Friday, October 16, 2009

Building the Democratically Organized Web Community

Introduction to basic principles of Democratic organization

This article concerns the fundamental concepts that foster democratically organized communities with the intent to online applications. I am tempted to list all of the problems that online forums present to communication, but this Intro would just go on and on. So let's skip that and get back to the solutions that were fully intact and functional before the Web came along.

Here, I will present what I believe to be the proven foundational principles for organizing democratically. I will also demonstrate (see demonstration) how these principles may be applied in online communications. My approach will be extremely liberal in affording maximum freedom of speech, while at the same time, achieving the highest degree of order among discussion participants, if they so chose.

Unity of the Whole

Foundational to assessing any discussion or deliberation, we should comprehend the magnitude of the whole. We cannot speak of equality, majority or minority outside the context of a whole number, because these concepts are not expressed with absolute numbers but relative quantities. So we will need to be able to precisely count the membership as a whole number at any moment.

An open circuit cannot be measured accurately because the posters are only coming and going as a collection of individuals, making it difficult to measure the continuity of the community. A closed circuit is one that is capable of being expressed as a whole number. With a whole number, we can then determine relative quantities of equality, majority and minority.

We cannot measure a relative quantity if the magnitude of the whole is unknown.

Equality Rules

Equality (not majority) is the foundation that the membership must stand upon. The best environment for discussion is one in which all of the participants have equal rights and responsibilities. Each participant is respected as much as any other. The members must be equal, their votes must count equally and the powerless must check the exercised power of the powerful in order to produce equality or balance. To determine how democratic we are, we must answer the issues of equality first.

Free Speech is a privacy issue.

Privacy is of great concern if we are going to establish a community that people feel comfortable in. Members should not have to stand transparent before the administrators. No one should have to be concerned that they are being watched. No greater threat to privacy exists in a community than the intrusive practice of checking and banning IP numbers. When one IP number is banned, the moderators and administrators must check all subsequently appearing IP numbers, in order to make the ban effective. IP checking and banning is a violation of the privacy of every poster. No other practice is as irrational as banning. The purpose is to grow the community. Banning does the opposite. It decreases the community by the one that is banned and anyone else who recognizes the error of banning. The Trolls never leave the Internet. They just wait around for a new forum to open and they are back in business. My plan includes the Trolls as valuable contributors to the community.

No one should be pressured to reveal personal information on open circuits. Allowing officers the luxury of peeping into IP numbers, tracing or tracking, or other invasive "moderating" techniques, presents a danger to the public safety (since the public has no way of regulating who is accessing what information) and has caused much fear and disruption on the Internet. The right to privacy includes the right to anonymity, especially on open circuits. We never request or require personal information from anyone for any reason.

It's not good enough to advertise a privacy policy. The burden of proof is upon the administrators who must offer verifiable privacy guarantees. We can best protect the privacy of each individual by restricting the activities of mods and administrators. Strict rules must be enforced upon moderators and administrators. By restricting the administrator to pre-approved actions that can only be administered at designated times, we can ensure that the administrator is not just sitting all day, logged in, and peeping over the poster's shoulder.

Furthermore, the greatest threat to free speech comes from imposed moderation. The leaders of the free speech community cannot be promoters of questionable acts of censorship. Censorship that may be illegitimate given a context.

Invasion of privacy includes:

a) Ability to see you when you are "hidden". Did you know that when you are "hidden" on a board that your username appears to the administrator in italics? Your username appears like this: username. This tells the administrator that you are on line and that you are "hidden". There is no need for member transparency.

b) Ability to see your IP number and trace it to a specific geographical location. In some cases people have been contacted directly at work or home by irate administrators and moderators. This is invasive to the privacy of the individual.

c) Ability to monitor your viewing habits.

d) Ability to edit your posts. This is also a violation since it ascribes words to you that you have not written.

e) Ability to edit their own posts, allowing the opportunity to retroactively changing the history of posting transactions and effectively rendering a transaction unavailable for review by the community members.

All of these actions either violate the democratic principles of equality or of privacy.

The rights of privacy also extends to control over who can respond to you. On an open circuit we forfeit this right. That is why it is necessary to have recourse to varying degrees of closed and open circuits, which allow more individual control.

Privacy Guarantee. Verifiable proof that adm and mods are not violating the privacy of any member for any "reason".


A democratic organization is clear about why it exists and what it desires to achieve. These act as a navigating compass, offering guidance and discipline toward the desired outcome. Although many forums attract a collection of individuals by giving out memberships as fast as people can submit the form, this does not produce a qualified membership. It may be better to have a clearly defined purpose, a plan for accomplishing the purpose and then a way of qualifying those who can accomplish the purpose. The purpose and plans qualify the membership. The purpose is stated very clearly and the members are selected according to how well they can accomplish the plans. Everyone being equal to the purpose, the purpose becomes an unifying and equalizing agent that gives the community an homogeneous identity. The community will promote a program that enables the entire membership.


Members are selected according to their interest and attention to the purposes of the community. Members have rights and responsibilities in order to function properly in the community. A prospective member must qualify by assuming some responsibility from the start. No one should be elected to membership who is not qualified for the purpose.

The primary purpose of an open circuit is for contact with the public. Elected members should have the option of retreating to relatively closed circuits and have no business complaining about the behavior of the public. Members must discipline themselves, not the public. The public is not coming to the circuit to receive "moderation" or behavior modification.

Rights & Responsibilities

The most basic rights and responsibilities can be discovered and defined in a microcosm of the democratic community - the democratic discussion form. It is in the practice of democratic discussion that we learn the arts of democratic organization and leadership. A proper democratic form is that which best promotes the rights and responsibilities of each participant:

The right to speak.

The responsibility to respond.

The right to hear and to be heard.

The responsibility to listen.

Thus it is from these rights and responsibilities that the basic conversation and discussion forms originate. In a circle of 10 people, each participant has the right and responsibility to speak one time and the right and responsibility to listen and to hear nine times. And in the Discussion Workshop we verify that these rights and responsibilities are being met by each participant.

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is essential not only for the individual but for the healthy development of the community. The community has a right to hear and consider all points of views. The community cheats itself out of ideas if it hinders people from speaking honestly on a matter. But if the community is going to listen, it must encourage the practice of silence.

For example, if we are sitting in a circle around a campfire the custom of speaking is to speak once and then maintain silence for as long as it takes for each of the other speakers to contribute. If there are ten people in the circle each will speak once and listen nine times before speaking again. Random posting is best for the dramatic mode and is not conducive to the expository. Therefore we should expect drama on an open circuit. It may be disappointing to expect some other effect. The nature of an open circuit is theatrical. It is more of a stage performance than a private interview.

We do not moderate or censor the content of an individual speech but we may limit the form in arranging all of the speech of the community.

Freedom of speech includes the freedom of the members to organize themselves for the purposes of the community. Freedom of speech includes the opportunity to fully utilize the expository, narrative and dramatic modes of communication.


Democracy has become the standard because it makes use of every known hierarchical form. Because hierarchies are by definition non-democratic, we balance the use of hierarchies by taking turns or "role rotation". Short term meeting roles are appointed and long term official roles are elected. All members are rotated through appointments to short term and election to long term roles. Taking turns at different roles allows each member to acquire experience in varied approaches in accomplishing the purpose. In practice, proper democratic form is only role-playing in the expository mode.

Objective Evaluation

In order to have objective evaluation, we must first have clearly understood objectives. Objectives should aim at developing skills to be applied in building up the community. Since our goal is to democratize a web community, we can use proven practices as a guide to forming realistic objectives. Each Discussion Workshop project begins with clearly stated objectives. This enables the participants to understand the end and also enables the Evaluator to objectively assess the performance of the community. This is not an occasion to psychoanalyze your fellow members or to critique the personalities of people. It is an opportunity to help the community learn how to communicate effectually in their common endeavor. Evaluation of a discussion should focus upon the whole more than the content of individual posts.

Objective evaluation also includes administrative openness to the membership. The administration is verifiably transparent in it's mission to protect the member's rights to privacy. And the administration must have the humble attitude of "If it's not broke, let's improve it!"

Building a Practical Model

Now we will take the basic principles outlined in in this article and put together a working model. This model will be distinctive in many aspects:

  • Our primary objective in this project will be to turn over the administration of the community to each successive generation of members rather than to hold permanent control over the administration.

  • The community will be focused upon a program that qualifies each individual to accomplish the above stated objective.

  • We will adhere to a traditional interpretation of organizational terms.

  • We will completely reject IP checks and bans as a method of moderation on grounds that it threatens the privacy and the free speech of every member.

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