The Politics of Internet Discussion Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Politics of Internet Discussion

5 Conversations

There are many different places and different ways to communicate online, and h2g2 is just one of them. Different places have different aims, different people, different technologies, and different legal status. It shouldn't be surprising that they are managed differently. This entry explores some of the parallels between real life political systems and systems of website management.

There are three forms of restrictions on your ability to communicate in cyberspace. The first is technical. At the most basic level, you cannot communicate without a network connection. This restriction also governs the structure of discussions, and ability to use fancy text, smileys, links, avatars, sigs, bells, whistles, and gongs. These rules are kind of like the laws of nature, they exist on a site even if their are no users present to be bound by them. Unlike the laws of nature though, technical restrictions can be changed by those who own the site.

The second restriction is social. If someone says something stupid, they will look a fool, and this will affect how they are viewed and people's reactions to them. Insofar as people don't like to look like idiots, social pressures inevitably limit and channel discussion to some extent. There's no real intrinsic power here though, if a person doesn't care how they are seen, and doesn't mind being flamed, then they can ignore social restrictions with ease.

The final restriction is authority. These kinds of restrictions generally have the least actual effect of the three, but they often grate the most. They are also the most far-reaching. Whereas social and technical restrictions might lead you to rephrase something in a more sensitive way, only authoritarian restrictions can silence you completely and permanently. It is in these restrictions that power lies, and it is these restrictions that will be the focus of this entry.


The simplest societies are those which are run as anarchies, where there are no formal laws or hierarchies, and nothing is set in stone. It is unsurprising that anarchistic discussion areas were amongst the first to be created, and there are still few places more anarchic than usenet. Many usenet newsgroups have no rules at all, and anybody can post anything. Even where there are rules, or 'charters' as they are known, they are essentially unenforced. There are a few glitches on the purity of usenet anarchy, but if it's freedom that you seek, this is the place to find it.

Another good source of anarchistic discussion areas are places which used to be run as dictatorships or oligarchies, but those in charge have departed in search of new adventures elsewhere. The places they leave behind are anarchies in the purest sense of the word, though they may not last forever.

There are essentially three ways an anarchistic area can go. The simplest option is silence, or at least quietness. If posts are few and far between, then no community arises, it is simply not busy enough for such a thing to exist. The moon is a real life example of such areas. Less fancifully, you could compare them to international waters before the formation of international law.

The second option is a society run by the 'village elders'. There will be those in any society who have been around the longest, and they are often respected by those who are newer members of the community. They can often solve conflicts between newer members by their words alone, and if they say that something should be done, behold, it is done! A variant of this is an informal meritocracy, such as is present in many online gaming communities. Those who are skillful at the game will often gain power and respect. This might be good if the game is one which emphasises diplomacy and careful thought, or less good if the game emphasises quick reactions and a merciless temperament!

The third option is the image we most often have of an anarchy, cacophony and chaos, flames and fireworks. The real life equivalent would be a civil war, and the symptoms are often the same, though not as lethal. The area typically splits into two warring factions, and those who seek to retain a balanced view are often subjected to hostility from both sides. Of course, internal wars are not limited to anarchistic societies, but it is there that they are the most violent.


Legalitarian societies do not exist, fortunately, in the real world, but they are certainly present on the web. In a legalitarian society, any member can make any other member disappear by the simple but expensive procedure of hiring a lawyer to write a threatening letter to the ISP who hosts the site, alleging defamation, or some other legalistic drivel. These are not to be confused with egalitarian societies, which are somewhat more pleasant.

Legalitarian societies normally function identically to anarchistic ones, until someone hires a lawyer. At this point the place rapidly devolves into paranoia and recriminations, and eventually disappears completely. It leaves only its archives as a monument to the evil that our law-fearing world inflicts upon those innocent of any real crime.


Dictatorships have a poor reputation in the real world. Famous dictators such as Hitler and Stalin are often mentioned as examples of how it can so easily go wrong. The maxim that 'Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely' is widely held. Yet the same people are often surprisingly tolerant of online dictatorships. This could be viewed as a failure to learn from history, but it could equally be correct that the Internet is somehow a new case, and the old rules don't apply.

It has often been said that a dictatorship is the natural form of any online forum, because any discussion area would not exist without its commercial funders, so it is inevitable that they should have complete power, and would be unfair if they did not. This is a load of garbage. The Western World would not exist without oil, but this doesn't mean that OPEC is in a position to take over the world. There are many different things needed for a modern country, and oil is just one of them. Similarly, servers are just one of the things needed for an Internet discussion area. Arguably more important are the people who use those servers, without whom there would be no discussion.

It is certainly the case, though, that dictatorships are common online, from the tinpot dictators who control a single message board, through to the corporate conglomerates who've frantically bought up e-everything in a rather feeble attempt to convince their shareholders that they understand 'that web thing'. The effect of these dictatorships is dependent completely on the nature of the dictators. Laissez-faire management leads to similar results to an anarchy, for example. As in the real world, benign dictatorships are possible, and as in the real world, not as common as one would like.


Oligarchy is a system of government by the great and good, for the benefit of the masses, who are judged too stupid or ill-educated to govern themselves. On the Internet, Oligarchy is in many ways simply a more formal version of the village elder or meritocratic systems that often arises in practice anyway. One of the most famous examples of an oligarchy is an IRC channel, but the model has been successfully copied in many places.

The way this normally works is as follows: the community is split into a small number of 'operators' and a much larger number of normal users. Operators may ban users temporarily or permanently, make users into operators, make operators into users, and may have other privileges too. If there is ever a case where there are no operators left, then the user who has been present the longest is made operator. More complicated rules can also exist. For example, there may be a pyramid of power in which each level can only ban those of lower levels, and in turn may be banned only by those of a higher level. Another possibility is voting amongst operators whenever a new operator is added.

This is essentially the same as the way real life oligarchies work, and leads to similar results. On the plus side, those who have the power are invariably the most responsible and long-standing members of the community, and tend to use it responsibly. On the negative side, they tend to be conservative and resistant to change, and there is a real danger of cronyism.


Meritocracy is government where power is given out according to the abilities of the recipient. Though this is fairly common on an informal basis, formal meritocracies are rare in cyberspace. The most common place to find them is the world of online roleplaying games. Someone who has done well in the game will be more powerful, and can deal with those they don't like by killing them, or perhaps turning them into small amphibious reptiles.

The results are often very appropriate to the fantasy universe such games try to create, with famous bandit chiefs, surly wizards, noble heroes and the like. This leads to a significant reduction in discussion, because there will be some things you just don't say to certain characters. On the other hand, such games are more about the playing than the talking, so this is no loss.


In tribal systems, the country to be governed is split between many small competing tribes. Each tribe will typically be run as an oligarchy, but it may be run by some other system instead. On the Internet, you can often find collections of oligarchical tribes next to each other, so that there are strong links between different tribes but each tribe has its own set of operators. The whole of IRC taken together is an example.

The advantage of tribalism is that it helps to deal with the problems of conservatism and cronyism from oligarchies: if a member of a tribe feels that the tribe has too much nepotism, or has other failings, they can leave and join another tribe with a group of like-minded people. While individual tribes retain their stability and conservatism, the collection of tribes as a whole can be dynamic and fast-reacting.

The disadvantage is negative conflict between tribes, which can devolve into flame-wars as bad as anything in an anarchistic society. Because the whole set up is designed to promote competition, when that competition turns ugly the results can be deeply unpleasant.


In feudalism, the Christian God started off with all the authority. God then supposedly delegated some power to various monarchs in exchange for their loyalty and assistance. The monarchs then delegated power further in exchange for loyalty and assistance, and so it went on down the tree. In today's secular age, we have moved on from such religious dogma. Instead, online power is claimed to derive from the one thing that we all most deeply and sincerely believe in, money.

Online feudalism varies in extent and details from place to place, and is popular as a way to allow users to do some of the management without calling into question the Divine Right. The most pervasive examples are places like Yahoo! Groups. Yahoo! is owned by some huge multinational company. They then delegate power to the owners of each 'group', in exchange for them creating and managing the group. Each group owner can then delegate power further to their friends to help them manage the group. However, Yahoo! retain ultimate control, and it is this ultimate control that distinguishes a feudal system from a tribal system.


This Researcher knows of no instances of proper representative democracy online. Given that politicians are held in such low esteem, this is perhaps a good thing. However, there are certain aspects of many sites which are pure democracy. The 'ignore' feature of many sites, popularised on usenet, is such an aspect. Here any user can decide that they no longer want to read any posts by another user who they particularly dislike. This puts power, albeit in a very limited form, directly in the hands of the people.

Some sites are experimenting with using votes. For example, a user might be banned from a certain virtual room if a majority of those present vote that the person should be. One problem is deciding who gets a vote. A single real person might have a number of online identities. In addition, it's difficult to decide boundaries. Should only those directly affected vote, or should everyone be allowed a vote? It will certainly be interesting to see what comes of these experiments.

The Choice

In the real world, people are typically stuck with the political system they were born in, and complete freedom of movement is still a glint in the eye of a few utopian dreamers. But on the Internet, the opposite is true, people can move from place to place on a whim, and be in many places at once. If there ever was a place to decide the best way to distribute power, the Internet is the place to do it. The answer will probably surprise us all.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more