I Ran an Election with an Online Community and Here’s What Happened

Voting is hard. It’s cumbersome, complicated, and more often than not, a painfully slow process. But it’s the only thing that makes democratic societies work — the idea that every person gets a vote that’s equal to everyone else, and that your vote can actually make a difference in the way society is run.

While the Internet is often praised for its freedom of expression, when was the last time you voted on something online where the results actually mattered? I’m not talking about those online surveys where you vote for your favorite celebrity or gadget, but actually voting for something that changes the experience of being online in it of itself. The truth is, on the Internet, voting just isn’t a thing that happens very often because it was never designed to be used that way — it’s a completely autocratic environment, where all of the important decisions are already decided for you ahead of time.

As a result, when we cast our vote in the real world where the results actually matter, we find ourselves wholly unprepared. We never develop the sense of reading the sentiments of groups, considering an opposing point of view, or go through the process of negotiating an issue in order to reach an comprise between multiple parties and people. What we really need is just more experience of voting for the things that we really care about, big or small.

Recently I was lucky enough to be able to put some of these ideas into actual practice, through a Facebook Group that I’ve been part of for several years. Wanting to spend his time doing other projects, the founder of the group said he was ready to “retire” from being the main admin of the group, but didn’t have an obvious successor to pass the responsibilities onto at the time. I suggested that we maybe have an “election” of sorts to pick the new admins of the group in order to keep things running — maybe doubling as a ceremony of sorts as well, to kick off the new year.

Long story short: the election itself went smoothly. There were no surprise upsets, nobody tried to cheat the system, and nobody complained about the results. Even if our relationship was mostly virtual, we all “knew” each other on some level so there was very little incentive for anyone to do anything out of line. It worked because our group was small and close enough for everything to be done in good faith.

But our process wasn’t something that could be scaled because the platform itself wasn’t designed for it — we had to hobble together a poll on Google Forms and count/verify all the votes manually. Then have everyone add/remove their administrative powers willingly and manually. If we didn’t go through the trouble of introducing an external process into our group…well, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened, for sure. But what became clear was that Facebook wasn’t really designed for the possibility of people electing their own leadership, which lead me to question how serious social media really was in aiding the democratic process.

To reiterate the arguments I’ve made in the past, when I talk about the act of online democracy, I don’t mean the users deciding who the new CEO of Facebook will be or what hardware/software to use to run things on the back end. It’s main function would for users to be able to vote for candidates they want to be represented by as moderators and admins, and have the transfer of power that happens between groups and individuals be seamless and drama-free. You could also hold “referendums” for deciding certain aspects of the site — like what background color or to use or what the group’s profile/logo picture will be for next 6 months, just as an example. It doesn’t have to be anything huge or world-changing, but users having the ability to directly influence aspects of the communities they care about would go a long way towards increasing their loyalty and dedication toward the cause.

If the tech industry is serious about becoming a positive political force in society, the democratization of social media should be one of their biggest priority, in my opinion. In today’s turbulent political climates, people will be actively looking for social and political models that provide an alternative to the status quo — and the the platform that can offer that to the user will probably end up doing very well.