Building a community: who’s in charge?

May 28th, 2010 by Grace Meng

From http://xkcd.com/

We’ve seen so far that for a community to be vibrant and healthy, people have to care about the community and the roles they play in it.  A community doesn’t have to be a simple democracy, one member/one vote on all decisions, but members have to feel some sense of agency and power over what happens in the community.

Of course, agency can mean a lot of things.

On one end of the spectrum are membership-based cooperatives, like credit unions and the Park Slope Food Coop, where members, whether or not they exercise it, have decision-making power built into the infrastructure of the organization.

On the other end are most online communities, like Yelp, Facebook, and MySpace.  Because the communities are all about user-generated content, users clearly have a lot of say in how the community develops.

But generally speaking, users of for-profit online services, even ones that revolve around user-generated content don’t have power to actually govern the community or shape policies.

Yelp, for example, allows more or less anyone to write a review.  But the power to monitor and remove reviews for being shills, rants or otherwise violations of its terms of use is centralized in Yelp’s management and staff.  The editing is done behind closed doors, rather than out in the open with community input.  Given its profit model, it’s not surprising that Yelp has been accused repeatedly of using its editing power as a form of extortion when it tries to sell ads to business owners.

Even if Yelp is innocent, it doesn’t help that the process is not transparent, which is why Yelp has responded by at least revealing which reviews have been removed.

(As for Facebook, the hostility between the company and at least some of its users is obvious.  No need to go there again.)

And then there are communities that are somewhere in between, like Wikipedia.  Wikipedia isn’t a member-based organization in a traditional sense.  Community members elect three, not all, of the board members of Wikimedia.  Each community member does not have the same amount of power as another community member – people who gain greater responsibilities and greater status also have more power.  But many who are actively involved in how Wikipedia is run are volunteers, rather than paid staff, who initially got involved the same way everybody does, as writers and editors of entries.

There are some obvious benefits to a community that largely governs itself.

It’s another way for the community to feel that it belongs to its members, not some outside management structure.  The staff that runs Wikipedia can remain relatively small, because many volunteers are out there reading, editing, and monitoring the site.

Perhaps most importantly, power is decentralized and decisions are by necessity transparent.  Although not all Wikipedia users have access to all pages, there’s an ethos of openness and collaboration.

For example, a controversy recently erupted at Wikipedia.  Wikimedia Commons was accused of holding child pornography.  Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, then started deleting images.  A debate ensued within the Wikipedia community about whether this was appropriate, a debate any of us can read.  Ultimately, it was decided that he would no longer have “founder” editing privileges, which had allowed him to delete content without the consent of other editors.  Wikimedia also claims that he never had final editorial control to begin with.  Whether or not Wikimedia is successful, it wants and needs to project a culture of collaboration, rather than personality-driven dictatorship.

It’s hard to imagine Mark Zuckerberg giving up comparable privileges to resolve the current privacy brouhaha at Facebook.

But it’s not all puppies and roses, as anyone who’s actually been a part of such a community knows.

It’s harder to control problems, which is why a blatantly inaccurate entry on Wikipedia once sat around for 123 days.  Some community members tend to get a little too excited telling other members they’re wrong, which can be a problem in any organization, but is multiplied when everyone has the right to monitor.

Some are great at pointing out problems but not so good at taking responsibility for fixing them.

And groups of people together can rathole on insignificant issues (especially on mailing lists), stalling progress because they can’t bring themselves to resolve “What color should we paint the bikeshed?” issues.

Wikipedia has struggled with these challenges over the past ten years.  It now limits access to certain entries in order to control accuracy, but arguably at some cost to the vibrancy of the community.  Wikipedia is trying to open up Wikipedia in new directions, as it tries a redesign in the hope it will encourage more diverse groups to write and edit entries (though personally, it looks a lot like the old one).

Ultimately, someone still has to be in charge.  And when you value democracy over dictatorship, it’s harder but arguably more interesting, to figure out what that looks like.

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