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Democracy’s susceptibility to software

I want to propose an hypothesis.

Suppose our new president gets serious about using the Internet as a tool of governance. So, he takes his email list and uses it to kickstart a new e-gov social network. In fact, his opponent provides his email list, too. So, let’s say we have 5M on this network. Let’s say it prominently features blogs and forums. Let’s say after two years there are 30M registered users, and some good percentage of those are at least occasionally active. Of course, I’m making all of this up.

Now, the problem the Internet has faced almost from the beginning is how to scale conversations. We’ve solved it time after time, whether it’s threading and forking Usenet discussions or Amazon’s reviews of reviews. So, let’s imagine that this new social network solves the problem through a combination of forking (or recursive conversations … see orgware [Disclosure: I’m an adviser]) and reputation, more or less along the DailyKos lines.

So, 30M people are engaged in vital conversations. Some people gain prominence in discussions on particular issues. The administration notices this. The relevant government policy makers want to engage in these conversations, because otherwise the 30M citizens feel like they’re being ignored. The emergent discussion leaders become the online points of contact between the administration and the conversations, because that’s how those conversations scale.

For example, PolarKing111 gains an enormous reputation because he writes about polar warming so knowledgeably and passionately, because he engages with all sides in the discussion with respect, and because he’s so good at representing all the various opinions. Administration officials engage with him on the site, often in a spirited back-and-forth. He ably represents the concerns emerging from the many discussions on the site. It’s a public dialogue with just enough structure, one unlike any our democracy has seen.

Inevitably, one day in early 2011, the media will discover that PolarKing111 is a 15 year old girl, but that’s not my point. My point is that the emergent online discussion leaders play a role unprecedented in our democracy. They are not elected yet they represent us. They are not members of the government yet they directly affect government. They have some power but the power comes from an emergent process. We don’t even have a word for this role.

Of course, I’m making all of this up. It’s just an hypothesis. Yet, it’s easy to imagine something like this happening, while it simultaneously being impossible to predict exactly what will happen. Nevertheless, there’s a strong possibility that some form of e-gov social network will emerge, either from the government or from the people. This social network could create new roles or processes of democracy that could well turn out to be quite important. But, just as Facebook can alter the nature of privacy by deciding whether or not to set a checkbox on or off by default, the roles and processes of this new layer of democracy will depend to a large degree on small decisions about how the software happens to work.

Democracy is susceptible to software.

Personally, I think that’s likely to be a good thing. But, who knows?

No one, that’s who.

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