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LimitsOfDemocracyOnline

In a recent discussion on the future of the RPG Bloggers Network [1] [2] Mr. Lizard offered some insight that AlexSchroeder decided to quote here, slightly edited, with permission.

Mr. Lizard Said…

I’m not a n00b to the internet or online communication in general, as my presence in cyberspace dates back to 1989, and I’m getting some deja vu * 100 here.

First, when people start putting together “Proposals” that sound like Dennis The Anarchist’s spiel from “Monty Python And the Holy Grail”, that’s Sign One things are about to go terribly, terribly, wrong.

Democracy doesn’t work on the Internet, for a huge number of reasons I’m not going to bother going into. Almost nothing of any value on the net, whether it’s a web forum, a mailing list, or a software project, is run de facto democratically, regardless of the de jure. The structure that WORKS on the Internet is this:

  1. Someone, or a VERY small group of someones, says, “Hey, I’ve got this neat idea. Since I thought of it, I’m in charge.”
  2. They put forth unrewarded and considerable time and effort, and often money.
  3. Sometimes, it works.

There’s really only one way to save RPGBN now that the original someones have had enough. Someone ELSE needs to step up and say, “OK, I’m taking over.” He convinces the people currently in charge to let him, they hand him the keys to the kingdom, he issues a few proclamations, and, if we’re lucky, the day-to-day business of the network proceeds effectively unchanged. Everyone else in the barnyard who wants a slice of the bread after the Little Red Hen has sowed, harvested, and ground the grain can just deal with it.

(And, no, there’s no way in hell I’m volunteering for any part of this. I’ll just be happy to listen to whoever is stupid/brave enough to do so.)

We need either a volunteer Benevolent Dictator For Life Or Until I Get Tired Of It, or a volunteer SMALL Supreme Soviet. Nothing else will work, and anytime people start talking about “councils” and “openness”, it spells imminent, total, and complete disaster, as everyone focuses on putting together some ideal “system” and nothing actually gets done.

Democracy is not “simply the best way of achieving this over the long run.”

In two decades of watching communities form, flourish, and fail in cyberspace, this has not turned out to be true.

The ease with which people can form new communities or join multiple communities, as compared to doing so in meatspace, makes democracy much less essential. In my very long (as these things go) experience with a wide variety of groups, the ones which succeed are the ones with the least fussing over ranks, rules, policies, and procedures, and which just have a small core of people, formally or often informally generally acknowledged as “in charge”, who just get things done, and if people don’t like how they get things done, they just quit.

Very few successful internet communities are run democratically. RPG.net isn’t. ENWorld isn’t. No mailing list I’ve ever been on has been. The most successful open-source projects have a leader or a small cabal that decides what code is included and what isn’t. While I’m sure there must be counter-examples, due to the size of the ‘net, they’re a minority and usually have some exceptional quality which exempts them from the usual flow of things.

I’ve also learned something else in 20 years of arguing on the net: Telling people things they don’t want to hear never works. It doesn’t matter how much you tell someone “If you touch that stove, you will get burned.” They have to learn it for themselves.

Democracy is often the worst way of getting things done. It’s just the best way we’ve found of getting things done without having to kill people. Once you don’t need to worry about having to force those who disagree to go along, democracy becomes an extremely inefficient means of accomplishing almost any goal. In meatspace, it’s very hard to leave a nation, and laws, by definition, require universal obedience. So democracy is a way of making sure everyone feels sufficiently vested in the decision that they’re likely to buy into it. In cyberspace, there are no such restrictions. There can be a dozen blogger networks, a hundred, a thousand, and you can belong to none, some, or all of them with ease, and there’s no need to compel anyone to join or not join, so the issue of force is moot. Without the need for everyone to agree before anyone can do anything, there’s no need for democracy. Someone just says, “I’m gonna do THIS, join me if you want to!”, and that’s that.

Even in groups allegedly run democratically, the reality is that once the group is over a dozen or so members, there quickly evolves a small core of people who care, and a majority who don’t. For all practical purposes, that core becomes a ruling oligarchy, and the majority goes along if they like the way things are going or just quits, one by one, if they don’t. There’s no need to fight for “change” or “reform” in a community when there is a very low cost to start up another community. Further, since the resources which do have a cost are often privately owned, any change which the owners of those resources don’t like is basically nullified. They will, quite simply, take their ball and go home.

Remember the golden rule – he who has the gold, makes the rules. In this case, it’s whoever is paying the server hosting fees. There’s no commons here, no tax dollars which are paid by all and which must thus be distributed according to the will of the majority of the payers. Now, if that’s what ends up being set up, things do change quite a bit, because having real money invested in a community dramatically raises the interest one has in seeing it run and the responsibility of those collecting the money to those paying it. However, pay-to-join communities rarely thrive compared to “Everyone can sign up!” free communities. Even with the most nominal fee – say, 5.00/year – I doubt even half of those currently in RPGBN would pay, and while that may be a shame, it’s also, again, the reality of it.

See Also

Discussion

I agree with Mr. Lizard. In a country, the SwitchingCost? is prohibitive. But online, this is not true. You always have the RightToLeave?. And if the community provides you with the RightToFork, so much the better. We don’t need to practice RadicalInclusiveness. ModerateInclusiveness works just as well. Democracy is not the perfect form of self-government online.

Here here.

I might argue that we have, in a sense, a Democratic framework, because anyone present online goes where they like, and sets up servers where they like.

Within the broader democratic framework, there is free association, free movement, free reign. If that Democratic framework didn’t exist, then we’d have problems: if, somehow, you couldn’t leave online communities.

It’s only democratic as long as you have where to go. You can argue that it’s easy to create a new “place” online to go to, but that’s not true for everyone. Thus, you have the people with power – those who know how to setup a web server, install forum, blog or wiki software, advertise them properly and, the hardest part, build community in that new space – and the peons who maybe might create a blog in a blog farm, provided the owners don’t mind. Oh, and of course a person who is banned on most forums because of being obnoxious has probably little chances of building a community – although the experience of trying may be enlightening.

I think what Lion is talking about is freedom, not democracy. That’s a precondition for democracy, but the core of democracy seems to be the de-election of the current government (Popper).

This seems like self-fulfilling prophecy. Is that the purpose of it? Does this person want to kill off the network, or are they just embittered by past experience?

Is this a fair abstract summary?

  1. When I see X, I know what’s gonna happen …
  2. X doesn’t work, what works is Y
  3. There’s only one way to save us – Y
  4. Nobody will do Y.
  5. Remember that doing Y is expensive and unrewarding for the people involved.
  6. I’m not doing Y. I won’t do anything either way.
  7. When we do X, nothing gets done.
  8. I’ve been around for decades! (implication: sit around listening to me, and giving me attention, even though I won’t do anything)
  9. We’re doomed!
  10. People never learn except the hard way.
  11. Online, X and Y are different than in MeatSpace?.
  12. Wealth is power.
  13. People are stingy.

I don’t think there’s any way to defeat this, except perhaps to ignore it. Try ConsensusDecisionMaking? instead – can it work online?

You say “Democracy is not the perfect form of self-government online.”

Self-government cannot be perfectly defined. It seems we’re playing games with abstractions – more than normal :) – and the discussion is about online RPG, presumably quite detached from physical things? I really don’t know!

Online activity could be related to local democracy if we set up computing/network facilities that were more local and democratically controlled.

Well, I read it as “in my 20 years of experience people have tried X, people have never learnt X, people are X, and the only thing that works is X” – I think that’s a valid observation to make. Otherwise we would never learn from experience.

In fact, there’s also a valid line of thought in that democracy is complicated but necessary if you cannot walk away from it. But if you can, why bother? There’s only so much process overhead you can take because it’s so easy to switch.

I claim the question of perfection in self-government is a strawman.

I don’t understand why it should be necessary to “defeat” the observation. Proving that it cannot be generalized by doing it differently, or by providing examples where it worked, and analyzing why it worked – those seem to be valuable approaches to the statements offered.

I don’t understand how the topic of the community – blogs about people playing roleplaying games – has anything to do with the question of limits of democracy. Unless you want to claim that this community are biased in particular ways, in which case it’d be interesting to understand in which ways they differ from other communities, online or offline.

Yes, you cannot defeat an observation, but this one is pure defeatism. Is there anything we learn from this person’s experience? I think it shows that people tend to grow bitter and resigned to inequity when they feel they are old.

We can defeat defeatism by ignoring it.

I know nothing about RPGN so didn’t mean to be rude alex – it just sounds very detached from immediate local human needs (like food, housing, safety, comfort, job-roles etc) that are normally the most important issues in real-world democracies.

I don’t understand. I'm trying to have a conversation, here. I feel like you’re saying the above is X and therefore we should ignore it. I certainly didn’t quote it all because I felt it was to be ignored. How about adressing why the above is X and saying what you object to? I feel irritated because I feel that what is being said is ignored.

You plant insulting rhetorical questions into your answers which irritate me me even further. You didn’t mean to be rude, but you imply that people sharing the opinion presented above are old, bitter and resigned to inequity. I feel treated rudely.

You say: This observation is defeatism. How so? It is only defeatist if you assume that a democratic form of self-government is the goal, therefore speaking up against it is defeatist. That seems to precludes all conversation of the limits of democracy. End of story?

You ask: Is there something we learn? Of course – if you’re in a situation where an online community lacks self-government and you’re trying to set something up, the observation suggests that maybe you should just go out there and do it because a democratic form of government will get you nowhere. Concrete steps are actually formulated: Limit yourself to a small group of people, be repared to spend an unrewarded and considerable amount time and effort, and often money, do not expect it will always work.

If you’re planning on continuing to ignore the above, you’re of course feel free to do so. But please don't insult me by taking the time to tell me that it should be ignored without also taking the time to write a decent rebuttal.

You don’t defeat observations, you make more observations proving different points. Then you make arguments and formulate a hypothesis that is judged on elegance, falsifiability, power of prediction, and so on.

The process of observation/hypothesis/etc takes our time, and proves Mr Lizard right (that nobody gets anything done)! I don’t want to prove him right, because <strike>I believe in democracy</strike> I am invovled in launching a democratic community where I live, so I won’t entertain him any more, unless he cares to elucidate his “huge number of reasons I’m not going to bother going into”.

Also, I reject that Mr Lizard’s personal observations are of value if he the noisy defeatist he seems, because every project he’s involved in must struggle. Some proper case studies would be interesting tho :)

Effective democracy needs to foster a culture of positive people, who do things for themselves, not people who sit around naysaying and calling people “stupid”, and telling other people not to do things, without “bothering” to give reasons, and without any proper evidence! As I see it, Mr Lizard is being a blight to democracy, so I don’t think I need to give counter-arguments to his rant. I just want to expose it for what it seems to be: A cry for attention.

Mr Lizard is also lacking self awareness, or he is a liar, because he even says “I’ve also learned something else in 20 years of arguing on the net: Telling people things they don’t want to hear never works.” That’s nonsense, because it does have a big effect. He must know it, at least subconsciously.

So I am trying to convince you to stop or rename this page on the limits of democracy. I think that defining limits to any abstract concept is generally a bad idea, unless we are drawing distinctions between comprehensible categories that make our life easier, and that doesn’t seem the case here.

I like democracy as a concept and anything that undermines it to support authoritarianism seems more likely than not to make life worse in real terms. If we ever accept a BenevolentDictator? or moderators for important online resources that can’t easily be taken over, then they should be held accountable democratically IMO! Anything else is a recipe for long-term disaster, not just in the online world, but also with repercussions in meatspace.

I don’t oppose the idea of a fixed-term online BenevolentDictator?, and Sunir Shah does a good job from what I’ve seen by interjecting in small ways to keep Meatball appropriate for hurried professionals. That’s great, because anybody can effectively branch like Lion has done – It’s just a bit beyond most community members. AmDramWiki was supposed to make it easier. To run things that are big and demanding, which I would avoid, a cooperative company is probably the way to go and I have seen ConsensusDecisionMaking? work incredibly well, but only once.

Marcus,

  • You have conceded the emperical observations;
  • You have proposed no counter-arguments;
  • You have merely clung to “I believe in Democracy.”
    • Effectively, “Don’t you believe in Democracy?”
    • And Alex has already said, “In many situations, yes, but not this one, for reason of RightToLeave?.” (Did you read it?)

These are fair moves, but they do not convince.

As for “I won’t entertain him any more” – I take this for putting hands over the ears, and saying “I’m not listening,” when the voice of experience is speaking.

Contrast Radomir, who has argued, and argued well. (It reminds me of my argument regarding WikiCanonicalization?, which itself was part of the initial split between CommunityWiki and MeatballWiki?.)

Marcus, I appeal to you:

  • Do keep your eye on the prize. Not your particular ideas right now, but what lives behind them.
  • Recognize that will and courage are not enough. Technique must match reality, and there must also be listening.
  • Keep notes. Literally, I mean: Keep a notebook.
    • And make your theories and justifications visible in your notes. Explore them, poke them, prod them.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t piss off AlexSchroeder!

Radomir, I see your argument, which means (to me) that a community has legitimate tension about the questions and issues. Yet, I don’t think they realistically challenge the main judgment, which is that these kinds of communities are not well served by making democratic councils.

Democracy, albeit expensive, gives to people who are not necessarily active, technically skilled, entrepreneurial, etc., but who are still a large part of the community involved an opportunity to speak. By taking the risk of having never-ending discussions, people with politic agendas, manipulators, trolls, etc. you get the chance to actually listen to the “peons”. They may, for example, tell you that a TechnologySolution that you are planning is not going to work for them, that dropping support for a certain (possibly broken) software will cut them off, or simply provide an insight that would be ignored by the more technical types. Sure, they can leave, but if that repeats everywhere they go to (and it may, as democracy is expensive to maintain), they will be eventually excluded from all communities that are based on that “democratic framework” known as Internet.

Now, there is also another question: why should all the members of the community be forced to pay the price of sustaining democracy, just for the sake of the least active ones. I can only say that the “masters” (skilled, technically-minded, entrepreneurial) have the ability to leave at any time and start anew.

It’s a very good argument for open ended conversation where all people can speak about what is to be done.

Clearly, there is some obligation for the skilled, technically capable, and/or entrepreneurial to listen to those who are not skilled, not technically capable, not entrepreneurial.

I’m not exactly “putting my hands over my ears”, and saying “I’m not listening,” because Mr Lizard isn’t even here! Is he?

Btw - Alex, I really try to avoid rhetorical questions. Those were all genuine questions!

He’s not here, no.

For all intents and purposes, I share Mr Lizards’s line of thought. It’s as if I had written it. I quoted it because I felt it was well said.

:lightbulb: I think Radomir’s argument is well made. And I think I can find negative examples in people I met online. They did not fit into the communities I participated in, and I can’t imagine other, positive communities where they’d fit in.

In effect, they are like the loosers of a capitalist society, unable to work at our pace, unable to talk our language, the dregs of society. And the rest of society has excuses, of course. Squandered their money, dropped out of school, substance abuse, etc. But some would see those excuses as phenomena created by a society that can no longer accomodate all of its members. We just decide to pay tax to employ people to prevent the worst (social welfare and the like).

Online, such people will in fact end up “excluded from all communities”. And we haven’t built a framework where some people get paid to prevent the worst. In this, we see the most negative effects of freedom: The freedom to loose, to fail, the freedom of other people to not care.

It’s an interesting tension that I haven’t thought of, so thanks, Radomir. :)

What are we talking about again? :)

I don’t know what to say at this point so I just want to affirm gratitude to all present.

People in our societies who rise to the top of authority must often seek power over others, status, and attention for themselves, and be prepared to exploit others, sometimes even through deceit. So when you mention the “dregs of society” who ‘dropped out’ I think that’s one-sided and it could be used as rhetoric for disregarding equal rights for some people.

People you call losers probably need to be involved somehow differently in our society. If we exclude people in meatspace it brutalises us, so the solution must be to direct their energy, perhaps by offering status, rewards and special luxury for people who can only be motivated that way, at the expense of everybody else. We’d still have to do extra work for them, as we do today, but at least none of them will be in positions of power.

I’ve used disparaging terms on purpose because that’s exactly what is happening right now. I do share your analysis of what we should try to do.

To bring it back to online communities: How do you feel about RadicalInclusiveness? Is that how you envision how equal rights ought to work?

The chore I see with RadicalInclusiveness is that it encourages the core contributors to stay online all the time. I think it might work well if we had a thriving wiki-net, where people actively revert vandalism on each other’s wikis. Is this happening already?

The problem with RadicalInclusiveness is that people come and suck all the energy away.

It has nothing to do with vandalism, which wiki’s SoftSecurity handles very well.

A well-known troll (or just a DifficultPerson, with respect to the given community,) is not a vandal. (WhatIsaTroll?.)

Define external redirect: MeatSpace RightToLeave ConsensusDecisionMaking BenevolentDictator MeatballWiki WikiCanonicalization WhatIsaTroll SwitchingCost

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