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New Approaches to Managing Lifecycles of Digital Knowledge Commons

PI: Benjamin Mako Hill
Sponsor: New Approaches to Managing Lifecycles of Digital Knowledge Commons
Project Period: -
Amount: $549,959.00


This research seeks to understand and develop remedies for a set of very difficult problems that face peer production information resources and that have kept many from achieving high goals that were originally set for them. Digital knowledge commons like Wikipedia, open source software, and collaborative filtering systems like Reddit produce enormous social and economic value and serve as critical information infrastructure. Decades after many of the most important peer produced knowledge commons were launched, many are under attack by vandalism, disinformation campaigns, and a range of special interests. At the same time, many of the largely volunteer-based groups who sustain mature communities have been stable in membership or shrinking for years. A body of research suggests that these patterns of decline are due, at least in part, to commons becoming increasingly closed to contributions. Integrating and building on a body of social computing and social scientific research, this research will study why knowledge commons increasingly reject the work of volunteers and analyze how these communities should structure themselves to better manage growth. In doing so, the work will advance our general understanding of the relationship between collective action, public goods, and common pool resource governance.

In four parts, the project will attempt to (1) develop a theoretical framework to explain why online communities follow regular patterns of growth and decline and (2) conduct a series of empirical studies of wikis, open source software, and collaborative filtering sites. Using insights from the first two parts, the work will seek to (3) identify a set of strategies for the effective management of lifecycles in a knowledge commons. Finally, the work will (4) create tools and datasets to help researchers and practitioners manage online community lifecycles. This work will be conducted in close collaboration with community managers and disseminated through a series of outreach-focused meetings, workshops, and information resources as well as through scholarly publications and university classes. Managers of knowledge commons can use the strategies developed in this research to navigate tradeoffs between openness and closure across their communities' lifecycles. By better supporting the work of peer production organizations, the broadest impacts of this work are the indirect effects it will have on nearly all Internet users who rely on peer produced software and information to conduct their business and personal lives.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.