We’ve been talking about a “datatrust” for awhile now, why we think we need one, how we envision it as a long-lasting institution, what kind of technologies we might employ for it to provide measurable guarantees around privacy.
But we’re now starting to get down to the nitty-gritty. How will it actually work? What will it mean to an actual researcher, nonprofit organization, policy-maker? To you?
First and foremost, we imagine the datatrust as a member-based data bank where organizations and individuals can safely contribute personal information to inform research and public policy.
The member-based part is key. We plan to be both non-partisan and absolutely transparent. We have no particular academic or policy ax to grind. Our only goal is to maximize the quantity, quality and diversity of sensitive data that is made available to the public. To ensure that decisions aren’t made even with an unconscious bias, we plan to build a decentralized structure that relies on the participation and contribution of members to build and sustain the datatrust.
But the word membership can mean a lot of different things. When my local public radio station exhorts me to be a member, membership doesn’t seem to come with something more than a tote bag. In contrast, if you’re a Wikipedian, it means you’ve actually written or edited an entry, and the more you participate, the more access and privileges you get, including the right to vote for members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board.
So for the past couple of months, I’ve been looking at member-based communities. Not all of them would call themselves member-based communities, but they all have in common a structure that requires participation from a large group of people. Some are nonprofits, some are businesses running social networks; most are online, a few are not. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to summarize how these communities work, what motivates the members, how the communities monitor themselves, and how diverse they are, because all of these issues will inform the decisions we make in creating our datatrust.
Here are the ten communities included in this study:
MySpace is one of the world’s largest social networks with about 125 million users, though Facebook has in the last year surpassed MySpace with the number of users and pageviews both in the U.S. and the rest of the world. The look and feel of MySpace is very different from Facebook, since MySpace users are allowed to customize their pages. There’s also been a lot of press about the demographic differences between MySpace and Facebook, but those differences are probably disappearing as Facebook simply grows and grows. MySpace remains more popular than Facebook as a site for bands and music.
Yelp is a social network-based user review site for local businesses in multiple cities in the U.S. It’s growing much faster than older sites like Citysearch, and its spawned offline events where really avid reviewers meet and socialize. It has also gotten controversy with accusations that it extorts businesses to take out ads in return for highlighting good reviews or pulling bad ones. Although Yelp has denied these accusations, a class-action lawsuit was recently filed against Yelp.
Flickr is a popular social network-based photo-sharing site. Unlike many photo-sharing sites like Kodak Gallery or Photobucket, Flickr has emphasized sharing photos with the general public and organization by crowdsourcing via tags. Although it does have some services for printing photos and mugs, its main service is photo-hosting and storage, particularly for bloggers and photographers. In addition to hosting photos, Flickr also manages projects like “The Commons” with the Library of Congress and other institutions interested in putting their public domain photos in wider circulation.
Slashdot is a news aggregator for self-professed nerds with estimated traffic of 5.5 million users per month. It shares news stories contributed by its users, who also comment on the stories and moderate the comments. Useful contribution is rewarded with karma points, which increases the privileges each user gets.
Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation. The number of named accounts for writers and editors is at about 11 million; about 300,000 have edited Wikipedia more than ten times. Despite early skepticism, Wikipedia has become one of the most trafficked sites online and has expanded into multiple countries around the world. Wikipedia has clearly developed a community of avid and enthusiastic users who contribute without monetary compensation, but in its tenth year, it is evaluating the lack of diversity among Wikipedians (only 13% of contributors are women, for one) and what steps it should take to provide access to a free encyclopedia all over the world. Wikipedia has also instituted a number of changes over the years to deal with vandalism and inaccuracies.
Open Source Software – rather than look at one particular open source project, for this study, I focused on the book Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel, which describes how projects should work. Obviously, actual projects will vary widely, but we decided this was an area worth looking at because the open source movement has spent years figuring out how to structure shared work.
The Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the U.S. It has 1.3 million members, but because it is not a primarily online organization, it isn’t easy to evaluate the activities of its members online. However, it recently created a series of social media sites for online networking among Sierra Club members and supporters and our report focuses primarily on this aspect of their member activities.
The Park Slope Food Coop is a local cooperative grocery store in Park Slope Brooklyn. (DISCLAIMER: I’ve been a member since 2005, and my research on how it works is based on my experiences there.) Unlike many coops, membership is predicated on work. All of its approximately 150,000 members are required to work a two hour-45 minute shift every four weeks, which reduces labor costs and thus reduces prices. Despite being a place many people love to hate, it continues to thrive and attract new members.
Habitat for Humanity International is a major nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building decent housing around the world. (DISCLAIMER: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in high school and college and participated in a fundraising bike trip in 1999.) Like the Sierra Club, it is also an offline organization, but its website provided more detailed information on how its affiliates work and I drew on my personal experience in trying to understand how Habitat encourages and retains volunteers.