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Is on-line discussion democracy?

I've been watching the iahc-discuss mailing list for the last few months. This is the mailing list that was set up to discuss the work of the International Ad Hoc Committee . (Full web-based list archive and subscription information at It has been an interesting window on a mechanism which some people see as the future of democracy.

Over 1200 people have been subscribed to the list at one time or another since it started on November 16, 1996. The number of simultaneous subscribers has grown from about 320 at the start to 413 now. Since the list was created there has been a great deal of turnover with people subscribing then unsubscribing after watching the action for a while. This has been a very busy list with a total of over 5300 messages. 278 individuals have posted at least one message so far. This represents over 20% of the total list membership and is a far higher fraction of those that were subscribed for any significant length of time. This is a far higher fraction of the members participating in a discussion than I would expect to find in just about any large face to face meeting. At this level an open on-line discussion might be seen as empowering for many of those that might not otherwise be able to express their views on a topic. But this is quite misleading.

The distribution of posters has been very unbalanced. Five people have been responsible for over 28% of the postings, and more than half of the messages came from a dozen individuals -- 1% of the list membership have produced the majority of the traffic. Note that posting volume should not be confused with quality of information or opinion.

A number of pundits and not a few politicians have described a future in which the country is run using some form of electronic town hall, perhaps with instant issue-specific electronic voting. Anyone who feels that this would actually result in democracy should take a look at the archives of the iahc-discuss list. Paul Hoffman, someone with far more political science in his background that I have, put it (i.e. some) "Democracy is about the hard task of acting based on less-than-complete agreement, but is not much about participatory debate. The iahc-discuss mailing list was only about debate, and thus is a bad example of democracy. " Clearly debate is necessary in a democracy, but historically debates are moderated in some way and have been used to try and build consensus. Unfettered debates can foster demagoguery, disinterest and disgust, all at the same time.

Introducing new technology into the arena of democracy has often been hard, from constant opinion polls to TV ads. Figuring out how to incorporate on-line discussions will be just as hard. Defining electronic communities, getting them to agree on the rules of the game, figuring out how to correct misinformation, and interpreting consensus will all be hard. The IETF has accomplished some of this on working group mailing lists but following at the activity on the iahc-discuss list does not make it look any easier in the general case.

disclaimer: A Harvard faculty meeting is the ultimate town-hall meeting (with a tendency to use words one has to look up) but is still face to face - opinions on the use of electronic democracy are my own.