are in fact not economically private goods but are common goods. Also, let’s ask: could they be public goods? Clearly only one person can use a tool at any one time. But if it happens that there’s no realistic scenario in which multiple people care to use the same tool at the same time, then it might as well be public goods, there’s no actual rivalry. The core point is that exclusivity and rivalry are economically important factors in understanding how we deal with any situation. It divorces from reality if we try to nail down a universal forever status of each thing or project. We just need the language and framework to say that rivalry and exclusivity are two of the most important aspects of any economic situation.

So, our framing could describes abundance vs rivalry, and FLO vs restricted so that people understand that these are the main issues. I wonder if it could be useful to actually label them that way, as the opposite ends of continuum rather than picking one and asking “yes/no”? So instead of “is it abundant, yes or no?” or even “how abundant is it?” we might consider asking “is it abundant or rivalrous?” and “is it FLO or restricted?”

This is not a proposal as final grid but I’m sharing to prompt further thinking:


      <th colspan="2" rowspan="2">Types of goods</th>
      <th colspan="2" style="text-align: center; vertical-align: middle;">Rivalry?</th>
      <th rowspan="2" style="text-align: center; vertical-align: middle;">Exclusivity?</th>
      <td>Private goods</td>
      <td>Club goods</td>
      <td><strong>Public goods</strong></td>

FLO as a choice, rivalry less so?

A key thought: Is rivalrousness more inherent while exclusivity is often a choice?

As a musician, I could choose to focus on rivalrous works or not (concerts and lessons versus recordings and writings), but can I turn one into the other? I know I can choose whether to make things more FLO or not (concert in the park for anyone who comes versus ticketed-show, paywalls or ads on recordings versus FLO publication and legal status).

So, we have four types of goods that face different economic realities. Within that, maybe we can emphasize that FLOness is a choice (and one that will involve less trade-offs the more we figure out how to economically support that choice).

Pulling a bit away from the strict public-goods focus, maybe we could emphasize that FLOness could be a choice for rivalrous goods too. It’s the choice between private goods and common goods.

In this framing, we might emphasize the question of the FLO choice instead of putting the main emphasis on public goods. We can still talk about how the methods for supporting the choice to go FLO are different for commons vs public goods, and that crowdmatching is more aimed at public goods.

What about rivalry as a choice? Can someone take normally rivalrous things and make them less rivalrous? In practice, that could be just a matter of providing enough quantity/capacity that rivalry disappears. Supply-and-demand really. When the supply is high enough, rivalry disappears, even for scarce-in-principle physical goods. Another way to adjust rivalrousness might be in the choice of whether to realize an abstract concept more in hardware vs in software.

What about a club-good that is also made artificially scarce? It seems rare in practice, but software can be released with a limited number of licenses to be sold (could even allow resale of licenses or similar schemes). Economically, that would make software be a private good because it would have both rivalry and exclusivity, though both would be artificially imposed.

It might help to separate the issues of the economic factors (exclusivity and rivalry) from the question of artifice.

Better terms than “public” vs “common”?

I do want to flag that “commons” and “common” are commonly used for things that this framework calls “public goods” and this is widespread enough that it’s probably impossible to completely shift everything. Consider “Creative Commons” (which is only used for non-rivalrous works)!

Can we come up with a better way to talk about the difference between the two FLOish, public, categories, one being rivalrous and the other abundant? If we could find better terms, it would be a boon.

Thanks for reading these long in-progress thoughts. I’m finding some important value in long-form working out of these ideas, and I feel better about this process having space for it and still sharing and getting feedback instead of waiting to share ideas until I have a carefully edited concise proposal nor doing it all in back-and-forth conversation.

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