Norms, Minorities, and Collective Choice Online

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We are grateful to Martha Finnemore, Josiah Ober, and Scott Page for their comments and insights.

Much work in political science and political theory, ranging from the arguments of eighteenth-century political theorists, such as Condorcet and Rousseau, to modern social-choice theory, concerns the relationship between decision rules and collective choice. It is emphatically clear that the former have important consequences for the latter. Individuals’ preferences and beliefs are not only channeled but shaped by the rules governing decision-making.

Though this is a familiar claim for students of electoral laws and constitutional design, it is no less important for new forms of community on the Internet. To date, the literature on the social aspects of the Internet has been one of sweeping claims about the broad social changes (or lack of changes) that the Internet entails.1 These wide-scale arguments—about whether the Internet is either a libertarian utopia or a space amenable to corporate and government control, is either prone to balkanization or is fertile ground for new forms of collaboration, is either generative of new ideas or is teetering on a knife-edge between lockdown and anarchy—have made important contributions. Yet because they make only very general claims, they lack comparative bite; in other words, they all have difficulty capturing the important variation in forms of social organization on the Internet, which are very far indeed from exemplifying a simple coherent logic.

In this essay, we argue that we should try to capture variation by paying more attention to the decision rules governing choice within collectivities on the Internet. As best we know, all of the sociologically “interesting” collective endeavors on the Internet are characterized by rules or norms; that is, blogs, online discussion groups, and other such forums of communication may appear chaotic and anarchic, but are characterized by informal rules that shape conversation. More generally, rules structure the choices made by participants in a wide variety of endeavors, and hence influence the outcomes of these choices. Surprisingly, there is remarkably little work that seeks to examine these rules, and even less that tries to compare the relative effects of different rule systems. To the best of our knowledge, there is no existing literature whatsoever among political scientists and political theorists on this topic, despite the fact that new forms of interaction provide an extraordinary laboratory for understanding how diverse rule sets work.

Building on case studies of Wikipedia and the Daily Kos, we make three basic claims. First, we argue that different kinds of rules shape relations between members of the majority and of the minority in these communities in important and consequential ways. Second, we argue that the normative implications of these consequences differ between online communities that seek to generate knowledge, and which should be tolerant of diversity in points of view, and online communities that seek to generate political action, which need less diversity in order to be politically efficacious. Third, we note that an analysis of the normative desirability of this or that degree of tolerance needs to be tempered with an awareness that the actual rules through which minority relations are structured are likely the consequence of power relations rather than normative considerations.

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Category: Essay, Issue 22.4

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