Self-reflexive rulesets in online communities…


It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve been in Seattle since Sunday evening at this year’s Microsoft Social Computing Symposium and frankly, I’m completely braindead through jetlag. I’m barely hanging on to intellectual coherence by my fingernails. Sunday evening I got about three hours sleep in total, last night a roughly similar amount. The quality of the event has been pretty high so far though, and I’ve met some fascinating people but I’m really not firing on all cylinders. Ross Mayfield’s taken a few chunks of notes, and most interestingly I’ve met some people with a similar interest to me in reflexive political models in online communities, including one guy who wants to build something very similar to the place I want Barbelith to become -online in an MMORPG. I finally got around to post up some of my earliest ideas around this subject on the Barbelith wiki a year or two back under the Tripolitica heading, but basically it goes a bit like this:

Imagine a set of messageboards, each with their own clear identity and each with a functioning moderation system based around a pre-existing political structure – one Monarchic, one Parliamentary Democracy and one Distributed Anarchy. Each of these political structures has been generated from one abstracted ruleset, and each component of that ruleset can be – in principle – turned on or off at will by the community concerned. Moreover, the rules are self-reflexive – ie. the community can also create structures to govern how those rules are changed. In other words, members of those communities can choose to shift to a different political model, or can develop their own by incremental improvements of changes to sections of the ruleset to allow moderators or administrators or normal users to create the ‘laws’ that govern how they inter-relate.

This self-reflexive component would operate with a bill-like structure – ie. an individual would be able to propose a new rule or a change to an existing rule that then may or may not require some form of wider ratification before it becomes ‘real’ and starts empowering or constraining the citizenry of that board.

When a new user joins the community, s/he is presented the current political structure of each one and from that point chooses a board to be affiliated with. S/he is then part of the population of that community and can rise up through the ranks (if there are ranks) and participate in the functioning of that political community. This goes right down to the creation of different parts of that commnuity, how the various parts of the community inter-relate with one another and who can post what and when.

Each community will have its own strengths and weaknesses – some will no doubt go horribly politically wrong and have power seized by mad administrators, but hopefully others will find their own kind of political equilibrium after a while – and maybe that political equilibrium could be a good model that could be genericised and used as a more common and rigid platform for new online communities that aren’t interested in the emerging rule-set component. That is to say, maybe we can evole a better system for handling debate, discussion and power relationships in messageboards and other online community spaces and games. Of course, for that to happen, the ruleset has to be sufficiently politically abstractable that new arrangements could emerge that didn’t initially occur to us during the creation of the ruleset and the reflexive process has to be comprehendible to real users.

Some sample bills:

  • Anna proposes a bill:

    Junior members to not be able to create threads
  • Bill proposes a bill:

    Administrators to not be able to change user roles.
  • Charles proposes a bill:

    Junior members to be able to create posts. Action will require ten ratifications from Moderators, Administrators, Normal Members. One disagreement can veto.
  • David proposes a bill:

    Moderators to be able to edit abstracts. Action will require three ratifications from Moderators or Administrators. Three disagreements will veto.
  • Edgar proposes a bill:

    The User Responsible to be able to change their own display name. Action will require no ratifications.
  • Fiona proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to be able to Unblock Users. Action will require 60% assent from Normal Users polled over 24 hours.
  • Gavin proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to not be able to propose bills. Action will require a 51% decision of all users polled over a 6 hour period.

I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts around this stuff.