Commercial Providers of Infrastructure for Collective Action Online - Case Studies Comparison

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* Paper: Commercial providers of infrastructure for collective action online. Case studies comparison: Flickr Corporation model and Wikihow Enterprise model. By Mayo Fuster Morell. For the 3rd Free culture research conference Berlin, October 2010



This paper analyses the role of the providers of infrastructure for collective action online. Based on the case of online creation communities, the paper presents the two main models of commercial providers of infrastructure: corporate service model and mission enterprise model. It also presents an explanatory analysis of how the type of provider shape the community generated. The empirical analysis is based of a case study comparison of Flickr and Wikihow.


Introduction: see the description of Online Creation Communities

Typology of commercial infrastructure provision, governance, and community relations, via Online Creation Communities - Platform Governance‎

In this essay, the author distinguishes five main models of online infrastructure provision:

   * Corporation services,
   * mission enterprises,
   * university networks,
   * representational foundations and
   * assemblearian collective self-provision 

She compares the two for-profit models, the corporate model and the: Mission Enterprise Model‎

The two respective cases studies are the Flickr - Governance corporate model, and the Wikihow - Governance mission model


Comparing the Corporate and the Mission Enterprise Model for infrastructure provision

Mayo Fuster Morell:

"Several debates and controversies are linked to the commercial providers of platforms of participation online, and concern issues such as producing unemployment; the exploitation of free labor; and wikiwashing (the practice of creating “fake” images of commercial providers in order to improve their reputation). This paper addressed commercial strategies of platform provision and how they shape the relationship between the commercial provider and the community.

There are some common aspects in the governance of commercial providers. There is a structural “closedness” between the provider and the community as a whole. Two main typologies of closed and forprofit providers can be distinguished: corporations and enterprises. Although both are close to community involvement concerning infrastructure provision, these two models differently frame the relationship between the provider and the community. Furthermore, they are contrasting cases in terms of the level of freedom and the autonomy of the participants with regard to the infrastructure and the provider. Finally, these two cases differently shape the communities emerging from the platforms provided by them.

In corporations, the relationship with the participant is based on offering a service. The platforms hosted by corporations may begin with participant involvement. However, when the functionality is stabilized the participants involvement is replaced with the reassertion of a commercial relationship in the use of a service. At this stage, participants’ involvement in the platform is limited to using it. Although there are several ways to retain the innovation of the service through participant co-involvement, participants individually and as a whole have no position in platform governance.

In sum, there is closedness to contribution from the community on infrastructure governance matters. Additionally, there is a remoteness or distance between them, there is not overlapping or collaboration between provider or community.

In mission enterprises, there is also a structural closedness to community involvement in the infrastructure governance. However, the enterprise are near the community and overlap in the development of a common mission. The enterprise collaborates with the community in the development of the content.

While in the case of corporations, there is interaction between the provider and the community of participants in terms of doing something together; there is no “we”. Instead there is a corporation that offers a service which participants accept or not according to the terms of use defined by the corporation. The corporation depends on participants because they “buy” a service and because in their use of the platform they generate content which is profitable for the corporation. In this regard, the corporation depends on the participants and this translates into their trying to keep them happy over the terms of use and providing a good service in order that participants do not “leave”. Instead, in enterprises, a “we” identity is created around content creation formed by the participants and the staff of the enterprise working together to accomplish the mission. This “we” is defined as those working to fulfill the common mission. There is collective interaction for the achievement of a common mission which results in common property.

Additionally, community self-governs the process of its interaction, and although the enterprise also intervenes in community matters, there is a less clear division between the provider and the community in terms of content creation and community governance.

In terms of the level of freedom and autonomy of participants from the commercial provider, a major distinction can be made between netenabler and corporate models. The netenabler conditions of Wikihow, on the one hand, favors freedom and autonomy from the infrastructure allowing for information flow and reuse. Importantly, due to the netenabler, the Wikihow community has the “right to fork”. This netenabler condition is a source of power for the community guaranteeing that the Wikihow content will remain free and community controlled. In contrast, to the Yahoo! corporate model based on blackbox conditions. Participants in those communities are locked into those corporations and only have the “right to leave”. Major distinctions emerged from these two cases in terms of how the infrastructure governance shapes the communities. Although both are based on closed and for-profit providers, blackbox conditions favor a growing community (as in the Flickr case) while netenabler conditions favor collaboration (as in the Wikihow case). Importantly, while Wikihow resulted in a digital commons collectively owned and freely accessible for third parts. The Flickr corporation model cannot be defined as a community which built a digital commons. In Flickr, the process is individually oriented and does not generate a digital commons, as the resulting outcome is not collectively owned.

The commercial goal of corporations is translated into an emphasis on growth and new activity which impacts on participants, whose commodity is their own action in that direction. In this regard, the participant experience is designed to be centered on the individual. Each participant decides the conditions of the collaboration and each participant constructs their own pathway through the platform. There is no overall integrated community involvement. The resulting overall outcome, the digital archive, emerges from the synergy of individual contributions and tagging, and is not an explicit mission goal nor is it of common ownership.

In conclusion, while for mission enterprises the commons is the mission and the profit is the means, in corporations, the profit is the goal and the commons merely a byproduct." (

More Information

Contact author: Mayo Fuster Morell, Social and Political Science Department, European University Institute (Florence) via Email: [email protected]