Sub-theme 8. Opportunities and challenges of digital commons
Transitioning resource systems from benevolent dictatorship to community management
Communities can co-manage resources. This is not only an empirical fact, but a normative commitment of researchers of common pool resource management. So it can be jarring for practitioners to discover the difficulty of transitioning to community management, even in the ideal case that the existing centralized leadership is eager to transfer control. No where is this more clear than in the management of open source software (OSS), a digital public good of global import. In the OSS ecosystem the norm of “benevolent dictators” is widely practiced, and many hold the role despite hopes or plans to transition to community management. While incremental governance change is widely studied, more discontinuous governance changes, particularly “voluntary revolutions” to community management, are poorly understood. This panel will bring together academics and practitioners to understand the challenges and opportunities in governance transitions to community management of shared resources, both digital and physical.
Panel 8.6. A
1. Managing the common-pool resource of developer effort in Open Source Software projects
1University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA, 2University of California, Davis, USA
Open Source Software (OSS) is increasingly important in our technologically complex world, allowing individuals and organizations to collaboratively create high-value technology. OSS is produced in a way that does not allow any entity to retain control over the project, leading to the creation of a public good. These products, however, are produced by individuals and organizations with myriad demands on their time and money. The effort that goes into OSS, therefore, is a limited pool that no entity controls access to (i.e., non-excludable) but can only be invested into a single project (i.e., rivalrous). This means that the effort available to be invested into OSS is a common-pool resource. Recent theoretical work in the field of non-profit management has conceptualized the energy of volunteers (or contributors, in the case of OSS) as a renewable common-pool resource that can be harvested, sustainably or not, and must be cultivated and managed to remain healthy.
We use a longitudinal dataset of hundreds of OSS projects across over a decade to explore how the management of their pools of contributor energy impacts their ability to produce code. We find that some projects are better than others at sustaining a high-level of work following a period of intense work. One reason some projects are better able to do that is that they stress their resources less than other projects. This shows that not over-taxing the common-pool resource of contributor effort leads to a more consistent production of the public good of OSS.
2. Revisiting the Role of ‘Airtime’ in Commons Coproduction in Electronic Exchange in Africa
Cornell University, USA
Mobile Money is an indispensable infrastructural economic platform throughout most of Africa, accounting for USD 1 trillion in transaction value. First successfully introduced in Kenya in 2007 as M-Pesa, mobile money is a low-latency, locally affordable, peer-to-peer electronic money exchange system that has been described as the most important Information and Communication Technology (ICT) innovation from Africa, and has spread to 98 countries. There is a danger, however, of forgetting that M-Pesa enclosed a widespread informal practice of airtime exchange, whereby prepaid mobile telephony airtime could be purchased commercially, then transferred (gratis) to another phone over the mobile network, then sold for cash by the recipient. This informal practice varied in name, approach, and importance, but anticipated many of the most important affordances of what became mobile money.
In this paper, we argue that the noncommercial social practice of airtime exchange leveraged private telecommunications infrastructure as a commons, and that while M-Pesa’s enclosure and privatization led to one set of possibilities and opportunities, it foreclosed others. This paper investigates the possibilities that a commons-like approach to value exchange over mobile networks might offer. First, it distills a set of interviews with a heterogeneous group of experts in tech, policy, and cultural production, seeking to recover aspects of the history of airtime exchange. Next, it follows teams of pan-African experts generating speculative designs for alternatives to corporate enclosure of commons-like social practices in ICT. Finally, it discusses the regulatory incentives for an ICT commons.
3. Governing for Free: Rule Process Effects on Reddit Moderator Motivations
UC Davis, USA
Online communities often rely heavily on central leaders for digital resource management. However, the fact that leadership is available to anyone who starts a community may make it a route to the democratic development of resource management experience. Developing a strong community requires empowered leadership capable of overcoming governance challenges. New online platforms have given users opportunities to practice governance through content moderation roles. The over 2.8 million “subreddit” communities on Reddit are governed by hundreds of thousands of volunteer moderators, many of whom have no training or prior experience in a governing role. While moderators often devote daily time to community maintenance and cope with the emotional effects of hate comments or disturbing content, Reddit provides no compensation for this position. Thus, moderators’ internal motivations and desire to continue filling this role is critical for their community. Drawing upon the relationship between governance procedures and internalized motivation, we investigate how the processes through which subreddit moderators generate community rules increase. We find that leaders of these communities develop many of the psychological prerequisites for responsible participation in self-governing resource management communities.
Panel 8.6. B
1. A computational demonstration of drift between rules in use and rules in form
UC Davis, USA
Routines are largely stable, repeated patterns of behavior that are bound by rules and customs in an institution and are central to institutional behavior and functioning. They are closely intertwined with structure, technology, innovation and decision-making. Because they are constrained by both formal, written structures and informal daily practices, they are an ideal inquiry for understanding the tensions between these sources of behavioral constraint. Leveraging advances in natural language processing, we analyze a large public email corpus of open source software development projects to quantitatively compare how rules are used in conversation with how they appear in the rules that govern those projects. With a careful understanding of how rules in form and rules in use differ, we can better capture the evolution of resource management institutions, and the constraints that guide them.
2. Characterizing interactions between nonprofit incubators and sponsored projects in the production and sustainability of open source software commons
University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA
The existence of incubator programs in support of business start-ups and sustainability is well known (Patterson, et.al. 2015). However, incubator programs also exist to support commons, including community forests, worker-owned cooperatives, and open-source software (OSS), and these incubators are understudied.
Sen, Atkinson, and Schweik (2022) investigate the distribution of costs and benefits of operational-level rules between first-order (OSS project) and second-order (the OSS incubator) actors associated with the OSS incubator program at the Apache Software Foundation (ASF). In this work they discovered that these costs and benefit distributions were symmetric; a finding aligned with Ostrom’s second design principle of “proportional equivalence of benefits and costs” (Sloan Wilson, et al., 2012).
But does the proportional equivalence finding hold up in other OSS incubator settings beyond ASF? In this paper, we compare the incubation policies’ costs and benefits between ASF and a second incubator under the Open Source Geospatial Foundation to investigate this question. Further, we extend our incubator analysis to examine how closely tied first and second-order actors are. We accomplish this by applying Crawford and Ostrom’s (1995) Institutional Grammar to identify actors and obligations, analyze networks of actors and their pattern of interactions, and measure the level of discretion provided to the projects. We discover differences between the ASF and the OSGeo incubator settings. We close with a discussion of these results and reflect on the utility of the methods for understanding first and second-order actors in commons settings.
3. Inherently instable? An analysis of the organizational diversity of the sharing economy and the comparative performance of community-based platforms.
KU Leuven & UCLouvain, Belgium
The rise of sharing economy platforms initially raised high hopes as it promised collaborative and democratized action, at a large scale, capable of addressing a variety of societal and environmental concerns. However, this early optimism seems misguided as increasingly commercial sharing economy platforms have become contested for their negative societal consequences and the ambiguity of their environmental impact. This shift towards commercial orientations has been argued to spring from the inherently instable nature of community-based platforms making up the early sharing economy. Using a comprehensive geographic mapping, this paper empirically analyzes and nuances these claims. In doing so, our mixed-methods research identifies community-based platforms as a stable subsection rather than a transient phase of the sharing economy and suggests that the increasing commercial orientation might be due to ‘perceived’ rather than ‘actual’ mission drift. We conclude by formulating implications for the sharing economy’s conceptualization and discuss pathways to address its contested nature.
4. Mentors Make the Decisions
University of Massachusetts, USA
The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a nonprofit (501(c)3) membership organization that fosters and houses open-source software (OSS). OSS projects apply to ASF and, if accepted, participate in its Incubator Program (IP). When projects graduate they contribute to the ASF OSS commons. ASF cultivates success through “The Apache Way”, which stresses the concepts of earned authority, a community of peers, open communications, consensus decision-making, and responsible oversight.
Each project has at least three ASF member mentors who are experienced OSS software developers. Mentors provide guidance for adapting to the Apache Way and share their knowledge on intellectual property, ASF technical resources, as well as project-specific mentorship. The mentors are also important gatekeepers because they decide when a project graduates, as well as other key decision junctures. In this paper, we utilize ASF IP document analysis, 16 mentor interviews, and three project case studies to understand how mentors interpret and implement ASF policies for graduation decisions.
In the interviews, mentors discussed three main themes as graduation factors: community activity (37.5%), aligning with the Apache Way (26%), and the role of mentors (12.5%). Across the six themes, we found that several were not in the ASF policies. Our three project case studies provide rich examples demonstrating variation in paths to graduation for the top three frequency categories. Our results show that the rules-in-use diverge from the IP rules. We conclude with recommendations to both adapt the rules and create mentor oversight.