Phyles for platforms: Comparing the Corporate and the Mission Enterprise Model for the infrastructure provision of online communities

The mission enterprise model represents that profitability is not against community autonomous empowerment … while for mission enterprises the commons is the mission and the profit is the means, in corporations, the profit is the goal and the commons merely a byproduct.

* Paper: Commercial providers of infrastructure for collective action online. Case studies comparison: Flickr Corporation model and Wikihow Enterprise model. By Mayo Fuster Morell. For the 3rd Free culture research conference Berlin, October 2010

Mayo Fuster Morell has written a brilliant paper in which she compares the classic corporate model of providing collaborative infrastructures, who completely exclude participants from any governance, such as Flickr and Facebook, with a new model of mission oriented enterprises which adhere to what she calls the “netenabler” doctrine, and allow for the self-governance of communities, with Wikihow as case study.

Here’s her introduction on the different types of arrangements for collaborative platforms:

“The Online Creation Communities can be classified in terms of how their provision spaces function.

Two main axes concerning the infrastructure provision strategies can be distinguished: open versus closed to community involvement in infrastructure provision, and freedom and autonomy versus dependency on the infrastructure (netenabler versus blackbox).

Five main models of online infrastructure provision can be distinguished:

* Corporation services,
* mission enterprises,
* university networks,
* representational foundations and
* assemblearian collective self-provision

Each option of these models has advantages and disadvantages, and importantly, these models differently shape the communities generated in terms of participation growth and type of collaboration established.”

“The two models of infrastructure governance based on for-profit strategies: corporate service model and mission enterprise model:

The corporate model of infrastructure governance is characterized by a provider body closed to participant involvement and based on blackbox conditions.

Participants are “trapped” in the platform, as the copyright and proprietary software framework restricts the freedom and autonomy of the participants in the platform. The corporation model applies to cases of communities owned by communications companies with large pools of technological skills such as Google, the provider of YouTube.

The Mission Enterprise Model of Infrastructure Governance is characterized by being closed to participant involvement. Importantly, the enterprise model is based on netenabler conditions, which favor the autonomy of collaboration. The enterprise model is the case of startups, which maintain independence from big communications companies. It is a strategy for developing new business models which are compatible with netenabler conditions. One example is Wikihow, a how-to collaborative manual, or Wikitravel, a collaborative travel guide, both provided by small startups.”

She then focuses on the new mission enterprise model:

Mayo Fuster Morell:

“Although most of the literature focuses on corporations, these are not the only commercial providers.

There is another set of commercial providers, enterprises, which are based on a missionoriented and netenabler doctrine. Mission enterprises are distinct from corporations in aiming to preserve the free net philosophy. In this regard, they are based on the netenabler policy instead of the blackbox policy of corporations. As Stallman had already noted in the 1980s, this different policy has a profound political meaning, as blackbox conditions limit the freedom of speech and of association (Stallman, 1996; R. Stallman, Interview, Juny 12, 2007). This new willingness to show that it is possible to create profit and sustainability under netenabler conditions can be observed in the discourse of the mission enterprises: frequently, successful start ups are bought by large media corporations. However, mission enterprises tend to remain independent from corporations and do not “sell” the platforms to them. Examples of this trend are cooperatives such as FLOSS and also Wikihow and Wikitravel.

Some of the channels of the commercial providers for making profits are personalized publicity, payment for sophisticated aspects of the service, publication of contents generated on the platforms or the selling of participants’ profiles as social profile data. The distinction between these two models importantly lies in their different approaches to the net and participant’s freedom and autonomy towards the infrastructure mission enterprises is a convinced enable net and flow continuity (portability) and blackbox corporations are closed points of flow.

Each platform does not act in isolation: the collaboration and flow of data between them creates a network effect. Both in the case of the corporate model as well as in the case of mission enterprises, networks are created between these two types of commercial form. In this regard, both in the corporation service and in the mission enterprises there are “clusters” or “net districts” (similar to an Industrial district) of platforms which cooperate to different degrees and share connections. While corporations create “close” agreements between corporate services, netenablers create open networks for data flow between them and beyond. For example, in relation to the corporate model, there is an integration of services among participants’ accounts, such as amongst Google, Facebook, Skype and Twitter. With regard to the mission enterprises, the provider’s part of a “net district” is inspiring and advising each other and building upon others’ learning experiences: they try not to damage each others’ interests with their decisions and find places in the market for each of them; they share licenses in order to facilitate the flow of content between the platforms and the sharing of information; they use shared protocol to simplify participant registration in the different sites; they collaborate in terms of sharing “human resources” to fill available positions with active contributions from other platforms; and they participate in the same networking events. This is the case for example with Wikihow, Wikitravel and Wikia. Furthermore, these “wiki net districts” work within the parameters of Wikipedia. For example, these cases are among the main donors to Wikipedia.”

Mayo Fuster Morell explains that the discourse of this type of profit provider is characterized by two main distinctive elements: mission oriented and netenabler settings.

* Mission Before Profit

“Putting the “mission first” or the “mission before profit” refers to a profit entity whose primary mission is to accomplish a social good, while the business goal remains secondary. According to Jack Herrick, founder of Wikihow, this results in a “hybrid organization”, which is something in between a forprofit organization, a nonprofit organization and the state”.

The tension between the social basis of the mission and the need for the provider to be profitable is also present in these types of profit provider as was presented with the corporate model of Flickr. However, in the case of mission enterprises, these tensions seem to be more obvious in the relationship of the enterprise with other enterprises, and the competition of the platform’s content with other “competitive” platforms, than between the participants and the enterprises. According to Evans Podromou, founder of Wikitravel and Identica: “As wiki service providers, we straddle two very different worlds: the competitive world of Web business, and the cooperative world of Free Culture.” (E. Podromou, Open letter to Wikia).”

* The Netenabler Doctrine

“Secondly, this model is characterized by the principle of netenabling in regards to the level of freedom and autonomy of the participants. Autonomy refers to use of open standards (which facilitate the connection between platforms), open data (which facilitates the flow of information and the freedom to leave) and open source (which facilitates knowledge of how the program works and opens up the possibility of collaborative improvement or to adaptation it to other uses). In these settings, the individuals and the communities as a whole are also more empowered in terms of control over their production. This is illustrated by legally and technically being allowed to leave the platform individually and collectively, through open data and forkable content.

One of the strengths of this approach is that participants can have control over the platforms they use and the data they generate. Furthermore, as not only individuals, but more companies start to use more and more web based services, there is more pressure to ensure that data control is more favorable to participants (M. B. Hill, Interview, October 25, 2009).”

After two very detailed case studies comparing Flickr with Wikihow (the latter we are presenting tomorrow), she then offers a number of conclusions:

“Several debates and controversies are linked to the commercial providers of platforms of participation online, and concern issues such as producing unemployment; the exploitation of free labor; and wikiwashing (the practice of creating “fake” images of commercial providers in order to improve their reputation). This paper addressed commercial strategies of platform provision and how they shape the relationship between the commercial provider and the community.

There are some common aspects in the governance of commercial providers. There is a structural “closedness” between the provider and the community as a whole. Two main typologies of closed and forprofit providers can be distinguished: corporations and enterprises. Although both are close to community involvement concerning infrastructure provision, these two models differently frame the relationship between the provider and the community. Furthermore, they are contrasting cases in terms of the level of freedom and the autonomy of the participants with regard to the infrastructure and the provider. Finally, these two cases differently shape the communities emerging from the platforms provided by them.

In corporations, the relationship with the participant is based on offering a service. The platforms hosted by corporations may begin with participant involvement. However, when the functionality is stabilized the participants involvement is replaced with the reassertion of a commercial relationship in the use of a service. At this stage, participants’ involvement in the platform is limited to using it. Although there are several ways to retain the innovation of the service through participant co-involvement, participants individually and as a whole have no position in platform governance.

In sum, there is closedness to contribution from the community on infrastructure governance matters. Additionally, there is a remoteness or distance between them, there is not overlapping or collaboration between provider or community.

In mission enterprises, there is also a structural closedness to community involvement in the infrastructure governance. However, the enterprise are near the community and overlap in the development of a common mission. The enterprise collaborates with the community in the development of the content.

While in the case of corporations, there is interaction between the provider and the community of participants in terms of doing something together; there is no “we”. Instead there is a corporation that offers a service which participants accept or not according to the terms of use defined by the corporation. The corporation depends on participants because they “buy” a service and because in their use of the platform they generate content which is profitable for the corporation. In this regard, the corporation depends on the participants and this translates into their trying to keep them happy over the terms of use and providing a good service in order that participants do not “leave”. Instead, in enterprises, a “we” identity is created around content creation formed by the participants and the staff of the enterprise working together to accomplish the mission. This “we” is defined as those working to fulfill the common mission. There is collective interaction for the achievement of a common mission which results in common property.

Additionally, community self-governs the process of its interaction, and although the enterprise also intervenes in community matters, there is a less clear division between the provider and the community in terms of content creation and community governance.

In terms of the level of freedom and autonomy of participants from the commercial provider, a major distinction can be made between netenabler and corporate models. The netenabler conditions of Wikihow, on the one hand, favors freedom and autonomy from the infrastructure allowing for information flow and reuse. Importantly, due to the netenabler, the Wikihow community has the “right to fork”. This netenabler condition is a source of power for the community guaranteeing that the Wikihow content will remain free and community controlled. In contrast, to the Yahoo! corporate model based on blackbox conditions. Participants in those communities are locked into those corporations and only have the “right to leave”. Major distinctions emerged from these two cases in terms of how the infrastructure governance shapes the communities. Although both are based on closed and for-profit providers, blackbox conditions favor a growing community (as in the Flickr case) while netenabler conditions favor collaboration (as in the Wikihow case). Importantly, while Wikihow resulted in a digital commons collectively owned and freely accessible for third parts. The Flickr corporation model cannot be defined as a community which built a digital commons. In Flickr, the process is individually oriented and does not generate a digital commons, as the resulting outcome is not collectively owned.

The commercial goal of corporations is translated into an emphasis on growth and new activity which impacts on participants, whose commodity is their own action in that direction. In this regard, the participant experience is designed to be centered on the individual. Each participant decides the conditions of the collaboration and each participant constructs their own pathway through the platform. There is no overall integrated community involvement. The resulting overall outcome, the digital archive, emerges from the synergy of individual contributions and tagging, and is not an explicit mission goal nor is it of common ownership.

In conclusion, while for mission enterprises the commons is the mission and the profit is the means, in corporations, the profit is the goal and the commons merely a byproduct.”

1 Comment Phyles for platforms: Comparing the Corporate and the Mission Enterprise Model for the infrastructure provision of online communities

  1. Pingback: Online Creation Communities » Blog Archive » Post @ the Peer to Peer Foundation blog by Michel Bauwens:

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