Case Study


In autocracies, one or more members of a community have rights of authority over other members. Autocratic online communities are essentially of three types: monarchy or dictatorship, oligarchy, and feudalism or hierarchy.

Monarchy and dictatorship are governance structures in which a single community member has total control over the community. As in the real world, monarchs and dictators of online communities can control membership, grant favors, and mete out punishments with complete impunity. Often, these capabilities are limited by the type of community; for instance, owners of moderated newsgroups can completely control who can post, but cannot always control who can read. Typically, these individuals are the system administrators, the founders of a community, or the owners of the technical aspects of the community.

In an oligarchy, a number of members (but only a small portion of the total membership) equally possess the means to control the community (or part of the community). The members of this "ruling class" are often dependent on each other to maintain the community because each oligarch can override the actions of others. For example, the owners of an IRC network each operate their own servers independently, but are dependent on each other to provide services such as nickname and channel registration across the network.

Feudal communities are governed by a mixture of monarchy and oligarchy. Members of online feudal communities are ranked in a hierarchy of power and control. MUDs and IRC channels are typically run in feudal manner: the "god" of the MUD or the owner of an IRC channel has total control over membership, etc., and below this ruler is a class of "wizards" or IRCops with authority over ordinary members of the community but less power than the owner. Advanced status can be earned (as in some gaming MUDs) or granted.

Online communities that use autocratic forms of governance include:

  • Moderated email lists and newsgroups where the owner controls the content
  • Gaming communities that link success and skill with status
  • Communities open to the public (such as chat rooms) where the control of obscenity is of concern
  • Commercially operated communities where deviant behavior could adversely affect membership and profits
  • "Club" communities where the owners wish to maintain exclusivity

Online autocracies sometimes provide for a system of arbitration or refereeing for complaints. Gaming communities such as Battle.Net control online tournaments through a regimented referee system. Referees are a "feudal class" that authenticate victories and resolve disputes. Other communities provide a formal complaint system in which user complaints are logged and the accused members are then monitored to assess the validity of the complaint. If the referees, wizards, IRCops, etc. find a social deviant (a cheater or harrasser), they have a variety of punishments available to them: censure, suspension, resetting scores or records (in the case of gaming groups), or outright banishment.

Despite the presence of these systems, autocratic online communities frequently run into problems. The most common problem is abuse of power. Since the leaders of autocratic communities possess the power to banish members, they can manipulate others at will. Examples of wizards and IRCops and others in power granting favors to friends (banning an enemy, granting higher status, etc.) are common. Actions such as these often lead to resentment within the community, the formation of factions, mass desertion, or group splits.