PolicyKit: Building Governance in Online Communities

Amy X. Zhang, Grant Hugh, Michael Bernstein
UIST: Proceedings of the 32nd Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, 2020
The software behind online community platforms encodes a governance model that represents a strikingly narrow set of governance possibilities focused on moderators and administrators. When online communities desire other forms of government, such as ones that take many members' opinions into account or that distribute power in non-trivial ways, communities must resort to laborious manual effort. In this paper, we present PolicyKit, a software infrastructure that empowers online community members to concisely author a wide range of governance procedures and automatically carry out those procedures on their home platforms. We draw on political science theory to encode community governance into policies, or short imperative functions that specify a procedure for determining whether a user-initiated action can execute. Actions that can be governed by policies encompass everyday activities such as posting or moderating a message, but actions can also encompass changes to the policies themselves, enabling the evolution of governance over time. We demonstrate the expressivity of PolicyKit through implementations of governance models such as a random jury deliberation, a multi-stage caucus, a reputation system, and a promotion procedure inspired by Wikipedia's Request for Adminship (RfA) process.