Monday, February 6, 2023

Howard Rheingold reflects on governance in 6 online communities he's been a part of

Howard Rheingold, Online governance: Six Case Studies, Feb 10, 2022.

How should online communities be governed? I’m not concerned here with Facebook and Reddit, which have special problems because of their size and volume of interaction. Despite all the attention that the gigantic social media platforms attract, the Web is full of smaller communities — communities of interest and practice, mutual aid communities, support communities, learning communities, activist communities, science communities, businesses and their customers. They meet through message boards, chat rooms, Slack, mailing lists, wikis. Eventually (or ideally before they launch), the issue of how the community should be governed arises — usually because of some transgression that stirs community ire. Today, a wealth of online community governance toolkits has emerged. I won’t attempt to be comprehensive here, but will mention my experiences with governance in the WELL, The River, Electric Minds, Brainstorms, Slashdot, and the Omidyar Network. At the end of this essay, I include links to resources and toolkits. Please let me know of any resources that ought to be added.

I've appended two of Howard's write-ups, the one about Brainstorms since I am a member of that community, and the one about the Omidyar Network since it collapsed in on itself and Howard has interesting observations to make about it.

About Brainstorms

Brainstorms is private in the sense that you have to be invited to join. But getting invited is not difficult nor are their any hoops to jump once invited. The privacy exists, well, for privacy, but also so that members can be dismissed for cause. There is a procedure for this, but I've never witnessed it.

I've been a member of Brainstorms since before 9/11. Just how much before, I can't really say, though it couldn't have been long since it didn't exist until 1998. I remember 9/11 because I spent a significant part of that day online at Brainstorms talking about it.

I spent quite a bit of online time there for a few years, participating actively in a number of threads. But then along came the blogosphere, where I joined a group blog called The Valve (now defunct), then set up New Savanna in 2010, then Facebook and Twitter. These days my participation at Brainstorms is limited to posting photographs a couple of times a week, checking in on the life-story of Hadar Aviram, who has a rich and complicated life, where I occasionally post a comment, and occasionally posting a comment to my own life-story thread. I suppose what I find most interesting about Hadar's thread is that she posts often and has a small community of people who comment. That community seems like her personal Greek chorus.

Here's what Howard says about Brainstorms:

After Electric Minds went away, I found that I missed having an online braintrust and community. Instead of going back to the WELL, I started Brainstorms. My friend and online pioneer, the late Lisa Kimball, introduced me to Caucus, a web-based forum. So I set up a number of conferences — a general commons, and conferences on mind, science, arts & culture, phun, etc. — and started a few conversation threads in each one. By this time I had learned that it is best to start out with a few threads — about this conference, ask questions, introductions, and what should we talk about — and slowly grow the collection of threads. Then I emailed the self-registration URL to a few dozen people I knew around the world. When I got up the next day, there was a blooming, buzzing community in formation. That was 1998. I thought of it as “Howard’s Bar & Grill.” Participants agree to not attack each other, and the proprietor reserves the right to throw out miscreants. The way I put it at the time was: “an online community where it is possible to throw out assholes.”

For the most part, Brainstorms — which still exists! — was what I meant it to be: adults having serious and fun conversations without flaming or trolling. At Brainstorms’ height in the years before Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter offered so many alternatives to a general-purpose message board, we had about 500 active members. We had face to face get-togethers of dozens in San Francisco, Amsterdam, Melbourne, and Memphis. By now, the approximately 50–70 of us who are left are a couple decades older. We maintained a mutual aid fund that gave or loaned hundreds and sometimes thousands to BSers in need. We probably dispersed tens of thousands of dollars over the years. Governance long ago ceased to be an issue…after an initial period of sporadic turbulence. That doesn’t mean that every gets along all the time. It does mean that we settled into norms regarding how to about disagreeing.

I thought a benevolent dictatorship would take a lot less of my time than consensus. I was wrong about that. I made the decisions, after polite backchannel attempts to settle disputes or educate rude newcomers, but that didn’t kill meta. There were always different sides. Besides public arguments, I was bombarded with backchannel email lobbying. And a couple of the people who I tossed out took it personally in scary ways — for a while I had security on speed-dial at Berkeley and Stanford because a local troll threatened to disrupt my classes. Eventually, after four or five years, I tired of being Dad. I took a break from Brainstorms for a few months, and appointed a committee of 5 old-time BSers to take care of conflicts. They adjudicated a couple disputes, and for the last 15 years or so, entire years have gone by without needing their decisions. Every couple years, one of the committee retires and names a replacement.

And Omidyar:

Omidyar Network Online: Why Effective Online Governance Requires a Decision-Making Boot-Sector

Omidyar Network is the name of the philanthropic organization created by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar. It was also the name of an online community from the early 2000s in which Omidyar experimented with a governance schema that grew out of his experience with Ebay. Online auctions among strangers pose what is known as “the prisoner’s dilemma” — a social dilemma in which each party is forced to accept a less than optimal deal out of a lack of trust for the other party. Omidyar instituted seller ratings that enabled buyers to rate sellers on a scale of one to five. Sellers with higher ratings make more sales, and sellers with a sufficiently high rating become “power sellers.”

The online network that Pierre and his wife set up was a resource for non-profits. For no charge, members could set up forums, mailing lists, wikis for their group. In addition to the groups, there was a commons in which members could talk about community issues. Because Pierre and Pam Omidyar had stated that they intended to contribute their approximately $15 billion of ebay stock to worthy causes, the online network grew rapidly — about 4000 members in the first few months. Because the seller reputation system worked so well at ebay, Omidyar set up a more complex reputation system: Members could gain points by logging in, by commenting, by creating conversation threads; members could also gift points to others and to take points away from others. I can’t remember what extra privileges positive points granted, but I remember that if any member’s points dropped to a negative level (I think I recall that it was -50), their posts would no longer be visible in public, and people would have to go to the sanctioned member’s home page to see what they have to say.

I was interested in this governance experiment, so I joined the network shortly before the Omidyars announced their first experiment in networked philanthropy. They pledged to contribute an initial $25,000 to a group or groups chosen by the community. Thus began a massive meta thrash. All 4000+ members of the community were made aware of the community conversation about the grant. Probably around 1000 people checked out the conversation thread, around 200 participated in the conversation, and around 25 people contributed the majority of the posts, which ended up numbering in the thousands. Attempts at consensus continued to fail on minority objections. My contributions to the conversation thread consisted largely of unheeded warnings that without a clear decision-making procedure, this conversation was doomed to be an infinite meta rathole.

The group did agree that it would be necessary to vote, in the absence of consensus. But how would the franchise be defined? Could someone who joined yesterday have a vote? Would a minimum number of karma points be required? How would the vote be carried out? So another round of infinite meta revolved around how to decide how to decide. The network as it was originally set up did not specify a decision mechanism, nor did the Omidyars intervene by declaring mechanisms by fiat. Eventually, giving up on voting, the exhausted networkers divided the grant among three groups. The process appeared to drain rather than boost the community’s ability to explore the networked philanthropy the Omidyars had hoped to initiate.

And than the whole issue of community decision-making blew up when it turned out that one of the most vocal debaters in the grant-making thrash had created dozens of sock-puppet accounts and was awarding points to friends and subtracting points from those who disagreed with her. Not too long after that, the Omidyars shut down the online community. That’s when I became convinced that virtual communities must begin by defining minimum decision-making procedures. I recalled that when personal computers were still young, they had to be booted up with a floppy disk. The first information to be read from that disk was a “boot sector” that instructed the mechanism on how to load the operating system. My experience with governance thrashes in the WELL, the River, Electric Minds, Brainstorms, and the Omidyar Network led me to believe that it is nearly impossible for a group to formulate a decision-making procedure from scratch — they need a boot sector with a minimum description of who can vote, and how the vote should be carried out. With that, the community can change the rules if they want — but at least they won’t have to argue about how to decide how to decide.

Online Governance Resources

Howard begins this section with a link to a paper by Amy X. Zhang, Grant Hugh, and Michael Bernstein, PolicyKit: Building Governance in Online Communities. Here's the abstract:

The software behind online community platforms encodes a governance model that represents a strikingly narrow set of governance possibilities focused on moderators and administrators. When online communities desire other forms of government, such as ones that take many members’ opinions into account or that distribute power in non-trivial ways, communities must resort to laborious manual effort. In this paper, we present PolicyKit, a software infrastructure that empowers online community members to concisely author a wide range of governance procedures and automatically carry out those procedures on their home platforms. We draw on political science theory to encode community governance into policies, or short imperative functions that specify a procedure for determining whether a user-initiated action can execute. Actions that can be governed by policies encompass everyday activities such as posting or moderating a message, but actions can also encompass changes to the policies themselves, enabling the evolution of governance over time. We demonstrate the expressivity of PolicyKit through implementations of governance models such as a random jury deliberation, a multi-stage caucus, a reputation system, and a promotion procedure inspired by Wikipedia’s Request for Adminship (RfA) process.

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