LessWrong users can up/downvote posts and comments, which then receive a karma boost (capped by the voters own karma). There is no limit to how many different posts and comments one can do this to. In this sense there is an unlimited supply of karma to be handed out. (This is also the case for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, HackerNews(?), Medium, …)
Is this important? That is, does it have non-trivial medium or long-term effects on the “LessWrong economy”—the kind and amount of content that gets produced?
Here are some quick thoughts I wrote down. I publish this question despite them being unfinished, instead of letting them wither deep in my Google Drive.
Under the current system…
Over time, it’s not clear whether karma is inflationary or deflationary. It depends at least on whether the rate of growth of content is slower or faster than the rate of increase of karma production.
The only way to get a large amount of karma is to produce content that appeals to many users, or produce a large amount of content that appeals to at least some users. One cannot get high karma by producing a small amount of content that a small number of users likes a lot.
If the real economy was like this, there wouldn’t exist businesses like SpaceX, Palantir or Boeing.
Something seems very broken about LW, if, were the big world to run on LW principles, people wouldn’t be able to fly as a means of travel. Lots of people want to fly. But very few are able to pay for the construction of a 747. So we only have airtravel because there can exist intermediaries who can make that payment, and in turn get rewarded by collecting all the little flight desires of very many people kind-of-keen to fly.
Currently, there cannot be any such intermediaries on LessWrong. A concrete example of a LessWrong Boeing might be something like: CFAR really wants someone to write a 40-page literature review of X. No one else really cares, apart from the fact that were CFAR to get that review, their workshops would improve pretty significantly for most attendees.
There are fewer free-rider problems. Despite content being non-excludable and publicly available, users have an incentive to upvote things, because Alice doing so instead of Bob does not cost Alice anything (we’re assuming they both end up consuming the content, so attention and time costs are the same).
This seems very important, and like something that could offset the “Boeing problem” mentioned above.
If instead of the current system each karma point given was taken from your own score, then…
One could not indefinitely keep up/down-voting content without producing new content oneself. In practice, one could do this if one had created one beacon of amazing work in the past.
Over time, as the same amount of karma gets spread across more and more content, the value of a karma point increases (because the opportunity cost of what else that karma point could have been used for increases).
There might be even more deflationary pressure on karma if users produce great content but then leave the site.
There is a disconnect between content karma and user karma. A user who has produced much high-quality content might not have a corresponding amount of karma, having given it away.
A salient implementation is that an upvote costs exactly the amount of karma that’s being awarded to the content. But how much karma should downvotes cost?
It is unclear how a limited karma supply interfaces with a limited maximal upvote size
There might be lessons from macroeconomics and monetary policy relevant to this. I don’t know, because I know something-that-rounds-to-nothing about those fields.