Maintaining an Election

by Charles Miller on August 31, 2003

I have come to the conclusion over the years, that the worst possible way to run any kind of volunteer1 online community is through democracy. Democracy is a high-overhead compromise that rarely works in the small- to medium- purpose-oriented communities that tend to arise online. And yet, people keep trying it.

Constitutional Crisis

I have been involved in several online communities and once you try to start solving issues with rules rather than dialog, the problem snowballs. Arguements(sic) about new rules, interpretation of rules, past rule violations soon become a major topic for the group. There are also people that like to break the rules just because they are there. If there are no rules to argue about or break, most issues get resolved by peer pressure or the powers-that-be. --"Michael Pusateri (Argyle)":

Democracy is based on the theory that power is bestowed on the government by the people being governed. As such, a democracy needs a Constitution that defines how people are elected, what positions people are elected to, and what power is bestowed upon them.

If there is no explicit constitution, one is implied by the mere act of voting: an elected official is, by definition a representative, and those people who voted will feel that implies a duty to the voters, even when the extent of that duty is different in the mind of each person who casts a ballot.

A democratic society becomes a society of rules. The biggest implicit assumption of a democracy is that the elected officials must represent the will of the people who elected them, and must do so in a transparent, accountable fashion. This means codifying the will of the people into explicit rules, rules that then also bind the rule-makers.

This creates a massive administrative overhead. Any system of rules must be interpreted, must have its edge-cases argued and adjudicated, gives rise to a system of precedents. The assumptions behind the rules must be examined. As the quote says, arguments about the rules themselves become a significant factor in running the community.

Chattering Classes

In a democracy, the elected officials are beholden to their constituents. As such, it is the right, nay the duty of the constituents to let their elected official know exactly what they think of any issue in front of the government of the day. Every individual has a personal stake in how things are being run, even when the issues are trivial. And nobody's voice can be dismissed, because that would disenfranchise them.

This leads to a lot of fruitless talk that could otherwise be avoided.

No Real Authority

Most "power" online is an illusion. In any volunteer community, it is impossible to assign tasks. People will do what they want to do. You have no whip to drive them, and no carrot to attract them beyond the joy of accomplishing something.

Open Source knows this. Open Source succeeds when somebody has an itch to scratch that improves the software (or when some financial incentive is provided from outside to do the boring stuff), and fails when nobody finds any of the problems interesting enough to tackle.

A temptation, then, is to combine power and responsibility. Give somebody a title and nominal authority over others, in exchange for doing some job that they wouldn't otherwise want to do. This leads to people volunteering for the sake of volunteering rather than because they wanted to do that particular thing. The thing itself lies un-done, or done in the slipshod manner of somebody realising they've been conned by a promise of illusiary power.

Even worse, someone who might actually be able to do the job better, and might be really enthusiasic about doing it, can't because they can't get elected, and it's now about power instead of just about contributing.


If online communities have to be governed, they are best governed with light touches: the strong hand inside the velvet glove. Most of such communities are communities of purpose, where everyone wants to achieve the same end, but may differ in the means they wish to get there. Communities are best coordinated and cultivated, rather than ruled.

This leads people who wish to be elected to a position within that community with a problem of choosing a campaign pitch:

  1. "Elect me because I have a long record of doing neat stuff" is a weak argument because it doesn't say what more you would do if you were elected.
  2. "Elect me because I will do these things that don't involve the authority bestowed by the election" begs the question of why aren't you doing them now?
  3. "Elect me and I will maintain the status quo" doesn't differentiate you from anyone else
  4. "Elect me and I will exercise my authority and change things" seems to be the best campaign pitch.

Actually, most campaign pitches end up being a combination of (2) and (4), with the knowledge that most of the things under (2) won't ever really be done. They're election promises after all.

The promises to exercise authority and change things end up meaning, you guessed it, more arguing over rules, changes to rules and interpretation of rules.

The Adversarial System

By definition, somebody wins an election, and everyone else loses. This leads to the community being stuck permanently in an adversarial system. Maintaining the community becomes a competition, rather than cooperation. I can think of no better way to bring out everyone's personal conflicts than to make them run against each other in elections.


When composing an online community, avoid democracy like the plague. It should be considered the last-ditch attempt to run a community, when the alternative is it falling apart because nobody can get along and reach the compromises necessary for its day-to-day running. And really, if nobody can get along that well, isn't the community better off breaking up into smaller units that can then achieve their cross purposes separately?

1 by which I mean any community that is not beholden to commercial interests. Commercial interests change all the rules.

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