Case Study


Democracy in online communities operates much the same as in the real world. Every member of the community is given a voice and the opportunity to affect change. This opportunity may be through direct participation or representation. Government by the masses prevents abuses of power and provides communities with an open but controlled atmosphere.

In direct participation democracies, decisions are made through popular votes, referendums, or petitions. When an issue presents itself, community members may call conferences and "town hall" meetings where open discussion and consideration of ideas lead to votes and new policies. In LambdaMOO, an object oriented MUD, citizens once used a town hall meeting to discuss possible resolution to an incident involving a "virtual rape." Direct participation implies no rulers, but in practice requires "implementers" to enact and enforce the decisions of the community.

Representative democracy is essentially the same system as the United States government: the citizens of the community elect representatives to make decisions and to implement and enforce policies. Representation can eliminate the inefficiencies of direct participation; it is easier and more expedient to discuss and decide on policies in a smaller scale. Also, in representative government, the leaders are held responsible for their actions and thus must act responsibly.

Despite the attractiveness of direct involvement for everyone, democracy in online communities seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Communities that use democracy include:
  • Communities devoted to socializing where open and productive environments are paramount
  • Real world democratic communities that move online (such as residential community organizations)

Although many profess that genuine democracy (rule by the people without intermediary representatives) is truly possible in an online world, this does not actually seem to be the case. Despite the freedom from the material world that "cyberspace" provides, "haves" and "have-nots" still exist. To use LambdaMOO as an example: even though access is free and open, end-user participation is encouraged, and means of affecting change are available, a few "super-users" are still in charge and ultimately control the implementation of any new "law" voted in by the user populace. Thus, the abuse of power is available to implementers in democracy as it is in autocracy.