Welcome to the digital commons

openDemocracy calls itself a digital commons - but what does that really mean - and is it a sustainable model in a digital landscape dominated by tech giants? Dan Hind starts a conversation on digital commons and what they offer the future of the internet.

Wikimedia Commons/Tengis Bilegsaikhan. Some rights reserved.

If you click on the ‘About’ link at the top of this page you will see that openDemocracy describes itself as a ‘digital commons’, as ‘a shared resource, resisting both the web’s permissiveness as well as corporate efforts to enclose it’. The site is not a magazine, nor a commodity. It is ‘a public service on the web’ that aims to provide ‘a platform for exchange’. This definition serves as one starting point for the debate we are hosting here over the next few months.

Defining oneself as a digital commons raises important questions about openDemocracy. How does a digital commons differ from a magazine or a commodity? What is it about the site that qualifies it as a commons? A platform for exchange will be – must be – noisily plural but it cannot be a Babel of voices talking at cross purposes. How do we reconcile the need for maintenance and oversight with the site’s existence as a shared resource? And, given the need for ongoing care and attention, how does openDemocracy pay its bills?

The definition also raises questions about the context in which openDemocracy operates. What do we mean by ‘the commons’? What work is the word already doing in debates about the internet, and, more widely, in debates about the future of political economy? The idea of the commons has become increasingly important over the last two decades. As it has moved from comparative obscurity it is right that we should examine it more closely, trace its histories, and distinguish between different uses of the word. This is the other starting point for the discussion this summer.

And of course these two lines of inquiry intersect. Since its launch in 2001 openDemocracy has hosted diverse conversations, on many different scales. It has existed online as the outward expression of a network of networks. As such, it has managed to discuss contemporary reality – from Bush-Cheney’s global War on Terror, to national and regional politics, to social movements and the connections between these different frames - in ways that reward some reflection. Perhaps what we do here will give others some suggestions. And of course the wider internet teems with experiments in free exchange, with attempts to create common properties. There’s an important conversation to be had, I think, about these experiments, their successes and failures, and what they tell us about the future.

Meanwhile, all these common spaces, including openDemocracy, try to survive in a digital economy that is now dominated by large, conventionally structured albeit highly inventive, corporations. The history of Wikipedia’s rise, for example, cannot meaningfully be separated from Google’s decision to promote it in its search results. More generally, open source, free software, and the idea of the commons itself, have all become more prominent in part because they mesh with the public relations strategies of ‘big digital’. The champions of the commons are sometimes enthusiastic agents of enclosure.

The Creative Commons Non-Commercial license, under which openDemocracy publishes.

And then there is the question of communications. For more than sixty years we have been reliant on a model of the media in which the majority are silent and only a minority speak. The public sphere was the creation of a partnership between private industry and the state, in which professionals on the one hand and market forces on the other held much of the power in a 'one-to-many' system characterised by broadcast. But digital technology is disrupting the economics of this system. We are already seeing newspapers struggle to avoid disintegration or outright collapse. As video content migrates online broadcasters are starting to go through a similar process of catastrophic change. Something will replace the old model. Yet while states and corporations work frantically to design this replacement, the rest of us are only slowly waking up to the implications. Recent revelations about the US state’s systematic integration with Google, Microsoft and others should remind us that there is much more to the media industry than anarchic competition in markets. The notion of the digital commons has something to contribute to efforts to democratise the public sphere.

So, like any conversation worth having, this one has plenty of complexity to work through, plenty of opportunities to run off at a tangent. But it will be interesting, and useful, to the extent that it brings together a variety of voices, registers, and points of view. It is in part a conversation about one internet site, and about the context in which that site finds itself. What we discuss here has implications for how openDemocracy thinks about itself, perhaps for how it develops in future. But the digital commons debate is something else. It is a matter of common concern.

It matters to us all because the way we think about the commons will play an important part in determining what, if anything, replaces the current economic and political arrangements. The commons might remain marginal, necessary but subordinate to the regimes of private property and state power. Or they might become central to both material production and the circulation of ideas. As I note above, the language of the commons already contributes to a highly sophisticated kind of corporate public relations. The idea itself, like anything valuable, is in danger of enclosure. At the same time, the decision to view the public sphere as a property held in common implies a profound change in how the media operate, and in how we relate to them, a change that will feed back into political and social organization. When we talk about the commons we are talking about the resources we will need if we are to build a better world.

So, the digital commons. That’s the conversation we are going to have. I hope you’ll join us.

Wikimedia Commons/Mourial. Some rights reserved.