Time Segmentation and Politics: Building Democracy on the Internet

In democratic societies, each person gets a vote and a voice, regardless of status, wealthy, race, gender, or culture. Just because you’re rich, well-connected, successful, better looking, well-traveled, have good taste in music, or have a bigger house/computer monitor, doesn’t mean that your vote counts for more than others. Well, that’s how democracies are supposed to work, anyway.

Image courtesy of Grunge.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics as of the late, you probably already know by now that 2016 is ramping up to become one of the more interesting election cycles in recent history. This rise of interest, however, comes mostly from a negative space: disillusionment with politics in the United States has created a sentiment that the political system needs to be “disrupted” in it of itself, from the ground all the way up. Regardless of who wins, it’s pretty clear that most people aren’t very happy with the status quo right now, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure put on politicians to do things “differently” from here on out.

In many ways, this shake-down of the system could be a good thing in the long run. I do worry, however, that since much of the debate as of the late has been focused around how the system doesn’t work, as opposed to how to make it work, it’ll go back to business as usual once the election itself is over. We’ll get different candidates making different promises to voters every time, but unless the voters themselves take control and hold their government accountable, the pattern will just repeat itself all over again. People’s suspicion and distrust of the political system often prevents them from learning the practical functions of the democratic process, which in turn allows minority and special interest groups to take over on a regular basis.

Although this may be an unpopular position to take, I do believe that technology has had a hand in exacerbating these problems, for reasons most people tend not to talk much about, at least in public. Similar to how KSP can teach people how to “feel” orbital mechanics, the tech space is in need of a “simulated environment” where the process of elections, policy-making, and governance can be learned in a clear, intuitive way. You can’t break the rules before learning how the rules themselves work, after all: if technology really is to be part of our everyday lives, it ought to teach us how to make the most effective use of our political system as well. This can be done by making the social structures of the Internet itself closer to ones found in representative democracies, an idea which will be explored below.

The Internet is Not a Democracy

Lately there’s been a lot of debate around the idea of whether or not the Internet is “good” for democracy — some say that the power it gives to fringe candidates/ideas is a good thing (innovation, diversity), others say that its destabilizing effects can have very harmful consequences to society itself if left unchecked (hate speech, extremism). Both sides bring up important points worth discussing, but what’s often missing in these discussions is the simple observation that the Internet itself cannot be considered a democracy for the simple reason that it does not hold elections in order to select its ruling bodies. You can poll or voice your opinion on whatever subject you want online, but none of it ties directly into making actual policy or administrative changes in the world itself, virtual or real.

The Internet isn’t really democratic, sorry to say. An honest look at how the social interactions are structured clearly show closer resemblances to feudal or autocratic societies.

The social structure of most social media and digital communities usually follow strict, hierarchy-based class systems enforced through absolute authority, whom users have no means of recourse in cases of corruption or abuse. (User < moderator < administrator < owner, etc.) There exists no separation of powers — not even a reliable judicial system to speak of in order to resolve disagreements or disputes. This is the main reason why online bullying and harassment cases tend to get way out of hand: there simply isn’t anything that allows people to solve these issues peacefully, even if they wanted to.

Regardless if you believe the Internet to be a positive or negative influence on politics or society as a whole, there is something missing here that has yet to be filled: communities that run on democratic principals, both in word and in practice. Legislation, policy-making, community meetings/debates, passing resolutions, judicial systems…the nuts and bolts of what make democracies function, can potentially be integrated into social media platforms as part of the community building process if the will to do so is there. And if nothing else, the act of actually voting on things may lead users into seeing technology’s potential beyond its entertainment value.

While the scope of this topic is much too large to be covered in its entirety here, a few examples below might give clarification on how these ideas might be applied in software, especially for social media platforms.

Democracy is Rights and Privileges, Segmented by Time

So this is where this post ties into the concept of time segmentation: in tech-speak, democratic elections are just functions, administrative rights, and activity privileges segmented by time. In the US, the House of Representatives run on 2-year administrative cycles, the President 4-years, and the Senate with 6. If you win an election, you’re given the privilege and authority to make decisions about things normally not given to most of us at the civilian level.

The catch? You only get to be there temporarily, usually in segments of a few years or a little more, depending on the seat. Your power comes with an absolute, nonnegotiable expiration date, after which you’re forced out of your seat in order to make room for another candidate. I wrote about the possibility of digital governance models from a crash-only perspective at ribbonfarm, but here I’d like to go more into detail about how these features could be built on a practical level through time segmentation and temporal design.

Voting on Online Platforms

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, there’s the issue of of making people’s online votes actually count for something. Most companies conduct surveys and polls on their customers regarding what sort of changes or features they’d like to see happen, but the feedback received are taken only as suggestions for developers/designers/PMs to use, rather than as a decree to be followed. It could be something simple as voting for the background color of the website, or choosing a moderator on a message board for a certain duration of time. Either way, if the goal is to empower and gain the trust of the users, the decisions made by voting mechanisms should be hard-coded into the platform itself, no questions asked. (Blockchain technology could be useful here for enforcement.)

Do you like to vote on things? Choose 1 if yes, 2 if no. (3rd option not available at this time.)

If you’re one of those people working for a tech company, though, you might be thinking: but Ryan, what if the users make a bad decision during the voting process? Surely, since I’m vastly more familiar with how the platform works (and much smarter/cooler than most), shouldn’t I know what’s best for them? Well, whether that’s true or not isn’t really the point: mistakes will always be made, regardless of who’s doing the deciding, and good decisions now may become outdated decisions later so it becomes somewhat of a null point in the long run anyway. The point here is to spread the responsibility and burden of it around so that it becomes a shared learning experience for the platform as whole, rather than just for the developers themselves. (Which is actually a plus for them since they’re no longer responsible for every single decision made.)

In the long run, these features have the potential to increase engagement, activity, and ultimately, loyalty to the community and platform itself by multitudes much greater than they do now. It’s the feedback/learning cycle of software development practices expanded, modified to have users directly involved in the development/design process. In order to make it work, however, developers and designers will have to relinquish some of their decision-making power as means of showing their good faith.

Voters picked a crappy background image? Well, they’re going to be stuck with it for 6 months now, too bad. Users got sucked into voting for a jerk-face for their new moderator? Well, maybe they’ll be more careful next time around, and learn how to read in between the lines of things before casting their vote. Allowing users to vote on things builds learning experiences directly into the platform itself, where both the pain points and the means of arriving at solutions are shared by the group as a whole. This allows the community to regulate and moderate themselves, enabling them to operate in a more autonomous way.

The success of all of this, however, hinges on the careful control and ordering of time. Decisions made through voting mechanisms — as done in real democracies — expire and retire in order to make room for new elections, new policies, and new representatives in the future. The potential for next time being better only exists if there actually is a next time — a rhythmic, temporal anticipation of an election cycle that’s both reliable and authoritative.

The understanding that this system, for better or worse, will be supported, respected, and made transparent to the fullest extent possible to all parties involved, becomes a sacred bond that cannot be nullified if the faith in the system is to be maintained. Is it possible for tech companies to establish this type of trust with its users? Perhaps, but only time will tell. (sorry for the pun)

Voicing your Opinion on Online Platforms

Aside from meaningful voting mechanisms, the other big issue pervasive in social media platforms is community moderation, particularly in regards to users’ commenting and posting practices. Most commenting/posting systems that exists online are usually reward-based, designed to maximize user participation through popularity, reputation, and engagement.

Typical feed for a YouTube video. Typically not considered the “cleanest” of places in terms of its community and content.

Frequent posting often earns you a “reputation” on the platform — the more active you are, the more influence you’ll have on the system overall. Likewise, comments that gather lots of likes or upvotes also tends to get preferential treatment from the system as well: it pays to be popular, it pays to be very active, and it pays to tell people exactly what they want to hear, in most cases.

But what if the goal was to improve the overall quality, rather than quantity, of comments and interactions made by users and content producers? Can this be done at scale, without having to manually curate everything by hand?

It turns out that there is, but it’s not necessarily intuitive: The solution is to equalize the experience among each user, rather than trying to reward individuals for the contributions made on the system. Democracy is supposed to be an equalizing force, after all — not a system that rewards people based on their stature or standing. And yes, this includes effort as well.

Dismissing people’s “efforts” may initially seem unfair on the surface (especially for all those hard working folks in the Valley), but this is actually a very necessary mechanism in order to prevent “professionals” from taking over and gaining control of the entire system. Even if the user-base for a message board starts off with a diverse group of people, in most cases they end up becoming dominated by the “too much time on their hands” demographic, pushing more thoughtful readers out of the spotlight and out of the way. (There’s a benchmark for measuring this trend, actually: conversations become increasingly “meta”.)

Companies with large enough budgets do have a way to stay in the game, however: they frequently pay off “influencers” (such as celebrities) in order to try to push the public’s opinion of them in their favor. In a way, social media has become a battle between time and money — the fanatics vs big businesses — in some ways reflecting the political climate that also exists in the real world. This does, however, leave the average user hung out to dry, since their voices and opinions get buried amidst the screaming and shouting of the “professionals”. It seems kind of unreasonable to expect everyone to spend all their time on a particular platform just so that they can exert their opinion on there — shouldn’t we be encouraging people to do things outside of the system so that they can bring fresh new perspectives to the table?

Now onto the solution: If you’ve ever been to any local government meeting or have watched the legislative processes go down on C-SPAN, you’d probably know that it works nothing like an Internet forum or commenting section — debates, speeches, and deliberations are done in a formalized, ordered way, with a clearly marked agenda.

A typical agenda from a local community meeting. The procedures of local governments provide us with insights on how community moderation features could be built into software platforms.

From a software engineering standpoint, what sort of “features” do real-life political practices suggest we create? The most important insight here is that in formal political systems, the speakers’ time at the podium is distributed in an even manner. For each speaker, the time you have to make your point is limited, but in exchange, you’re given the full attention of the community for that duration of time.

While it may be too formal and unwieldy to have an “agenda” running the day to day operations of social media platforms, we can use this general idea to create a few rules for community moderation that’s code-enforceable: a rule that limits users to making 1 comment, 1 upvote per day, for example. We could also limit back-and-forth replies to say, twice or maybe three-times, mimicking some of the practices done in formal debate. Given a limited amount of time and space, people are more likely to better prioritize the points that they want to make, treating their words with greater care. In return, the reduction of noise in the system means that the chances of people reading your comment is vastly increased, rather than glossing over it as they might have done otherwise.

The comment-limit feature is a method of increasing the overall quality of user contributions without having to deal with the subjectivity and fallout of editing/curating people’s opinions by hand — something that could potentially be extremely powerful and effective in certain contexts. Another benefit of this is also the curbing of spamming and harassment, since users are no longer have access to a theoretically infinite amount of actions at their disposal. Rather than having to hunt down malicious accounts individually, the system itself can be designed to limit the influence that outliers have on the system to begin with, lessening the need for security and policing.

A Democratic Internet — Is it Possible?

Since most of the ideas listed here can be built with currently existing technologies, most of it should be relatively easy to build, at least from a technical standpoint. For Facebook or other localized groups (Meetup, Slack, etc.), it’s just a matter of merging a voting mechanism with some of the administrative functions that already exist within the platform. Placing a simple daily limit on the number of “likes”, retweets, or upvotes for each user makes would also arguably make the data them behind more meaningful, since it’d be more indicative of what the user is willing to do with their limited amount of time. The general idea behind the practice would be to shift the focus of feature development away from individuals and into groups, where issues of distributions of power would have to be taken into account.

Voting mechanisms can be built as software-based decision trees as well, if necessary.

Given that the suggestions made here run counter to what we’ve gotten used to on the Internet up until now, however, adoption and acceptance by the users themselves may prove to be more challenging. Given that most social platforms tend to be desperate for users and user activity, adding hurdles to their participation may seem counter-intuitive, or even damaging. (Not unlike forceful implementations of democratic institutions abroad, incidentally.)

Nonetheless, if social media platforms become successful in empowering their users on a mass-scale (beyond just throwing their opinions out into the wind, that is) they are much more likely to stay for the long haul. Users become disillusioned with software platforms for various reasons, but a big part of it rests on the fact that many of them don’t feel like they have any input on the direction of the development process itself. Even partial implementations of some of these ideas may go a long way, given how little of it exists now.

Some will say that the Internet isn’t ready for a functional democracy, given how many bad actors there are out there in the world at any given time. Many, both on the top and bottom of the social ladder, may actually prefer the simplicity of autocratic rule, rather than having to deal with the messy, people-driven process of democratic governance. “How are a bunch of disagreeable, unfocused, overly-sensitive digital inhabitants with short attention spans going to execute something as complex as organizing, debating, and voting on a referendum?”, they might ask. I tend to be more on the optimistic side, though — is it that the people themselves lack maturity, or it is that the system itself fails to reward the kind of behaviors we associate with civilized societies?

We won’t know, either way, until we try to build it out ourselves. And I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt in this case — if given the opportunity, people will come through and make great things happen. Everyone is just looking for a chance, after all.