March 5, 2024

Pro-Social with Amy Zhang: A Recap

Amy Zhang shares Social Futures Lab’s work on PolicyKit and community self-governance

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Amy Zhang shares Social Futures Lab’s work on PolicyKit and community self-governance

Countless online communities exist across social media platforms like Facebook and Reddit and, with few exceptions, all operate using governance structures handed down to them by the platforms. But what if more communities were able to choose the governance systems that are right for them?

In February's Pro-Social, PDN got to talk to Amy Zhang, Assistant Professor at UW, whose Social Futures Lab has been developing tools for online communities to do just that. PolicyKit isn't its own platform, but communities on Slack, Reddit and Discord, among others, can integrate it via APIs to make and carry out governance decisions made by community members. 

“Community self-governance”, as Amy explained, allows for a community to articulate its own values and determine the decision processes and permissions structures that align with those values. Amy was motivated to create PolicyKit as an alternative to what collaborative, community software normally looks like: embedding “top-down” assumptions and assigning powers in a hierarchy of roles on who gets to make decisions. PolicyKit, in contrast, builds on the principle of self-determination, identifying the values of the community and instantiating those values into software.

What was most exciting to hear about PolicyKit is how communities are taking its possibilities and running with them. Amy shared about one community that decided to use PolicyKit to let its members decide how to use community funds, a level of governance Amy had not anticipated. Amy's lab is also in the process of developing an interface for PolicyKit so that it can be integrated by communities that have no technical know-how.

There are challenges though; Social Futures Lab is a research lab, not a software development firm, so maintaining the software - and keeping it updated with changing platform APIs - is something it depends on volunteers for. This is part of a broader problem - of how to support prosocial tools for online communities - that PDN members have their eye on. In the meantime, if you have coding chops, we encourage you to support the PolicyKit project. And all should check out the full interview with Amy below.

About the Prosocial Design Network

The Prosocial Design Network researches and promotes prosocial design: evidence-based design practices that bring out the best in human nature online. Learn more at

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