Why the future of democracy could depend on your group chats

Why the future of democracy could depend on your group chats

I became newly worried about the state of democracy when, a few years ago, my mother was elected president of her neighborhood garden club.

Her election wasn’t my worry – far from it. At the time, I was trying to resolve a conflict on a large email group I had created. Someone, inevitably, was being a jerk on the internet. I had the power to remove them, but did I have the right? I realized that the garden club had in its bylaws something I had never seen in nearly all the online communities I had been part of: basic procedures to hold people with power accountable to everyone else.

The internet has yet to catch up to my mother’s garden club.

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in the early 1830s, he made an observation that social scientists have seen over and over since: Democracy at the state and national levels depends on everyday organizations like that garden club. He called them “schools” for practicing the “general theory of association.” As members of small democracies, people were learning to be citizens of a democratic country.

How many people experience those kinds of schools today?

People interact online more than offline nowadays. Rather than practicing democracy, people most likely find themselves getting suspended from a Facebook group they rely on with no reason given or option to appeal. Or a group of friends join a chat together, but only one of them has the ability to change its settings. Or people see posts from Elon Musk inserted into their mentions on X, which he owns. All of these situations are examples of what I call “implicit feudalism.”

Implicit feudalism

“Feudalism” is a term for what the Middle Ages never really were: a system of rigid fiefdoms where local nobles wield absolute power. But as I describe in my book, “Governable Spaces,” feudalism describes life online quite well. Admins, moderators and influencers rule their communities with powers that the software grants them. They suppress conflict through the digital equivalent of censorship and exile. Big companies and their CEOs are like the kings and popes. But people experience feudalism most directly among fellow users who happen to hold moderation roles.

The author discusses his new book, ‘Governable Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life.’

I call this feudalism “implicit” because people carry it out unconsciously. People use their online spaces to talk about democratic politics, and tech companies often say they are “democratizing” something, whether it is free speech or food delivery. But in practice, democracy is usually missing in these spaces.

I believe that implicit feudalism is becoming a template for politics more broadly. Admin power is political power, and the two are blending in the public imagination. After the 2016 election, some observers speculated that Mark Zuckerberg would run for president.


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