On Public Support and Community Responsibility for Digital Infrastructures

June 18, 2024

Over the past two weeks, we had the privilege of participating in several events that brought together diverse communities from the open movement and beyond. These gatherings included an NGI Commons workshop, which we co-organized, and where we engaged with representatives from the Open Source and Digital Commons communities, the German Wikipedia Future Congress, and the MozFest House Amsterdam. Meeting these activists, volunteers, experts, and researchers was an inspiring experience. It reaffirmed that community-based management and contributions to our digital environment are not only possible but also a well-established reality. Millions of people are dedicating their time and energy yet remain significantly underrepresented in political discussions about our digital future and society at large. Interacting with members from various communities provided an opportunity to gauge the current spirit of the open movement once again. This was one of the objectives of our “Shifting Tides” report, published in 2023, where we aimed to identify shared opportunities and challenges across different projects and sectors.

Inclusivity and sustainability of the movement

Many small volunteer projects that were born at the beginning of the 21st century have now evolved into essential infrastructures for our societies. Wikipedia is a prime example, but this also applies to some of the open source software projects that contribute to running the internet. However, we see the first-generation activists growing older, some communities shrinking, and some maintainers burning out. As core tasks of some well-established communities, such as Wikipedia or open source software, are institutionalized and become much more technical, there are also fewer opportunities for newcomers to innovate, experiment, and learn from failures.

Meanwhile, there’s a pressing need for a new generation of contributors. Open Source and Wikipedia face significant diversity issues. The Wikimedia Foundation, for instance, assumes that at the global level, women only make up 15–20% of total contributors. To address these issues, we must make communities more welcoming and integration for newcomers easier, but also actively seek out individuals who might not naturally gravitate toward these spaces. Socio-economic inequalities pose a major barrier, as not everyone can afford to volunteer or view such work as leisure.

The value of partnerships and alliances 

One solution is to create new opportunities through partnerships with institutions that have better access to the public. Such partnerships could include designing economic benefits for community members (without necessarily offering them a remuneration that would change the essence of these communities). This could mean integrating contributions into public support programs to learn, find jobs, or network, for instance. Such campaigns require financial and human resources that communities can not cover alone. During a panel that we organized together with Open Forum Europe at MozFest, we talked about what public support for Digital Commons as infrastructures could look like. One example discussed was the partnership between the German development cooperation agency GIZ and Mozilla’s Common Voice project, where GIZ is financially and technically supporting the establishment of communities for underrepresented languages.

Additionally, forming alliances with other movements is crucial. For example, Mozilla’s community extends beyond developers to include their maintainers, users, contributors, or donors, as well as anyone who shares their goals. This allows them to embrace other political issues like climate change, decolonization, or women’s rights, and at the same time, include new people and reinvent their own movement.

Communities that self-organize to build and maintain digital resources have been described as Digital Commons — digital resources that are managed by communities that define their own governance systems and rules. Many Digital Commons today not only maintain key contemporary infrastructures, but they also form some of the only alternatives to a digital landscape largely dominated by profit-seeking platforms that endanger our democracies and disregard our digital rights. Public institutions need to, therefore, further support these communities. At the same time, communities must also become increasingly aware of their societal responsibilities and take part in broader collective initiatives and partnerships.

Jan Krewer
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