The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Alissa Centivany: Participatory Policymaking on Collaborative Social Media Platforms

Alissa Centivany, University of Michigan & University of Toronto

In 1821, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’[3]. Today, that sentiment more aptly describes large scale internet platforms. Platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Wikipedia, and Reddit provide increasingly essential and ubiquitous support for a wide variety of online human interactions ranging from intimate personal communications amongst friends and family, to commercial and work-based transactions, to civic engagement and participatory democracy. Many aspects of large scale internet platforms have had a positive influence on social productivity, communication, and innovation, but the algorithms, processes, and technical systems that comprise platforms are often opaque, invisible, or hidden from view. The power of platforms coupled with a lack of transparency around how they operate and collect, moderate, and use data is concerning and points toward a need for research that focuses on the relationships among technical design, emerging social practices, and law, policy, and ethics in the context of contemporary platform society.

Therefore, this research explores the co-evolution of platforms and society by focusing on the mediating role of policy and policymaking processes in collaborative social media platforms. In particular, this research answers the following research question:

How and why do policy and policymaking processes on collaborative social media platforms reflect and effect technical design choices and emerging social practices and values?

Building upon previous work [1], this research adopts a participatory policymaking perspective informed by Hirschman’s exit, voice and loyalty framework, to describe and explain how and why online community-generated policies emerge to reconfigure, reroute, channel, and clarify aspects of social media platforms. In particular, this research looks at three recent controversies: Wikimedia’s planned search engine, Reddit’s ‘AMA’geddon, and Facebook’s contagion studies. By describing and comparing the emergence and evolution of participatory policymaking in these contexts ‘focusing on the role and function of exit, voice and loyalty ‘this research contributes to deeper understandings of the platform society as one in which technical design, social practice, and policy are deeply entangled, mutually constitutive, and co-evolving in dynamic processes of mutual readjustment.


To understand how and why participatory policymaking mediates the relationship between technical and social aspects of collaborative social media platforms, an in-depth qualitative approach was adopted. Qualitative data in the form of user comments, discussion threads, and votes (where applicable) around the above-cited controversies was manually scraped from Facebook, Reddit, and Wikimedia websites. Relevant public documents such as site policies, news reports, and internal correspondence were also collected. Using an iterative, inductive process, data was coded for user identification purposes (e.g. name, subreddit, user role (e.g. moderator, user, administrator and so forth)), timeliness and popularity (i.e. significant and impact), as well as for exit, voice, and loyalty. By tracing the emergence, evolution, and resolution of a particular controversy in each of the three contexts, and comparing results across contexts, we hope to shed light on the co-evolution of policy, design, and practice on collaborative social media platforms.

Summary of Key Findings

While this research is ongoing at the time of this proposal, a number of findings have begun to emerge. First, in the context of collaborative social media platforms, participatory policymaking emerges as a powerful tool for mediating controversies involving interactions between technical aspects of the platform and social aspects of its use. In particular, this research finds that collaborative social media platforms like Wikimedia, Reddit, and Facebook tend to have built-in features that (sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally) promote participatory policymaking by their community of users. When a platform’s technical infrastructure and architecture is made to support (and rely upon) user-contributed and moderated content, it tends also to shift the locus of power from the administrators of the site to its lower-level participants.

Second, when such technical design choices are considered in light of associated core social values embedded in the platform, the resulting power dynamic can be substantial. For example, Reddit’s techno-libertarianism, Wikimedia’s altruism and egalitarianism, and Facebook’s innovate-deploy-revise ethos reflect and effect the emergence of shared community norms, practices, values, and expectations with regard to user-input, control, and participation in site administration and decision-making.

Third, when the actions of administrators are perceived as contrary to the interests and values of the user community, features of the platform’s technical design may be exploited through exit and voice in a participatory policymaking process. Exit ‘when a dissatisfied user/contributor leaves the platform for a different alternative or competing one ‘is neat, impersonal, and indirect. By contrast, voice ‘when a dissatisfied user/contributor chooses to call attention to their dissatisfaction directly in an effort to induce remedial action ‘is messy, graduated, public, articular, direct, and straightforward. In the face of controversies like those discussed in this research, the interests of platform administrators are best served by users’exercise of voice because they tend to be more knowledgeable and invested in the platform and are therefore best situated to express constructive criticism. Somewhat paradoxically, this creates a paradox as ‘those customers who care most about the quality of the product and who therefore are those who would be the most active, reliable, and creative agents of voice are for those very reasons also those who are apparently likely to exit first in the case of deterioration’ (Hirschman, 2:47).

Fourth, in the context of collaborative social media platforms, the key to successfully resolving controversies is to find and foster ways of accommodating and supporting user’exercise of voice by fostering increased user loyalty. Loyalty is the linchpin of sustainability collaborative social media platforms. Participatory policymaking is both an example of voice and a reinforcing mechanism for loyalty.

Additional findings are expected to emerge as this research continues to develop.


1. Alissa Centivany, ‘‘Popcorn Tastes Good’: Participatory Policymaking and Reddit’s ‘AMA’geddon.’Forthcoming in Proceedings of SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2016.

2. Albert Hirschman. 1970. ‘Exit, voice and loyalty."" Cambridge/Mass (1982).

3. Percy Bysshe Shelley. A defense of poetry. Ed. Albert Stanburrough Cook. Ginn, 1890.

Alissa Centivany