Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities

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Citation: Peter Kollock, Marc Smith (1996) Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities. Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social, and Cross-Cultural Perspectives (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) cooperation (RSS), conflict (RSS), USENET (RSS), Online Communities (RSS)


Managing the Virtual Commons is a paper focused with issues of coordination and management of the USENET online community. Written in 1996, it is perhaps the earlier major work that attempts to look at a large online community through the lens and literature of commons governance. Theoretically, the paper is framed very heavily in terms of Eleanor Ostrom's theory of commons governance and talks about issues of governance. The paper is largely a shorter version of the later book Communities in cyberspace published three years later although, due to space, it deals with many issues at much less depth.

The paper provides a short but in-depth and accurate depiction of USENET that includes detailed examples of groups, postings, and user interaction. The commons resources described is "bandwidth" conceived of in cognitive terms. USENET users have finite time and must management their groups so that their own limited bandwidth is not exceeded and use of that resources is not abused. The authors talk about USETNET FAQs and norms and how these are used to maintain that resource.

The authors go back to Ostrom's 7 design principles explicitly which they use frame their discussion of USENET explicitly (although not all principles are relevant or apply cleanly to the example of USENET):

  1. Group boundaries are clearly defined
  2. Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions
  3. Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules
  4. The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities
  5. A system for monitoring member's behavior exists; this monitoring is undertaken by the community members themselves
  6. A graduated system of sanctions is used
  7. Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms[9]

Their major takeaway, in their conclusion is that:

One of the broad lessons that we draw from the social organization of the Usenet is that cyberspace has a double edge: monitoring the behavior of others becomes easier while sanctioning undesirable behavior becomes more difficult; the costs of communication between members of a large group are decreased while the effects of defecting are often amplified; and the existence of several thousand newsgroups makes it easy for individuals to find others who share specific interests and goals but also makes those who want to disrupt those groups able to find them. Thus, there is no simple conclusion to this story, and one-note predictions of either a utopian or dystopian future must be considered suspect.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The article is reasonably well known in CSCW and has been cited hundreds of times. It, and the book that ultimately built on the work in more depth, are one of the seminar articles related to governance of online communities more broadly as well as commons-based discussions in particular. It has been cited both by CSCW and design scholars as well as legal scholars interested in cyberspace.