By Anna Wilson
With Commonfare.net, we want to create a digital space in which people can communicate and act together to strengthen and create social welfare, and in so doing to foster agency and self-determination. We will only be able to judge the platform as succeeding in these aims if it fosters sharing, cooperation and collaboration through, for example:
• the open sharing of experiences and stories, particularly around bottom-up welfare provision and the barriers that people have encountered to enhancing their own welfare through, for example, interactions with the state;
• the creation of groups and initiative for both local and distributed communities;
• the circulation and hence redistribution of resources – knowledge, skills, time and physical goods – among the Commoner community.
All of these kinds of interaction rely on the active participation of Commoners, whether predominantly online or in a hybrid of Commonfare.net and local spaces such as the CommonKiosks established in the Netherlands. This naturally leads to two very important considerations: first, how can we make Commonfare.net a space in which Commoners can trust, and in which they can trust each other? And second, how can we recognize and articulate the Commoners’ contributions, which are what will make the aims of Commonfare.net a reality, and which are indeed the shared resources on which a commonfare might be based?
The most common approach to facilitating trust in digital interactions that may be between strangers is the use of so-called reputation systems, based on ratings. If you have ever bought an item on eBay or Etsy, arranged somewhere to stay through AirBnB or Couchsurfing.com, or found someone to help with odd jobs around the home through TaskRabbit or similar, you will be familiar with these. Reputation systems on these platforms provide a means for customers/clients to rate goods and service providers, and for providers to attract new customers because of the high ratings and good feedback they can display. In some cases – including gig economy sites but also expert Q&A sites, which also make use of reputation systems, reputation scores not only serve as visible badges of good behaviour – they are also linked to in-platform rewards and benefits, such as reduced rates for advertising or higher prominence in search results or listings. Should Commonfare.net adopt such a system to identify “good” Commoners and to reward them for their “good” behaviour? Indeed, in such a space, who determines what is “good”?
To address these considerations, we (members of the Commonfare.net consortium and potential Commoners) carried out research and fieldwork in the first 18 months of the project. Potential Commoners gave us their time, experiences and opinions during interviews and workshops explicitly aimed at exploring issues of reputation, trust and reward.
Through this research, it quickly became clear that standard reputation and reward systems would not work for us. They would be consistent with neither the Commonfare.net project philosophy nor with the values and aims of potential Commoners. These systems are part of and characterised by a strongly free-market, capitalist approach, focused on competition, individual success and accumulation of resources (in the form of money, rewards and reputation itself). Indeed, bringing a system like this into a digital space intended to promote cooperation, mutual benefit and collective welfare would be more likely to undermine its success than contribute to it. Just as importantly, key elements of life valued by the potential Commoners we talked with included autonomy and dignity. Both of these are already diminished through interactions with the state, employers and the “blame the victim” culture that was felt to be widespread among the media and wider public. The last thing potential Commoners wanted was any hint that their experiences of precariousness and poverty were being gamified through association with point-scoring and user-ratings, eroding their dignity still further. They also roundly rejected the usual visual representation of reputation scores using a “gold star” scale, describing mental associations with the military and other triggers for mistrust. As one potential Commoner put it, if the Commonfare.net had anything like a conventional reputation system, “I would walk away. And I would never come back”.
Instead, what potential Commoners identified as most important to trust on Commonfare.net was trust in the platform itself: “it’s not about the trust and exchange with someone else, it’s how do you put your trust in a platform, in a community”.
However, trust – or more accurately, mistrust – was a huge issue for potential Commoners. Interactions with the state eroded dignity and left them feeling that they could not trust a system that did not itself trust and respect them. This was exacerbated among young Croatians by a widespread assumption of corruption at all levels of bureaucratic and employment organisations. Potential Commoners were also keenly aware of the risks of being exploited in digital spaces, and were strongly opposed to their data being passed on to others or used for commercial purposes – as one person put it, “if I saw that it was collecting, coming back in other ads, around some of the information that I had been there, if it was sharing information with other things, that might make me suspicious”. To establish trust in the platform, potential Commoners emphasised the need for a coherent set of ethical and political values to be clearly stated and consistently enacted through the activities of the platform itself as well as its users. And these values needed to include equality, justice, fairness and respect.
However, most potential Commoners also welcomed the idea of something within the space that recognised their contributions to it. As suggested by one potential Commoner, if a platform is doing “something serious”, then that “demands … some involvement” - in Commonfare.net, that will take the form of meaningful contribution to the creation of a common wealth of knowledge and resources on which a Commonfare approach could be built. In such circumstances, potential Commoners indicated that a means of recognizing how activities on and off the platform contributed to that wealth would be valued. The same indication could also be used to facilitate trust-based interactions and decision between individuals, as “there is something that is completely entangled … between trust and [platform] use.” A visible measure of contributions to the platform was described as showing “how engaged I am, how motivated I am,” and “a good way to see how active a person is … and in what way, and I think that builds trust”. Control over what others could see was also felt to be essential, though, as potential Commoners wanted “the right to privacy when it seems appropriate”.
These are among the key findings that have informed the Commonfare.net team’s to recognizing contributions to the platform and facilitating trust. Taking on board the twin emphases on maintaining dignity and making shared values visible, we have designed a novel system that is based more on relationships and interactions than on the properties or characteristics of individuals – that is, one that tries to recognize that trust is a relational property, created between people. We are now looking forward to trialling this system, which we refer to as the Commonshare, and adapting it according to the experiences and desires of the Commoners who will own it.