Reading Elinor Ostrom in Silicon Valley

This talk is loosely based on a paper that was published in the "design fictions" track of the proceedings of the 2016 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conference on Supporting Group Work ("GROUP"), in Sanibel Island, Florida, USA. The paper is titled "Reading Elinor Ostrom in Silicon Valley: Exploring Institutional Diversity on the Internet." It is a book review of a book (by that title) that does not (yet?) exist.

The paper is available online:

The talk and the paper present thematically related material but they are very different. The talk is a (separate) "fiction" — it is presented as though the speaker is speaking at GROUP 2025 (not 2016), recounting work conducted in the previous ten years.

An audio recording of the talk is available here.

The slides are available as a PDF here; the talk text without slides as a PDF here.

All of these items are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

—Six Silberman, Frankfurt, 20 Nov 2016

Sanibel Island, FL, USA, 16 Nov 2016.

First, I want to thank Katie Pine for encouraging me to submit this note, and Cecilia Aragon and Taylor Jackson Scott for great feedback.

So. Here we are. GROUP 2025.

It's good to be back on Sanibel Island.

My first time at GROUP was nine years ago, in 2016.

Despite the increasing severity and duration of the Atlantic hurricane season and the disruption last year while the hotel was moved back from the receding shoreline, I think we are quite lucky to still have this lovely place for our community’s home.

The main goal of my talk today is to look back and celebrate the last ten years of work in CSCW and GROUP that has focused on the democratic governance of information systems.

We have seen major successes in this work in theory and practice.

Indeed in the last decade CSCW has become an intellectual crossroads between, on one hand, the social sciences, and especially the community of scholars and policy makers using the Institutional Analysis and Development framework developed over four decades by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues for the study of “common pool resources,” and, on the other, the “platform cooperativism” movement, a civil society movement building a new generation of digital platforms organized not as venture capital-backed startups but as stakeholder-owned cooperatives.

The platform cooperativism movement emerged in 2015-16 with two major conferences and workshops in a dozen cities on four continents.

In 2016, with Twitter facing financial uncertainty, a campaign developed within the movement under the hashtag “we are Twitter” in which users proposed to collectively buy Twitter and turn it into a cooperative; in late 2017 the campaign succeeded. Twitter publicly “almost failed” a few times in its first five years as a cooperative. But CSCW researchers — some of you are here — played a major role in developing the governance mechanisms that dramatically reduced harassment on Twitter. By 2023 the platform’s user base and finances had been stabilized.

Boopnode was founded in 2018 as a stakeholder-owned alternative to Facebook and had taken a quarter of Facebook’s market share within five years. There have been more than a dozen Boopnode papers at ACM conferences, and this research has played a major role in shaping both the product and the organization. In terms of the depth, breadth, robustness, and responsiveness of its democratic governance, Boopnode is by far the most successful cooperatively governed digital platform — and this is in part thanks to efforts of people in this community.

This work has also influenced the platforms that have stayed away from stakeholder ownership models. 2021 was a good year for democracy at Facebook: we saw the formation of the User Advisory Board there and the reservation of two spots on the board of directors for elected representatives of users. And in 2023 shareholders pressured the board of directors to give the User Advisory Board the power to issue binding recommendations to the product and operations teams.

This work has also had impact on online marketplaces, especially labor markets.

In 2013, Ajay Agrawal and colleagues at the National Bureau for Economic Research observed that “the position of a platform [operator] [with respect to] the marketplace is [often] like that of a government that sets policies to encourage efficient market outcomes without dictating trades.”

With platforms acting like governments, in 2017 a network of CSCW researchers and social scientists set out to understand the extent to which they were democratically accountable to their constituents. This work began with traditional CSCW methods — surveys, interviews, web scraping, and so on — but the need for multi-level analysis of complex, nested, and often polycentric sociotechnical systems interacting with external factors such as policy, economics, and cultural context soon motivated a search for additional theory. Within a few years the Institutional Analysis and Development framework became a standard lens through which CSCW researchers could develop nuanced understandings of the dynamics of online labor markets in political, economic, and cultural context. They used the framework to examine outcomes such as efficiency, equity or fairness, robustness, accountability, and conformance to contextually relevant norms. When they found existing market designs and practices lacking, they began to use agent-based modeling and participatory simulation to explore the possible effects of changes. Some platform operators collaborated in this work, but others did not. In some cases, findings motivated researchers or others to build tools or other ways to intervene in existing platforms — or to build new platforms.

Drawing on the IAD framework, CSCW researchers, in collaboration with social scientists, policy analysts and policy makers, and sometimes with platform operators, have contributed significantly to the development of sound policy for regulating online labor markets and to the development of cooperatively-organized alternatives. These collaborations have led to improvements in working conditions for workers in many online labor markets — even as those markets continue to expand access to work to people previously excluded from labor markets.

Perhaps the most striking intellectual development in this work has been the emergence of the notion that a market is best thought of as a commons — a shared resource with many stakeholders whose diverse interests ought, for sustainable, equitable operation, all be taken into account. Indeed this idea has begun to be applied not just to markets but to digital infrastructures broadly, not just in design and operation but also in policy.

In 2014, the beloved fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, accepting the National Book Award, said: “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

She was right about the hard times. But if a technological society is also to be a humane society, we need not only writers but also designers and technologists who see the connections between design and justice, design and democracy, design and compassion, design and the meaning of our inescapable being human together.

We have not, of course, resolved every tension in digital platforms, even those that are arguably within our power to resolve. They are, after all, ultimately human systems. But in the last ten years, research in CSCW and GROUP on the democratic governance of sociotechnical systems has interwoven deep technical knowledge with sophisticated social scientific analysis at multiple levels, empirical work with design, and research with practice, producing simultaneously major scientific advances and significant positive effects on the real, lived experiences of millions of workers and other users.

I think we can say, with realistic humility, that to the extent that any professional community can, we have answered Le Guin’s call.

I congratulate you all on this exceptional collective achievement.