Digital Commons: A dictionary entry

This text, which tries to summarize and situate the concepts and practices of the digital commons, is my contribution to the "Dictionary of the Human Economy". The editors explain in the introduction:

We want to bring to the attention of English readers some currents of economic theory and practice that have flourished in non-Anglophone countries over the last two decades, particularly in France, Brazil, Hispanic America and Scandinavia. To these we have added significanst work by English-speaking authors that was sidelined during neoliberalism‟s heyday and deserves to find a wider audience now. We have brought these strands of new thinking together under the umbrella concept of “the human economy” which refers to an emphasis both on what people do for themselves and on the need to find ways forward that must involve all humanity somehow.


The digital commons comprises informational resources created and shared within voluntary communities of varying size and interests. These resources are typically held de facto as communal, rather than private or public (i.e. state) property. Management of the resource is characteristically oriented towards use within the community, rather than exchange in the market. As a result, separation between producers and consumers is minimal in the digital commons.

Quality of Wikipedia articles and patterns of collaboration

Why Wikipedia articles vary in quality.

Most of the existing research on Wikipedia is at the aggregate level, looking at total number of edits for an article, for example, or how many unique contributors participated in its creation," said Ram, who is a McClelland Professor of MIS in the Eller College.

"What was missing was an explanation for why some articles are of high quality and others are not," she said. "We investigated the relationship between collaboration and data quality."

Wikipedia has an internal quality rating system for entries, with featured articles at the top, followed by A, B, and C-level entries. Ram and Liu randomly collected 400 articles at each quality level and applied a data provenance model they developed in an earlier paper.

"We used data mining techniques and identified various patterns of collaboration based on the provenance or, more specifically, who does what to Wikipedia articles," Ram says. "These collaboration patterns either help increase quality or are detrimental to data quality."

Ram and Liu identified seven specific roles that Wikipedia contributors play.

Starters, for example, create sentences but seldom engage in other actions. Content justifiers create sentences and justify them with resources and links. Copy editors contribute primarily though modifying existing sentences. Some users – the all-round contributors – perform many different functions.

"We then clustered the articles based on these roles and examined the collaboration patterns within each cluster to see what kind of quality resulted," Ram said. "We found that all-round contributors dominated the best-quality entries. In the entries with the lowest quality, starters and casual contributors dominated."

The extasy of Influence

I'm reading: The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism, by Jonathan Lethem, (Harper's Magazine, Feb.2007). Which is how influences flow freely in art and most artists have no problem admitting this (why should they?). Today's strong claims of copyright are based on what he calls "source hypocrisy" (denial of one's sources, refusal to allow one's work to become the source for someone else). In most cases, artists themselves are less hyporcritics than the corporations, trusts, foundations administring their work. Lethem also mentions that Bob Dylan never refused the permission for a sample.

A large, diverse society cannot survive without property; a large, diverse, and modern society cannot flourish without some form of intellectual property. But it takes little reflection to grasp that there is ample value that the term “property” doesn't capture. And works of art exist simultaneously in two economies, a market economy and a gift economy. The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. (....) But a gift makes a connection. There are many examples, the candy or cigarette offered to a stranger who shares a seat on the plane, the few words that indicate goodwill between passengers on the late-night bus. These tokens establish the simplest bonds of social life, but the model they offer may be extended to the most complicated of unions—marriage, parenthood, mentorship. If a value is placed on these (often essentially unequal) exchanges, they degenerate into something else.

Use of CC licenses per country

  • X-axis: licensing permissiveness (freedom score)
  • Y-axis: volume (number of CC-licensed items) per capita
  • Bubble size: absolute volume
  • Region colors: Orange -> Europe, Blue -> Asia, Green -> South Americ

The US is missing.

CC Study defining 'non-commerical'

Copyright law works with the distinction between 'public' and 'private' whereas CreativeCommons introduced the distinction 'commercial' and 'non-commercial'. But since the beginning of CC in 2001, it has been unclear what these terms mean. Now, CC published a study that tries to come up with a common definition of the term, based on user feed-back. This will be used when it comes to developing the new version of the license (v.4.0), a multi-year process to be started in 2010.

Study findings

Creative Commons noncommercial licenses include a definition of commercial use, which precludes use of rights granted for commercial purposes:

… in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.

The majority of respondents (87% of creators, 85% of users) replied that the definition was “essentially the same as” (43% of creators, 42% of users) or “different from but still compatible with” (44% of creators, 43% of users) theirs. Only 7% of creators and 11% of users replied that the term was “different from and incompatible with” their definition; 6% or creators and 4% of users replied “don’t know/not sure.” 74% and 77% of creators and users respectively think others share their definition and only 13% of creators and 11% of users wanted to change their definition after completing the questionnaire.

Motivations for creating derivative works

From PDF to MP3: Motivations for creating derivative works
by John Hilton III.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 9 - 7 September 2009

From the conclusion:

This study indicates that individuals are willing to create derivatives because they want to help others access a given work and they want to make it more convenient to access it personally. Some derivatives, such as changing file formats, can take little time to create. Other derivatives, such as language translations, can be extremely time–consuming. However, individuals are willing to voluntarily create both types of derivatives. Nearly all those surveyed indicated they were glad that they had created derivative works, feeling like they were part of a community effort to share a given work with others. These creators of derivatives believe that as the awareness of open licenses increases others will be encouraged to create derivative works.

The study is fairly limited -- only 17 people were interviewed, and the original works were all books on the subject area -- but it's interesting nevertheless since it focusses on the motivations of people who do relatively uncreative mundane work, but still enjoy doing it because a sense of identity this creates.

An Empirical Analysis of Filesharing

Olson’s Paradox Revisited : An Empirical Analysis of Filesharing
Thierry Pénard, Sylvain Dejean, Raphaël Suire (June, 2009)


This article aims to examine the impact of group size on the provision of collective good provided by P2P file-sharing communities. Olson (1965) argued that small communities are more able to provide collective actions. Using an original database on Bittorrent file-sharing communities, our article finds a positive relation between the size of a community and the amount of collective good provided. However, the individual propensity to cooperate decreases with group size. These two features seem to indicate that P2P file-sharing communities provide a pure (non rival) public good. We also show that specialized communities are more efficient than general communities to encourage cooperative behavior. Finally, the rules designed by the managers of a community play an active role to stimulate voluntary contributions and improve the self-sustainability of file-sharing.

Source and full paper
See also Janko Roettgers article in this

UNU-Merit Survey of Wikipedia Readers and Contributors

Rishab Aiyer Ghosh 's Groups, UNU-MERIT, has done a large survery of wikipedia readers and contributors (130'000 completed surveys). Among the key (preliminary) results with regard to gender are:

  • Readers and contributors are on average in their mid-twenties, and predominantly male (75%)
  • Women, with a share of 25% in all respondents, are more strongly
    represented among readers (32%) and less strongly represented among
    contributors (13%).

Source: Wikimedia Blog, April 16, 2009
A short discussion of these results at

The Internet has not transformed civic engagement... yet

Ars Technica reports on the new study The Internet and Civic Engagement which found that there is a strong correlation between income and political activity and that there is little difference between online and offline, except that online more people sign petitions. Looks like the Internet is not really broadening the social basis of political involvement.

Data source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

Collaborative Filtering with Ensembles

Article on new collaborative platforms for software development

One of the most interesting insights from the results of the Netflix challenge is that while the algorithms, the psychology, and good knowledge of statistics goes a long way, it was ultimately the cross-team collaboration that ended the contest. "The Ensemble" team, appropriately named for the technique they used to merge their results consists of over 30 people. Likewise, the runner up team ("BellKor") is a collaborative effort of several distinct groups that merged their results. It is easy to overlook this fact, except that it is not a one-time occurrence. The leaderboard for the recent GitHub contest also clearly shows over half of the top ten entries as ensemble techniques!

Syndicate content