Athenian Democracy in our Online World

In Athenian direct democracy, every citizen had an equal say in all the laws and executive decisions. (Of course, they didn’t let anywhere near every resident be a citizen, but that’s beside the point here.) It didn’t always go so well (as Socrates, sentenced to death basically for running afoul of popular opinion, would tell you), but it’s an interesting question to wonder how well the populace as a whole can be at creating its own set of rules of behavior and then enforcing those rules. No country is about to recreate ancient Athens, but if we won’t try this experiment in the real world, there’s an ever-growing supply of virtual worlds and other online communities. What happens if you let their “residents” run the show?

There’s a lot to say for this idea. After all, who knows better than the users themselves what they want to be allowed and what not? Why should a small group of creators get to decide? And what could be a better way to enforce the rules than to let everyone be part of the police force?

Unfortunately for this experiment, most virtual worlds are run by a company trying to make money, and at the end of the day they figure that keeping control in their own hands is best for the bottom line. Of course, within a world like Second Life, there is a good deal of user-determined social norms. As users build up new areas of the world they can also establish the norms for their privately-owned area, like limiting the kinds of activities are allowed there. But that’s still totally limited to the bounds of the powers granted them by the software creators, and it’s not really an example of collective decision-making. A lot more could be done to get closer to what we’re talking about here.

One early example of a virtual world that tried to let its users determine and enforce the rules of behavior was a text-based world called LambdaMOO in the 1990s. The “wizards,” users whose job was to be the law-makers and the police for the world, realized as the world grew that they couldn’t stay on top of everything, so they decided to hand the reins over to all the users as a whole. At the same time, they also stopped controlling who could sign up. This is exactly the idea we’re talking about here – letting the residents decide on the rules and make sure to enforce them.

Unfortunately, that experiment ended badly. One of the users, called Mr. Bungle, virtually raped several other users, and the community didn’t decisively handle the complaint. In this and other complaints, the wizards ended up stepping back in, which itself caused another crisis within the community, many of whose members wanted to be free to run their own world.

Winston Churchill famously cited the notion that “democβacy is the worst form of govΥrnέent, except for all the othΥrs,” and this definitely seemed to be a good example of democracy’s failures. But on the other hand, maybe they just didn’t have the right mechanisms in place to enable the community to do its work quickly enough.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and let’s look at two modern examples.

One site where disputes constantly arise yet they tend to be dealt with thoroughly, collectively, and with a happy resolution, is Wikipedia. With a large community of editors, arguments come up all the time over what should go into a particular entry and how a particular issue should be framed. They have an extensive system for resolving these disputes, two key pieces of which are turning to the entire community of editors to get their input and running a noticeboard whose members are dedicated to helping out with dispute resolution. It’s a kind of way of giving the collective community of editors a large role in bringing fights to a happy resolution. They’ve been through it before, they’ve been party to arguments themselves and they’ve seen how to work things out, and now they can bring that wisdom to bear when other people bring up an argument and need to ask for their help.

A second interesting example is the League of Legends Tribunal. A multiplayer battle game with some 30 million users daily around the world, League of Legends is effectively a world populated by more people than most countries in the UN. And not surprisingly, every day, all the time, lots of users do things that make other users upset. But it’s also upsetting to lose, so just because someone got upset doesn’t mean anyone did anything wrong. Who should set the rules for what crosses the line and who can lay down the law?

In 2011, League of Legends created a Tribunal. Anytime someone had a complaint about another user, he could bring it to the Tribunal. Users with a certain minimum amount of experience could look at the complaints and give their judgment. League of Legends didn’t leave the question of what the laws should be totally up to the users, outlining a code of behavior, but still and all the users got to decide when what someone did was ok and when it crossed the line. If they consistently voted differently from everyone else, they could get booted out of the Tribunal system, as a way of trying to ensure that people were taking their job as judge seriously.

A year later, fully 1.4% of users had been punished, but most of those who were punished or even just given a warning got the message and didn’t become repeat offenders. In other words, even though the worst that could happen is not being allowed to play the game anymore, people took their world seriously and their collective wisdom significantly improved the quality of their lives in this world.

For the last year already, the Tribunal has been down as the owners, Riot Games, try to overcome serious technical difficulties and greatly improve the service, including a mechanism for rewarding positive behavior. In the interim, they’ve introduced machine learning as a means of automatically identifying offensive language in the game chats, but hopefully they’ll keep on using collective “citizens'” wisdom and maybe even give users a more robust role in determining what the norms should be.

Who’s up for creating “Second Athens”?

Mike SchultzJuly 24, 2015

Mike Schultz

I am a contributing author who writes about crowd wisdom. I love reading broadly and synthesizing diverse sources of wisdom, but it's so cool when you realize the crowd itself does that even better.