Home > social computing, social implications > Does anyone “own” a commuity? Today’s drama on Kotaku in Action

Does anyone “own” a commuity? Today’s drama on Kotaku in Action

Does anyone “own” a community? In the real world, if you own the physical building in which a group meets, you can unilaterally shut it down, closing the doors and refusing access. Online, if you run the server that an online community operates on, you can just shut it down.  What about running a group on a commercial platform, like a subreddit?

Testing the limits of that, today the founder of the subreddit KotakuInAction (KiA), david-me, decided he had had enough. He didn’t like what the group had become, so he removed powers from all the other moderators and took the group “private” (blocking access to new members). He deleted the code that customized the group. He did this unilaterally.

Can he do that? KiA has nearly 100,000 subscribers. It was created and sustained by the contributions of its members and the work of its volunteer moderators. Can the founder just shut it down?

If david-me was running the server, the answer is yes—he could shut down the process and walk away. In this case, the server is hosted on a commercial platform, Reddit. The other moderators asked Reddit to restore the group, which they did.  But do David’s feelings about this matter? We’ll see what the Reddit administrators decide. But the answer to that is probably no.

And that’s probably the right answer. In the 17th century, John Locke wrote that an individual has property rights to what they remove from a state of nature with their labor. That fallen log on public land doesn’t belong to anyone, but once you chop it and stack the fire wood, it’s yours. The metaphorical log stacking of creating and maintaining KiA was done by all its moderators and members, so in a sense it belongs to all of them, and one person shouldn’t be allowed to just take it away.

What that means for founders of groups is that you need to be careful—once your creation is launched into the world, it’s no longer really “yours.” It has a life of its own. Like the creator of the golem or Dr. Frankenstein, david-me is a kind of tragic figure. Whether you agree with his concerns or not, he’s the creator whose work got away from him.

Reddit is a commercial platform, and ultimately must be guided by the company’s mission statement and financial goals. It is not likely to be in their interests to allow one person to shut down an active group with nearly 100k members. But it’s their prerogative to make that decision. It’s up to the admins, not to david-me, the other mods, or the members. And this surfaces a troubling issue. Our “public sphere”—the places where we have meaningful public discussions—is not really public at all. What can be said, what spaces stay open or close down, are a matter of corporate policy with no recourse if the public doesn’t like their decisions. This is not ideal. It’s increasingly clear that we need public spaces that are truly public—owned by the people, and subject to laws like the First Amendment in the US about what can and can not be said.

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  1. July 13, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    In a literal, legal sense Reddit owns the community.

    • Anon Adderlan
      July 16, 2018 at 4:09 pm

      Reddit owns the ‘land’, and even then that’s really stretching the analogy where the internet is concerned. Saying they own the community is like saying someone owns Feminism, or Anime Fandom, or any other emergent cultural structure.

      And the idea they do is part of the problem, because it leads people to believe there are ‘owners’ who have control over these communities, and if we only held these owners accountable these communities would be so much better. It’s a transparently AUTHORITARIAN position to take when most internet communities are the product of democracy. Figureheads are easy to attack, but doing so doesn’t lead the communities they ‘lead’ to changing.

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