Consider applying Ostrom Principles to Nix organizational structure

Who is Ostrom?:

It was long unanimously held among economists that natural resources that were collectively used by their users would be over-exploited and destroyed in the long-term. Elinor Ostrom disproved this idea by conducting field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources, such as pastures, fishing waters, and forests. She showed that when natural resources are jointly used by their users, in time, rules are established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable.

Why is this relevant to Meta discussion of Nix organization?

Nix, nixpkgs, Nixos software projects are effectively a “commons” as defined by Ostrom

Ostrom did case studies on how dozens of people in the real world we able to collectively manage and co-govern shared resources.

She identified 8 principles that emerge when people are effectively collectively managing common pool resources Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons | On the Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries.

  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Organizations in the open source software and open data spaces are now applying these principles to the structure of their organizations

and even for projects and communities of people returning to society from incarceration

There’s quite a lot of groundwork, and available expertise for applying this principles to nix project structure. I can see from spending some hours reading back through threads, github issues, and other online communications that nix organization would benefit greatly from having translation of all 8 of these principles.

It would take some time and patience to build this into the nix organization structure. I wanted to start out by just introducing concepts and the examples. Happy to elaborate more.


What’s the Nix moderation equivalent of a resource here? All of this is pretty abstract to me. Please translate your ideas into something specific about Nix, and then diff it against the current moderation practice.


@piegames I’ll try to elaborate on the parts of nix org that I understand. My intent was not to limit this discussion to any one team or component.

For moderation, the shared resources are:

Everyone’s time

Volunteer moderator time

An environment that is considered to be managed in accord with RFC 102

The cost incurred in people needing to sort through noise to find information they need.

I think now and in the medium term future, we should just largely trust moderators to interpret what is happening, and we should drastically limit constantly asking for justifications.

I think we should expand if we have not already on “clear group boundaries” to include more definition of the behaviors that would destroy the above mentioned limited common resources, plus a reasoned explanation as to why the behaviors are deemed to be destructive.

These clear group boundaries about why behaviors may result in moderation action can then be pointed to as the rules of the community, along with the rationale for why they are destructive.

For “dispute resolution” a slower asynchronous process could be afforded, where people could submit a dispute, but if their dispute is covered by rules about behavior, or can be qualified with regard to core principles stated somewhere, then the dispute is resolved. If not, then it can be discussed as a part of the dispute resolution process.

A universal rule that Ostrom found in her case studies of communities operating around shared resources is that everyone must agree about how they are used, but a few people can destroy the resource by defecting from the agreement, and just doing whatever they think they should do in regard to that resource.

In our Nix community context, People should explicitly agree by participating at least to defer to moderation team, or to raise and discuss civilly a dispute about rules, and agree that dispute resolution time must be at the discretion and availability of the people.


RFC 102 probably needs some expansion to make the group boundaries clearer.

Also, it probably would be worth stating in all aspects of nix org (not just moderation) who, how and why people are included in decision making around shared resource, vs considered “outside” of the org (maybe people talking on reddit are “outside”, for instance. Maybe specific places are “within group boundaries” when it comes to discussion, for instance)

…if those elaborations are not enough that is ok, and I can try to elaborate more in the moderation context.

I will return to elaborate on others too.

to be clear on this one, I am suggesting that it also be stated that by participating in discussion spaces, you agree with the terms of the rules about discussion spaces.

Another Ostrom principle is to give people access to affect the rules that are applied to them (different than a dispute resolution about how the rules were applied).

It may be that RFC processes are enough here, and there would probably need to be some rules about how you would participate in those processes as well.

I don’t know everything about the current moderation practice, but I think the “diff” I can see so far is:

Clearer rules about participation

Clearer agreement from participants with the rules

Dispute resolution process

A process to propose evolution to the rules, that itself has clear rules

A set of rules about being demanding of people’s time wrt to how you participate in any of the above discussed (I should be discussing things where rules say I discuss, I should not be demanding immediate resolution of disputes. My dispute or RFC about rules should not be limited to a “he did it too!”, but also needs to have some constructive outcome mapped to it that helps the community avoid such a conflict in the future. Participants must agree to be co-owners in conflict resolution, such that they are actively trying to resolve conflicts, and not start or perpetuate them. Otherwise the common resources will be destroyed.

Other areas, like marketing, infrastructure, nix, nixpkgs, other teams, also have similar common shared resources, or finite volunteered resources (time, knowledge access, etc) and the same 8 principles, and need for rule structures, access to change rule structures, dispute resolution, and commitment to be mutually responsible for stated outcomes and goals would apply.

I love Ostrom theories, and would volunteer to be in a team working on the topic of looking at how could we try to apply those on nix{os,pkgs,community,infra,gov,cpp,lang,mod,etc}.

I don’t feel like I can add anything useful right now to the discussion without much more work, though, and I’m not sure I would ever find time to start doing some research if I am alone.


I would volunteer for such a team as well, if there were enough interest.

At minimum, I thought I would try to break down how these things can apply, and it maybe might be useful for people who are trying to figure out how to co-govern shared resources in an inclusive way on a long term basis. At least these things are relevant to the problems Nix community faces, and proven to help humans address the problems in many domains.

I got a chance to work with Ostrom years ago when doing research work for Institute for the Future. Later on I worked for her successor at U of Indiana. The work also included the founder of “game theory”, Robert Axelrod. Robert told us that in his research, that people would not avoid the “tragedy of the commons”, or destruction of shared resources unless they were aware that they are dealing with a shared finite resource, and understood that they needed to work together with the rest of the stakeholders to succeed in maintaining instead of destroying it. In a community where people are free to come and go, it may be that people need to first have some introduction to understanding this, and explicitly agree to work in good faith to do it. It’s worth exploring anyway, to see if it will help.


This seems to be going in the right direction. I am not an expert in these things, but if it provides mechanisms that encourage collaboration over confrontation, this seems like a good thing.


I don’t think that in the case of the nix community this needs to be researched very deeply. In my view, discussing with teams about how to interpret and implement actionable plans around the 8 principles will likely be enough. Although it would help if there were some way to monitor and quantify/qualify from time to time that things are going well. This could be analytics from forums, github issues/repos, the survey that is already done, and possibly more.

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Now that NixOS Foundation board: Giving power to the community announced a constitutional assembly, I think it is the perfect place to implement Ostrom principles.

I agree.

@nim65s are you already on any existing team in the nix org? Currently there is no team for this. I am a maintainer, but hold no other position currently. I have the sense that what comes next will mostly be driven and participated in by people who are already part of the nix org, which is fine with me. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems to be the case.

So it may be that I just watch what unfolds from the sidelines, and offer feedback or advice about it. People privately solicited advice from me over the past 3 weeks,and that is what led to me starting to write this here.

So I in my case I’ll have to explore and see if there is continuing interest in what I am writing, and if peope think there is a purpose for it in the org. If not, that is ok with me.

I am also interested in creating a working group or team around postgres, and postgres extensions and I will be trying to help with maintaining that more in the weeks to come, too

No, but I’m available to volunteer more time for nix org, where it can help.

I’m also a recent maintainer in nixpkgs, but that’s it: Pull requests · NixOS/nixpkgs · GitHub

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If any traction comes from our efforts here I’ll be sure to include you @nim65s

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According to Nadia Eghbal’s study Working in Public, (perhaps counterintuitively) the primary limited resource in online communities is contributor attention.

I’ve been arguing this for literally years now. Attention is non-fungible, because most knowledge and skill is tacit rather than explicit. In the Nix case at the moment, the amount of context you have to soak up to even make meaningful contributions is quite substantial. Some of that is due to the mostly invisible social structures. I hope that a clarified governance structure will reduce the attention-cost of onboarding and participation in the ecosystem. Ostrom’s principles seem to be reasonable boundary conditions that should be observed when making these clarifications.


I think all previous attempts on resolving point 1 have failed via «lack of implementable proposals», maybe this time the Foundation will force the issue…


@fricklerhandwerk yes exactly. Thank you. I’s been labeling it “access to knowledge”, but Eghbal’s “contributor attention” is better.


There are some discussions in the works on defining the beginning points for “clear group boundaries”, and we’ll see them in the near future.


@nim65s and anyone else in this thread interested, this has moved to in the Zulip chat tool to see if something useful can be derived in the contexts that nix community people care about.