The Role of Participatory Design in Constructing the Virtual Knowledge Commons

The author defines "the commons" in historical context - resources that are available to a community (shared lands, a village well, etc.) without restriction. Over time, resources that were part of the commons became "enclosed," either by a private entity that sought to control them for their own profit or a government that (ostensibly) intended to ensure they were maintained and kept available to all in fair measure.

The same principle applies to the virtual world, which was originally a non-commercial venture in which governments took very little interest. Information was provided and maintained by members of the community in an open manner, free from central control. While the Internet, as a whole, remains a commons, increasing parts of it are subject to the control of commercial and political interests.

(EN: The concept of the commons is inherently political. I expect there are a few land mines ahead.)


The "virtual" commons of the Internet has much in common, in terms of benefits and conflicts, with the historical commons of tangible resources.

One of the main differences is the virtual community is not affected by scarcity or depletion of resources. While there are technical limitations to storage and bandwidth, it's generally been true that the use of a resource by one individual does not prevent others from having access to it, though when it comes to ownership and control of specific resources (a single Web site), conflicts may arise due to mutually exclusive desires.

The creation of resources is another key difference between the traditional commons and the virtual one. The traditional approach to the commons was utilization of resources that largely exist, or are made accessible by a short-term act (digging a well, clearing a field), whereas digital resources are created and maintained on an ongoing basis.

It is also noted that the creation and use of common physical resources requires collectivization and an ongoing act of cooperation, whereas the creation of digital resources is often an individual act, and while the body of knowledge comprises the work of many, the act of creating each resource was essentially an individual act. Therefore, while the theories of collective action may not be entirely irrelevant, their impact in the virtual community is significantly diminished.


The concept of "public domain" is closely related to the virtual knowledge commons: those who contribute knowledge to the commons relinquish "ownership" rights, insofar as their ability to prevent the information they contribute from being accessed and used by others. (EN: This seems to be a sensible statement, but a bit loaded, when you consider intellectual property. Because a person provides their ideas to the group doesn't mean they accept plagiarism of them, or consent to their republication outside of the context in which they were presented.)

A distinction is also made from the concept of a "free market" of ideas, in that the concept of "market" implies ownership, supply, and demand as an overview of quid-pro-quo arrangements. The items in a free market are not available to be taken and used at the user's sole content, and the term "free" merely indicates the ability of buyers and sellers to interact in an unrestricted manner in making private arrangements for the transfer of ownership.

It's also noted that, in terms of knowledge, that which is private may fall into the hands of the public, given time. The example is given of copyright laws, that protect work for a limited amount of time, after which it becomes public. Also, many of the great public libraries of Europe began as private collections that were gifted to the public. In the same way, material in the virtual commons begins as proprietary, until it is given over to the community.

Two parameters are used to classify commons (Benkler): whether the commons is available to absolutely anyone (an open commons) or merely to members of a defined group (a limited commons, such as a private golf course); and second, whether there are rules for the commons (a regulated commons) or not (an unregulated commons). All four combinations are found on the Internet, though the trend is toward more of a regulated commons (terms of use are specified).

The author suggests that "there is no commons without community." The existence and perpetuation of common resources depend upon the continuous involvement of a community of individuals who participate in the structure and evolution. (EN: I can accept this in a broad sense, though there do seem to be instances in which resources have been abandoned for long periods of time without anyone's active attempt to maintain them.)


While it would seem that "the commons" is an anamorphic entity, defined only in it's being outside the proprietary realm, there is a need to define the commons and defend its borders against enclosure. An example of this would be "international waters" through which any ship may sail: to prevent the enclosure of the oceans, treaties had to define the commons.

Because the commons is thus structured, it is not without rules. In any definition of a commons, rules for its use are implicit, and often explicit, though they may be defined only in broad strokes. This is essential to define what falls within or outside the boundaries of the commons.

The author refers to Giddens, who reasoned that there are two kinds of rules within the commons (though Giddens himself called them "resources"). Authoritative rules require the establishment of a social institution, endowed with the authority to impose and enforce the rules of the commons. Allocative rules are more in the nature of the consequence of the actions of those who avail themselves of the commons: while one party is using a common good, others may not use it at the same time.

(EN: I think that this may not be a sufficient scheme, in that there are rules that are extrinsic to the commons that may impact the use of the commons. Copyright law is an example of this, in that the individuals who participate in the commons do not create an institution to enforce rules of copyright, and it has nothing to do with the interaction of the parties in the context of the commons, but are imposed from an authority external to the commons.)

Understanding the nature of a virtual community requires understanding the structure of the community, which is the context in which participants in the community interact. However, structure does not effectively restrict activity, but is often influences (and sometimes changed) by the activities within the community in an interdependent relationship.


In recent years, there has been significant increase in interest in virtual communities, including the creation of communities for a myriad of purposes. In classifying these communities, two extremes have been observed - on one end, the creation of an empty community with the need to attract a body of participants; and on the other end, the need or desire of a body of individuals to establish a community.

Often, it is impossible to state, with certainty, the category into which any given community falls, and the argument becomes chicken-and-egg, though most communities can be assigned a position on the spectrum between these two extremes: no community was engineered in the utter absence of any interest and no community spontaneously appeared without being designed.

And once a community is established, the influence of demand and design continue to evolve the community through "participatory design," in which the actions of the members of a community effect changes the structure and rules of the community itself. A community may be formed for a given purpose, but it is the actions of members within the community that define and redefine the purpose, and determine what, in fact, the nature of community and its definition as a community (ontology) by virtue of the nature of their participation.


The author expresses some concern that the virtual commons may suffer the same fate as the physical commons: there will be continued encroachment by commercial and political interests, and significant portions of area currently recognized as "open" will be gated in by those who wish to exercise ownership and control.

There is also increasing concern over the expansion of the commons to encroach upon "private" property. The lack of enforcement, particularly on the international scale, of intellectual property laws has caused many "private" resources to be delivered into the commons for public access.

(EN: These are not so much "trends" as conflicting forces, the interaction of which will shape the perception and definition of the commons in future years.)