Researching the Self-Provision Model for Online Community Platforms

We are all dependent on corporate platforms for most of our networking needs, and often the call is heard, why not build our own services, with quite a few projects being developed to answer this call.

But self-provisioning of social platforms has been done before, for example, by the Social Forums connected to the Alterglobalization movement.

Mayo Fuster-Morell has studied this experience in great detail, in the paper we are excerpting below.

* Paper: Mayo Fuster Morell, “Governance of online creation communities: Provision of platforms of participation for the building of digital commons, Self-provision model: Social forums case study.

Abstract

“This paper is dedicated to the analysis of the governance of online creation communities. Two components can be distinguished in online creation communities: a platform of participation around which the community is generated and the providers of such a platform. The analysis is centered in the several models of provision of the platforms of participation and the relationship established between the providers of the patform of participation and the community generated.

From a large-n analysis three models of provision resulted: i) a for profit and close provision; ii) a non profit and “formal” open provision; iii) and a non-profit and and “informal” open provision. Furthermore, they move alone a line between a service – oriented versus self – provision oriented approaches.

In a second part of the paper, the analysis is centered in the self-provision approach though the case of the social forums. It presents the organizational form characteristic of the social forum as a provider of platforms and the tensions (participation versus representation and individual versus organizations) emerged around the adoption of an online platform (openesf.net) and around the design of the protocols of participation online. Attention is also given to the actual data of participation related to those tensions.” (http://internet-politics.cies.iscte.pt/spip.php?article308)

Excerpts from Mayo Fuster Morell:

Introduction to the Typology

“How do the provider space and the community of participants at the platform relate to each other? Which is the role of each in governing the OCCs?

Resulting from a large-N analysis, the OCCs can be classified in the way in which the administrative space functions.

There is a qualitative difference between

1) the OCCs in which it is possible for participants in the networking platform to be part of the administrative body and

2) the one in which this option is not considered,

in other words the “closed” administrative space and the “open” or accessible participative space.

A distinction between profit and non-profit between the formal seems also to be significant.

The “profit and formal closed admin or provision” model is characterized by performing “technical aspects” (“technologically king”). It favors dimensions of information provision, usability and technical accessibility,

while the “open admin or provision” model is characterized by performing more “political” aspects (“politically king”). It favors dimensions of transparency and open knowledge management.

There is also a significant difference in the way in which the administrative space is open. A “non-profit and formal open provision” model and an “non-profit and informal open provision model” can be distinguished. The “formal open provision” is characterised by a positive performance of transparency dimension and/or the presence of a board in the administrative space, while the “informal open provision” is characterised by poor performance of the transparency dimension and/ or the absence of a board.

In sum, three models of provision result:

i) a for profit and close provision;

ii) a non profit and “formal” open provision;

iii) and a non-profit and and “informal” open provision.

Furthermore, they move alone a line between a service – oriented versus self – provision oriented format.

In the following section the way in which each model tent to frame the relationship between the providers and the community will be presented .A case related to each of the three provision models were considered. For the closed and profit provision the Flickr case; for open and non proffit formal provision the Wikimedia case; and finally, for the open and non profit informal provision the Social forums case.

* Non profit and “formal” open provision: Social forums are based on a almost non-distinction between the providers and the participants. The providers are a more or less self-selected part of the participants. More than provision of platforms of participation, it seems to be a sense of self-provision, self-organization or “adoption” of platforms of participation. The community “we” (collective identity) is already formed before the platform is provided and this “we” decides to self-organise to adopt an online platform of participation. In the case of OCCs promoted by the Social forums, the OCCs are shaped and bridges by the collective identity of the Social forums as a whole. From a web approach, it is characteristic of these type of OCCs a poorly performance of transparency, however it seems connected, among other things, to its bridging with other offline processes.

· * Non-profit and and “informal” open provision: Wikimedia are based on an “intermedious” hybrid form. Wikimedia foundation moves along a line of more closed or more open to community involvement depending on the issue (eg for legal and funding it is closed, while for technical maintenance it is more open). In some parts there is a separation between them and closeness to community involvement and in other part there is an “overlap” between them.

Something that seems characteristic of community-driven governance (Wikipedia and Social forums) is the relationship of cooperation and mutual support between the providers and the community to the point of the creation of a space of overlapping or self-provision in which it is difficult to establish a difference between the provider and the community. This is different from a service-oriented model of governance (Flirck), which does not seem to have such area of “overlapping” and community – provider collaboration.

The case study on the Social forums: Steps in the adoption of platforms of participation

Information and communication technologies were important to communications for the organization of a global level forum. And the building of an autonomous and independent communication infrastructure is a strategy present at the GJM. In this regard, mail lists and expositive-oriented websites have been used since the first WSF in January 2001 (Fuster Morell 2006). Since then several steps has been key in the decision to provide web platforms for participation.

The first step in the adoption of a multi-interactive online platform was in 2003. During the ESF II in Paris 2003, in order to give concrete answers to those who raised critiques about the absence of final decisions in every social forum, an effort was made to collect a “Memory” of the event, aiming to gather the outcomes of the different activities held in the Forum. Since then, several platforms have been built in order to enable a collection of the social forum’s “memory”. The memory is also linked to the desire to systematize and democratize access to the information and knowledge generated by the social forum process, so that not only organizers have access to it.

The second step was in 2005 when for the V WSF, the decision was made to adopt more participative methodologies to build the WSF program. The key points of the new methodology were centered on defining the role of the forum as a merging space, rather than a director of the movement. This translated, among other aspects, into the absence of plenaries put together by the organizers of the WSF and instead the facilitation of self-organized activities. It also featured rounds of consultation in defining the program. In order to do so, online tools were designed to collaborate in the building of the forum program.

Finally, for the organisation of the “global day of action” on 26 January 2008 a technological tool was developed. This year, instead of a classic WSF, a day of action was proposed which would allow all movements and organisations to organise debates, demonstrations and symbolic actions, among others. This decentralised action required coordination between movements and a way to visualize those actions. A website was set up, with a world map on which every coalition, movement or organisation could register and visualize their own actions.

What in some occasions appears as a “technical” divergence around the use of technology are in fact clashes of political interest. In this regard, the goal of this research area is to present how the technology adopted reflects the political goals of the forum.

Furthermore, this body of research on the politics of the technology at the Social forums is also characterized by approaching the Social forums not as a monolithic actor, but a result of internal contentions and collaborations. Following this argument, the literature of politics of technology at the Social forums views the forums as an expression of diversity. Conflicts around technology mirror conflicts over the nature of the forum itself and the political strategy to adopt within the plurality of visions present at the forums. In this regard, the richness of the Social forums as a meeting point of a plurality of views that conform an “ecology of diversity” is also reflected in the diverse approach concerning the adoption of the NIT. In the Social forums there is a co-existence of different political visions associated with particular uses and understandings of technology.”

Tensions

“Two main tensions and points of confrontation could be distinguished in the combination of representative and participation oriented logics at the forums regarding online platforms: One concerning the protocols of openness versus close-control, and the other concerning the profile of individual versus organizations.

Tension: Openness versus control

This opposition appears to be based on several aspects.

i) Linear accumulation over a closed formula versus openness to enlargement for change

ii) Communitarian control versus webmaster gate keeper control

iii) Offline versus online: Digital divide versus travel cost divide

iv) Open collaborative self-organized versus clear division of tasks

* i) Linear accumulation over a close formula versus openness to enlargement for change

There is a broader oppositional logic between those who wanted to maintain the actual distribution of power between existing forces at the ESF, a fear of losing control over its role, a growth strategy based on attracting more people via traditional interventions such as communications to the Mass Media and alliances with established politics or by increasing influence over it. And on the other hand, those who were willing to re-direct the role of the ESF to a new politics based on participation, enlarging its bases through “horizontal” type of actors or new type of collective actors (like online communities) and an assumption that conventional politics were in irreversible crisis of and there is therefore a need to experiment with new forms.

* ii) Communitarian control versus webmaster gate keeper control

Openness does not assume lack of control, but a communitarian model of control.

Communitarian control is a model based on online open doors to any content and then decentralized social control over the contents.

Instead the control model of the authorized gatekeeper is based on a central filter of the information by the webmaster. The information accepted is the one that results from an “offline” deliberation in the assembly or other sources of authority, like the organizational logistic information from the working groups. It assumes that the deliberation is not hosted “online”.

* iii) Offline versus online: Digital divide versus travel cost divide

The representative of vertical organizations tends to be in favor of a gate keeper control model because it does not cause conflicts with their role as representatives. However the distinction between the two control models does not completely correspond to a “participative versus a non participative approach”. It also has to do with a “offline” participation versus an “online” participation and the distribution of resources that each type of participation require. The sectors, which can afford cost of participation into EPAs, are more disposed to a model of “offline” deliberation and conceive of collective action in only an “offline” capacity. Furthermore they do not have the technical knowledge to use online tools. Sectors whoses bases had resources in the form of technological knowledge to participate online and have scarce monetary resources are more favourable to a model that presupposes the online participation.

iv) Open collaborative self-organized versus clear division of tasks and difficulty of integrating collaboration

A logic of collaborative administration and building of the contents of the website is opposed to one of control over the organization of the contents of the website based a clear division of tasks under the figure of the webmaster.

Tension: Individuals versus organizations

In the Social forums, there is an attempt to develop organization structures that would allow individual subjectivities and contributions and the multi-faceted belonging and participation. However, at the Social forums there remains a tension around individual participation.

One reason, the rise of individuals is a challenge to the idea present in some parts of the social movements, “that individualistic type of cultures tend to produce ideology of success and tendency for individual achievements. These views are reluctant to perceive positive effects in the individualization in term of commitment and political engagement” (Interview Donatella della Porta, 2008).

Another reason, individual participation reduces arguments for the representative of vertical organizations to maintain representative mechanisms and keep control over its bases.

A third reason is a lack of trust over the capacity of organization of a network model structure versus a vertical and professional model.”

Conclusions: Social forums’ provision of online and offline platforms of participation and the self-provision model

The platforms of participation promoted by the Social forums are characterized by:

i) a very broad mission (Chapter of Principles of the Social forums);

ii) platforms that are open to anyone who agrees with the broad mission;

iii) the contents and program defined and “self-organized” by the participants;

iv) the organizers of the forum role is to provide the infrastructure, but not to represent the forum community.

All these four characteristic are also present in other type of cases (such as Wikimedia and Flickr); however the forums as providers of platforms of participation have a distinctive sense. The Social forum as a platform provider could be defined as a self-provision, self-organization or adoption model because the forum is not provided by an external body, but by engaged participants of the forum (in some cases self-selected and in others filtered by a representational balance and/or intentional selection). At the Social forums, there is no clear separation between providers and participants and they have similarities in their organizational form.

Tensions in self-provision approach

However, social forum can be characterised as an hybrid form concerning its composition.

The Social forums are hybrid forms in their composition because the social forum hosts the “old” traditional Left (political parties, trade unions, large NGOs), and the “new” – small anarchist groups, “open space” advocates, and horizontal organizations with diverse ideologies. The diversity of organizational and representational logics that host the forums result in tensions concerning the adoption of online platforms of participation around two main axes: Individual versus organization participation and open and versus close control.

In the self-provision approach characteristic of the Forum, there is not a clear cut between platform providers and platform participants. In this regard; thee above tensions are not stressed in the relationship between the platform provider and platform participants. Instead, in a service oriented type of provision, where there is a clear cut between providers and participants and they follow a different organizational form, these tensions are situated in the relationship between platform providers and platform “users” or participants.”

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