Norms, Minorities, and Collective Choice Online

Henry Farrell and Melissa Schwartzberg in Ethics & International Affairs (via bookforum):

We believe that the case studies outlined above [Daily Kos and Wikipedia]—brief and preliminary though they surely are—support our basic claim that we can learn a lot about the consequences of collective projects on the Internet by looking at how the specific rules of these projects structure collective choice. In particular, we argue that it is revealing to look more closely at how these rules structure relations between majorities and minorities in both epistemic and political contexts.

First, it is clear not only that the rules of these communities structure relations between majorities and minorities, but that the problem of majority-minority relations is key to their internal governance. In contrast to many offline political communities, the most important problem in Wikipedia and the Daily Kos is often to prevent the tyranny of the minority from consistently overwhelming the majority. More generally, many forms of social activity on the Internet are much more open than their offline equivalents; it is extraordinarily easy to become a member of Wikipedia or the Daily Kos, to start commenting on a blog, and so on. This bias toward openness is part of what gives the Internet its “generative” character.22 However, it also means that collective online projects are vulnerable to disruption by outsiders who do not share the goals of the project, because they do not agree with them, because they enjoy being “trolls,” or because they have harmful economic incentives (for example, they can profit by publishing spam comments).

Second, we suggest that different collective projects, with different collective goals, may reasonably look to different balances of majority-minority relations. Here, Scott Page's account of the benefits and drawbacks of diversity is a useful starting point.23 Page suggests that heuristic diversity (differences, roughly, in points of view) is very valuable to knowledge generation. However, he also notes that diversity of final goals may make group coordination more difficult, and that heuristic diversity often tends to be correlated with diversity of goals. Thus, it is highly plausible that such collective projects as Wikipedia, which stress knowledge generation, ought to be more tolerant of minorities, even when those minorities have goals that are at odds with those of the majority, as long as those minorities bring different heuristics (and thus different forms of knowledge) to the collective project.