Building Democracy on the Internet, Part 2

Swing State Predictions, Presidential Election 2016

6 Months ago I wrote an article called Time Segmentation: Building Democracy on the Internet on Medium, arguing for voting mechanisms and “election cycles” to be included options in social media platforms of all types. I’ve managed to get a few good conversations and comments from it, but in retrospect the timing was probably a little bit too early…with the political fervor that was brewing behind Clinton, Trump, and Sanders at the time, analyzing or changing people’s habits on social media wasn’t really on anyone’s radar so the project was put on hold indefinitely at that point.

Now that the election is over, however, it might be time to revisit the idea one more time. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from here on out.

Being mostly anti-Trump in its beliefs, the tech industry is very much in turmoil right now, to the point where some leaders are even considering trying to secede California from the U.S. itself. Regardless of the feasibility of such an exit, however, I don’t believe that running away from our problems is really the best course of action to take. What needs to be done is for industry leaders to take responsibility for the influence it has on its users and try to aim for outcomes that are more in alignment with their beliefs. The tech industry does stand for a lot of good values that most people can get behind (diversity, transparency, meritocracy) but it’s now more important than ever that they translate these intentions into something more tangible and actionable.

People who know me will probably know how I’m feeling about the outcome of the election right now, but that’s not what I want to focus on for this post here: I’m a problem-solver, first and foremost, and I want to propose a solution to the problems that we’re facing right now towards a more permanent, long-lasting end. Since software is where I spent most of my working hours, that’s where we will start.

The Internet Runs on Authoritarianism and Classicism

Regardless if the industry wants the responsibility or not, tech products do influence people’s thinking everyday — socially, culturally, politically, emotionally — but up until this point there has been a reluctance to accept the fact that the way software is organized socially has had any direct effects on the way people think and act. We have a lot of half-hearted “scientific” articles floating around everywhere on social media about social media (ironically), but most of them end up fall short of making any claims of direct influence since it would involve having to dive deeper into more complex issues about political and cultural development. (Something that the industry has less experience with.)

It could just be that everyone is just avoiding the difficult, but more obvious truth: that most of the social structures that are modeled into social media platforms tend to be authoritarian and autocratic, training its users to expect and behave in such circumstances in order to “get things done”.

When was the last time you voted on something online for something that actually mattered? Can you appeal to a higher power (like the courts in the real world) in case you were wronged by an admin or moderator? Can you vote anyone out of office if you’re not happy with their performance? In most cases, no — a benevolent dictatorship is probably the best outcome you can hope for in picking a platform or community to be a part of online. Debates and discussions are nice, but in the bigger picture they are largely of no consequence, since the owner-classes and editor-classes of the site wields absolute, non-negotiable power.

As such, in its current state the Internet doesn’t do much — if anything at all — to enhance or enable the user in better understanding how the democratic political process really works. When people go into the political process in the real world with the lessons that they learned from the Internet, they’re largely unprepared and bewildered by the results when things don’t go the way that they want.

If it’s just business as usual, the tendency might be to avoid this issue and just hope for the best. I do think, however, that we’ve reached a point in time where we can’t really leave anything to chance. The solution isn’t an easy one (nor should anyone expect it to be), but with a view for the long-term, there are a number of simple, achievable things that we can do towards the end of making software applications more conducive to the democratic process.

Small Steps, First

When I say that the political process should be a part of social media platforms, I’m not talking about the promotion of a particular ideological agenda — left, right, libertarian, socialist, anti-abortion, pro-cannibalism— etc. What’s needed is just the simple experience of voting on something that actually has an effect on you. A lot of people — especially those from disenfranchised and low-income backgrounds — may not be familiar with that feeling since the voting process is seen as too abstract and far removed from their day to day lives for it to really matter.

So we can start small — we need to give people some agency in the communities that they build online, even if it’s something as simple as being able to vote for aesthetic choices of their landing page (background color, font type, etc.) or community guidelines that are enforced by a transparent set of rules (i.e. code) rather than relying on strong personalities to keep things running.

And most importantly — online communities should be able to have a direct say in who is representing and governing over their day to day actions, through voting mechanisms of elected administrators and moderators within their ranks. Founders of online groups and communities should be given due credit for what they’ve managed to create from scratch, but when it comes time for the baton to be passed onto the next generation, there should be mechanisms in place in order to ensure that its transition is a smooth one.

These voting mechanisms may not have any direct influence outside of the communities themselves, but at the very least it gives users enough skin in the game to actually care about where their community might be headed in the long run. People will learn the skills of persuasion, debate, and compromise that’s needed in order to make the democratic process actually work. And in the process, maybe even be exposed to a few opinions that they might disagree with but nonetheless respect — a necessary thing for the country to heal from its years of partisan isolationism.

It’s actually in the tech industry’s own interest to build out these mechanisms because in the end it will increase engagement and loyalty to the platforms that people already know and love. But users need to be given a voice, a direct say in how things are done and where things are going, or they’ll eventually grow weary of the superficial types of “agencies” that platforms claim to provide. Companies that take the steps necessary to take their communities to the next level will probably do very well in the long-term, because they’ll have a level of loyalty that becomes difficult to emulate anywhere else.

My vision is to see a day where that the act of voting becomes so commonplace and mainstream that national election cycles will no longer be that big of a deal — business as usual will be politics as usual — but we’re still making a little bit of progress every single day.