Democracy and Fun

March 30, 2024

Nathan Schneider’s new book Governable Spaces revolves around the key observation that online associational life is typically authoritarian in its governance, what he calls “implicit feudalism.” It’s a really smart point, and Schneider does a good job tracing the authoritarian default of online spaces, where typically the founders of an online group get to make all the rules for the group, indefinitely.

I don’t really buy the grander claims that the lack of democracy online is leading us to authoritarianism offline, but Schneider doesn’t really put a lot of force behind making that link. Nevertheless, it could still be good for our online associational lives to be more democratic, and Schneider presents a number of creative ideas about how we could go about making that online democracy happen.

But, here’s the thing, Group decision making, democracy, politics—they can be a real drag.

When I am thinking about joining a website, the promise of getting a chance to argue with strangers about what we should do next is not a selling point. Later, if I come to care deeply, I may be very grateful for the chance to have a say, but it’s not what gets me in the door, and may well dissuade me from stepping through.

Most of people who buy a condo aren’t doing it because they want a condo board.

Most of the best fun I’ve had in my life have been in big group projects that required lots of group decision making–putting together community circuses, political activism, starting a business, marriage. But, I’ve also spent a lot of time participating in group decision making for endeavors and institutions that were very, very far from the best fun. Democracy can be a joy, but it often isn’t. I do wish the book attended more to designing for democratic joy.

Schneider returns often to Hirschman’s classic enumerations of how people can respond to a bad situation: loyalty, exit, and voice. Under the authoritarian default of online spaces, our only recourse is to exit. Schneider would like us to have effective voice.

But a democracy that’s only important when things are dire doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

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