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Commentary: Community users can govern online spaces better than social media companies

In the early, pre-web days of the social Internet, decisions about the spaces people gathered in online were often made by members of the community.

On a smaller scale, total self-governance – echoing early online spaces – could be key for communities that serve specific subsets of users. For example, Archive of Our Own was created after fan-fiction authors – people who write original stories using characters and worlds from published books, television shows and movies – found existing platforms unwelcoming. For example, many fan-fiction authors were kicked off social media platforms due to overzealous copyright enforcement or concerns about sexual content.

Fed up with platforms that didn’t understand their work or their culture, a group of authors designed and built their own platform specifically to meet the needs of their community. AO3, as it is colloquially known, serves millions of people a month, includes tools specific to the needs of fan-fiction authors, and is governed by the same people it serves.

Hybrid models, like on Reddit, mix centralised and self-governance. Reddit hosts a collection of interest-based communities called subreddits that have their own rules, norms and teams of moderators. Underlying a subreddit’s governance structure is a set of rules, processes and features that apply to everyone. Not every subreddit is a sterling example of a healthy online community, but more are than are not.

There are also technical approaches to community governance. One approach would enable users to choose the algorithms that curate their social media feeds. Imagine that instead of only being able to use Facebook’s algorithm, you could choose from a suite of algorithms provided by third parties — for example, from The New York Times or Fox News.

More radically decentralised platforms like Mastodon devolve control to a network of servers that are similar in structure to email. This makes it easier to choose an experience that matches your preferences. You can choose which Mastodon server to use, and can switch easily — just like you can choose whether to use Gmail or Outlook for email — and can change your mind, all while maintaining access to the wider email network.

Additionally, advancements in generative artificial intelligence — which shows early promise in producing computer code — could make it easier for people, even those without a technical background, to build custom online spaces when they find existing spaces unsuitable. This would relieve pressure on online spaces to be everything for everyone and support a sense of agency in the digital public sphere.

There are also more indirect ways to support community governance. Increasing transparency — for example, by providing access to data about the impact of platforms’ decisions — can help researchers, policymakers and the public hold online platforms accountable. Further, encouraging ethical professional norms among engineers and product designers can make online spaces more respectful of the communities they serve.

GOING FORWARD BY GOING BACK

Between now and the end of 2024, national elections are scheduled in many countries, including Argentina, Australia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States. This is all but certain to lead to conflicts over online spaces.

We believe it is time to consider not just how online spaces can be governed efficiently and in service to corporate bottom lines, but how they can be governed fairly and legitimately. Giving communities more control over the spaces they participate in is a proven way to do just that. THE CONVERSATION

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Ethan Zuckerman is an Associate Professor of Public Policy, Communication, and Information, UMass Amherst. Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci is a Research Fellow, Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, UMass Amherst.

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