The Thrash: An Online Community's Attempt to Create a System of Self-Governance


The Main Page - A Review

Governance Structures Found in Several Different Text-Based Online Communities

Ethical and Social Problems that Arise in Online Communities

Identities and Social Interactions in MUDs

Online Gaming Communities and Their Governance Structures

Establishing a form of self-governance in online communities can be a very difficult task.  This difficulty was exhibited in the attempt of Eletronic Minds, a virtual community owned by Howard Rheingold, to create a form of self-governance. In order to prevent the community from being destroyed due to lack of funding the community needed to become self-governing before Howard sold it. In “Musings on Online Community Governance - Lessons Learned (?) From My Electric Minds Experience” Nancy White provides an account of her experience of The Thrash, the attempt to create a form of self-governance in Electric Minds (Eminds).  White refers to herself as “one of the wide-eyed, optimistic believers who thought that the design and implementation of a governance system for the floundering Electric Minds community was a prerequisite to our survival.” 

 During the attempt to establish a form of governance, the community fragmented into various groups and arguments and misunderstandings occurred over words such as “democracy,” “free speech,” “power.”  Rather than starting from the understanding that the infrastructure of their community would be owned and operated by a company Eminds attempted to create a “Roll-your-own, owned-by-the-members” model similar to communities like River.  White’s frustration with the situation is evident in her question of “how can you successfully design online community governance, particularly self-governance?” She realizes that “We could never even define the parameters of what kind of governance we wanted” (White). 
 The governance discussion/dispute lead a lot of members to leave Electric Minds, many moving to Howard Rheingold’s private online community, Brainstorms where “Howard set the rules, the gate ensured privacy, and members knew what to expect. I don’t believe there were requirements of the members to manage the infrastructure, just to participate in the discussions.  This might be perceived as a swing towards ‘let the owner worry about it’ and avoid community governance.”  There are many online communities that seem to prefer this dictator-like governance structure to more democratic, community manufactured governance structures.

 Although the issue of whether or not to have governance structures online is a very contentious one for many people, White seems to have maintained faith in online governance despite her experience in The Thrash.  She believes that the needs and circumstances of the community must be taken into account from the very beginning, but that  “’Governance’ in theory, in abstract, in intent, does not necessarily have to be the ‘evil thing.’ It is how we design it, what we do/do not choose to do about it, how we react to it.  It is how we address the underlying issues of why we need or don’t need any particular element of what constitutes ‘governance.’ It is about what values we do or do not share that drive these needs and wants."

 Eventually a system of governance did emerge in Eminds, “Since then what has evolved is a basic set of norms that is loosely enforced by a paid host at one level and by the other volunteer hosts at another” (White).  White has outlined some “online community governance design patterns and criteria: “

  • Make it as simple as it can be.
  • Make sure the needs and purpose of the community (and community owners) are articulated.
  • Consider that structures may need to be fractal in nature giving the most control at the smallest group units
  • Consider that sometimes benevolent dictatorships are good solutions.
  • Consider that listening is probably the most important skill for any player, site owner, staff or member.
  • Consider that it is easy to leave an online community so why make it easier?
  • Avoid time-unlimited circular conversations (know when to fold-em!).
  • Define and use decision-making processes.
  • Put up or shut up. Cook or get out of the kitchen. Fish, no bait cutting here.
  • When a group process is used, consider the power of words and seek some alignment on definitions the minute people fall into advocacy modes as opposed to dialog.
  • Keep it in perspective. Life is short and precious.
  • Eat more chocolate!" (White).

An ethical question that is raised by Nancy White‘s experience with governance in online communities is, What are the benefits of imposed governance by benevolent dictators vs. systems of governance that community members create themselves?


White, Nancy. “Musings on Online Community Governance - Lessons Learned From My Electric Minds Experience.” Full Circle. Oct. 1999.

Other Sources to Explore:

Electric Minds - the community -