Governing online goods: Maturity and formalization in Minecraft, Reddit, and World of Warcraft communities

by   Seth Frey, et al.

Building a successful community means governing active populations and limited resources. This challenge often requires communities to design formal governance systems from scratch. But the characteristics of successful institutional designs are unclear. Communities that are more mature and established may have more elaborate formal policy systems. Alternatively, they may require less formalization precisely because of their maturity. Indeed, scholars often downplay the role that formal rules relative to unwritten rules, norms, and values. But in a community with formal rules, decisions are more consistent, transparent, and legitimate. To understand the relationship of formal institutions to community maturity and governance style, we conduct a large-scale quantitative analysis applying institutional analysis frameworks of self-governance scholar Elinor Ostrom to 80,000 communities across 3 platforms: the sandbox game Minecraft, the MMO game World of Warcraft, and Reddit. We classify communities' written rules to test predictors of institutional formalization. From this analysis we extract two major findings. First, institutional formalization, the size and complexity of an online community's governance system, is generally positively associated with maturity, as measured by age, population size, or degree of user engagement. Second, we find that online communities employ similar governance styles across platforms, strongly favoring "weak" norms to "strong" requirements. These findings suggest that designers and founders of online communities converge on styles of governance practice that are correlated with successful self-governance. With deeper insights into the patterns of successful self-governance, we can help more communities overcome the challenges of self-governance and create for their members powerful experiences of shared meaning and collective empowerment.


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