Designing for Participation and Change in Digital Institutions
Whether we recognize it or not, the Internet is rife with exciting and original institutional forms that are transforming social organization on and offline. Issues of governance in these Internet platforms and other digital institutions have posed a challenge for software engineers, many of whom have little exposure to the relevant history or theory of institutional design. Here, we offer one useful framework with an aim to stimulate dialogue between computer scientists and political scientists. The dominant guiding practices for the design of digital institutions to date in human-computer interaction, computer-supported cooperative work, and the tech industry at large have been an incentive-focused behavioral engineering paradigm, a collection of atheoretical approaches such as A/B-testing, and incremental issue-driven software engineering. One institutional analysis framework that has been useful in the design of traditional institutions is the body of resource governance literature known as the “Ostrom Workshop”. A key finding of this literature that has yet to be broadly incorporated in the design of many digital institutions is the importance of including participatory change process mechanisms in what is called a “constitutional layer” of institutional design—in other words, defining rules that allow and facilitate diverse stakeholder participation in the ongoing process of institutional design change. We explore to what extent this consideration is met or could be better met in three varied cases of digital institutions: cryptocurrencies, cannabis informatics, and amateur Minecraft server governance. Examining such highly varied cases allows us to demonstrate the broad relevance of constitutional layers in many different types of digital institutions.