In the name of democracy

Bartlet vs Richie debate in the West Wing

This post from a chap at LBi starts out as a review of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail but turns into an interesting discussion about the concept of democratisation in internet economy and amongst internet communities.

We talk endlessly about the effect that the internet has on people. It allows anyone with a PC (and let’s shelve for the moment that this doesn’t include most of Africa and big chunks of the Middle East) to say what they like about what they like, out loud. It encouages freedom of speech (except in Turkey). Freedom of speech is part of democracy and we  tend to say that this openness is a ‘democracatisation’ of access. But of course (as the post points out), democracy isn’t actually what the internet does. He’s taking this from work by Esther Dyson:

“The greatest structural impact of the Net is decentralization; things and people no longer depend on a center to be connected. People often confuse that with democracy, but democracy is where the majority rules (…), whereas decentralization is where the masses separate into small groups.”

This may sound like the splitting of hairs. But it’s actually quite a profound difference.

What is it we like about democracy in the first place? I suspect it is that no leader was allowed to wander too far from the crowd. Well it seems pretty fair to assume that’s more the case now than ever before, because huge freedom of speech and access to information provides more systems of checks and balances.

The best definition Google can find me of democracy is:

‘A system by which social equality is favoured. Democracy means “rule of the people”. Democracy includes open discussion, direct voting on significant issues, policy formation in all realms of social life; economics, education, religion and public life.’

But surely what we see online is not consensus arriving through discussion but rather groups forming where consensus already exists. They’re pretty open groups, but they’re also pretty small. There is no need for the centre of all of these groups, there is no necessity of greater consensus or even greater sharing.

This reminds me of a point Andrew Orlowski made at one of the early Chinwag discussions that the perception of disent in online discussion online is misplaced. His way of explaining it, is that you might meet someone with a fundementally divergent opinion at a social event in real life and end up really exploring your differences and remaining civil but that online this doesn’t happen, you just chose to go with another group.

What does all this mean? Well it should make us question the automatic virtue with which all additional online chatter appears to be heralded. It should make us question the automatic virtue of the long tail. Do we really want the ‘unlimited demand’ (as of the cover of Anderson’s book) to be sated? Should we really want it in the name of ‘democracy’?

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