Social Software

On democracy and online community…

Here’s a really useful piece of writing by Robert Putnam, author of the astounding Bowling Alone about the decline in social capital in America:

Anonymity and the absence of social cues inhibit social control – that is, after all, why we have the secret ballot – and thus cyberspace seems in some respects more democratic … Research has shown that on-line discussions tend to be more frank and egalitarian than face-to-face meetings … Some of the allegedly greater democracy in cyberspace is based more on hope and hype than in careful research. The political culture of the Internet, at least in its early stages, is astringently libertarian, and in some respects cyberspace represents a Hobbesian state of nature, not a Lockean one. As Peter Kollock and Marc Smith, two of the more thoughtful observers of community on the internet, observe, “It is widely believed and hoped that the ease of communicating and interacting online will lead to a flourishing of democratic institutions, heralding a new and vital arena of public discourse. But to date, most online groups have the structure of either an anarchy [if unmoderated] or a dictatorship [if moderated]”

This is particularly relevant to the ongoing debate I’m still having with Cory Doctorow and to my thinking about the inherent politics of message-boards and online communities.