Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, October 10, 2008

Is Web 2.0 Really Democratic?

Sponsored Links

Web 2.0 has revolutionized the panorama of the information society: users have become information producers and the new web platforms have become relationship venues where new knowledge and ideas emerge. Also the new tools of social networking, social tagging, wikis and blogs enable new forms of social interaction, participation and cooperation. But...

Photo credit: Slate magazine

  • Is this participation really democratic?
  • Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?
  • Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy?
  • How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?

I have gone out and asked to four people whose intellectual integrity and life vision the above questions: Howard Rheingold, John Blossom, Michel Bauwens, Sepp Hasslberger answer the above questions from four diverse individual viewpoints:


Howard Rheingold of


  1. Is this participation really democratic?

    "Democratizing" means making access (to information, tools, policy-making discussions, elections, etc.) widely available. This, however, does not guarantee a healthy democracy.

    What if more people vote, but their picture of political candidates and their policies are distorted by sophisticated public relations tools and strategies?

    What if their educations are so poor that voters are unable to think critically about partisan claims?

    I am wary of projecting hopes onto the tools you mention -- which truly have the potential to inform and involve more people in democratic decision-making -- without paying attention to the less visible parts of the system I mention.

  2. Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?

    I am also wary of governance by instant voting. This is known as the "plebiscite" and can be very dangerous: a demagogue or a government can propagandize people into starting a war or adopting a policy without a process of deliberation.

    That's why modern democracies are generally republics -- citizens elect representatives who are expected to deliberate openly and transparently.

  3. Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy?

    It CAN be. But more than the technology is required. A healthy public sphere is essential -- most people need to have sufficient education, freedom to criticize, well-trained critical faculties, and ample sources of accurate information.

  4. How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?



Michel Bauwens of P2P Foundation


The first level is expression, and it is clear that in this context, the Web 2.0 is a resounding success.

And it's importance should not be underestimated since historically, we can see that people with power have always tried to limit and control expression, so we should not be cynical about it.

I think that Web 2.0 generally goes beyond expression, and has also become an efficient tool for mobilization and collective action

But expression is not deliberation. Most Web 2.0 platforms are not very well suited for the kind of complex deliberation that would be needed to create a context for decision-making. I think these kinds of tools, which can integrate complexity, adequately filter for quality, and have a value conscious design approach that insure that a diversity of views are taking into account, are still too far between, but quite a few groups are working on it

The key in politics is not expression, nor expressing discontent or resistance, but actually transforming things. Collective action can change things, but still implies a separation between the 'people' and 'representative institutions'. It implies 'we' are asking 'them', to change their ways.

So I think the real revolution of peer to peer technologies is that it allows people not just expression, but actually a redesign of social processes.

For example, free software communities successfully embed their values in software, and so do the emerging open design communities that are now starting to tackle physical production itself. This is the next great frontier of peer production communities.

But equally crucial, and this is why I believe Lessig made the right decision in moving from Creative Commons to Open Politics, is that we actually start redesigning politics itself.

If you see sites like, or for that matter, it is rather easy to come to the conclusion that most solutions for contemporary problems already exist, but they are scattered in marginal groups.

At the same time, the current political and economic system seems almost completely oblivious to it, and so these crucial solutions do not seem to be able to scale. This is a sign of a profound disease and insufficiency of current democratic and representative regimes, that are in the hands of privileged elites, who hide their power through a lack of openness.

The big fight now is openness and transparency.

And as we create our own P2P alternatives, we still have to tackle the mainstream system, and since a direct approach seems impossible (simply changing one party by another with very similar standard policies), what we need is to redesign, reprogram the political process itself.

That's the crucial task right now, and Web 2.0 is not sufficient for this, it's merely a first step.


John Blossom of


  1. Is this participation really democratic?

    While not all social media tools are available to everyone in the world, by its nature people who have access to social media are participating in the most democratic form of political human expression.

    In the past the power of a political voice was determined by a person's connection to powerful people, by their access to the media or a bullhorn or whatever other device amplified one voice over that of an electorate's voice. In social media the opportunity for all voices to express themselves begins to become a reality.

    However, just because social media tools are being used for political expression doesn't mean that the content being generated by social media is always "the voice of the people."

    Oftentimes powerful individuals and organizations will hire surrogates to spread their opinions using social media tools, creating "astroturf" - content that's supposed to look like "grass roots" opinion but which is in fact sponsored by a controlling interest.

    What I am noticing in this year's U.S. election is that people are far more aware of the potential for astroturf content and challenging it more quickly and vocally.

    It's also important to note the growth of media outlets that use social media tools but which have editorial staffs that enable them to operate much as any other media publication would. Just because you're using the tools of social media doesn't necessarily mean that you're actually trying to be just one voice in the crowd.

    This is not to say that the powerful should not have a voice as well in social media. In a true democracy all people of all walks of life should have a voice in political discussions.

    But if democracy is a system which says that each person has one voice as well as one vote, then all of the people who have that right should have an equal opportunity to influence their peers through social media.

    Within that framework influential figures arise, leadership forms and actions are taken based on that influence, but the influence, endorsement and leadership is not presumed. Social media is a key venue in which such influence, endorsement and leadership is formed.

  2. Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?

    In my book Content Nation I am highlighting the importance of the coffee houses and the taverns of the American colonies in which influential political pamphlets such as Thomas Paine's Common Sense were discussed.

    The discussions in those gathering places and the passing of these pamphlets from one person to another was in effect the social media of that era. Without those influential discussions and the local thought leadership that emerged from them there would not have arisen the widespread convictions that led to the actions outside of the rooms in which these discussions took place.

    Democracy is a form of self-organizing government: one cannot form it until people have organized their thoughts as to how they would like to be represented.

    So while oftentimes the discussions in social media forums may appear to be as boistrous as any that one may encounter in a pub or a cafe, that boisterousness leads to the convictions to express oneself through democratic institutions.

    Social media can enable actual decision making - many services provide polling capabilities - but its primary value is to enable people to have the intellectual and emotional interchange necessary to make informed decisions in the democratic process or to inform our representatives of the true opinions of the electorate more efficiently.

    A simple analogy can be found in and about my home town. In the New England region of the U.S. many small towns still govern themselves via direct representation: the citizens of a town gather at appointed times to vote on town budgets and regulations and to discuss and to vote upon important issues. However, as some of these towns grew this form of government gave way to representative town meetings, in which citizens are called upon oftentimes to speak out on issues of public importance at town meetings but in which the elected representatives then are called upon to vote. Both are democratic functions, but in the representative town meeting the voice of the citizens is separate from the actual political action.

    It's feasible over time that social media will enable us to return to more of a direct representation in democratic institutions, but for now I think that it is mostly about enabling people to influence the actions of elected officials and influencing how they are chosen.

  3. Is the horizontal leveling of internet communications really an instrument of democracy
    The horizontal leveling of the internet can enable democratic views of the world and is without a doubt the most revolutionary invention for human communication since the spoken word.

    Once voice can decide to speak out and can gain a global audience virtually overnight, influencing political decision making both on a national and global level as well as at a local level, based solely on the influence and endorsement of their peers.

    The ability of any voice anywhere to influence the course of decision-making that impacts society is the foundation of democratic action. The corollary of that freedom, however, is that it takes democratic organization of all of the content generated by social media for people to become aware of such opinions.

    If millions of voices shout out but we hear from the same media-selected opinion-makers again and again then social media has done little good. This is where the traditional media outlets fail us oftentimes.

    It is good to have high-quality traditional media outlets, but social media outlets enable a far broader array of opinions and insights to surface by enabling a far broader array of influencers and leaders to arise through the combined endorsements of individuals. This allows the combing intellect and insight of countless people to factor in to democratic decision making.

  4. How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in a real space connected with the physical world of true partecipation to decision-making?
  5. To bring it back to my discussion of New England town government, there is the long-term possibility that social media becomes a more direct instrument of governmental decision-making.

    But even today social media is being extended into the political process directly. If you look at Barack Obama's presidential campaign social media tools were an essential factor in organizing his campaign workers: enthusiasm for a political candidate was transformed into political action directly through social media. Obama's record online campaign donations were another example of how social media breaks through into the real space.

    People are using social media tools to organize people rapidly in local areas as well: weblogs were a crucial factor in our local elections in 2006 and social media tools have helped to change the course of several local political debates.

    Our town's First Selectman, a mayor by most people's understanding, is a blogger! Finally I think that we're seeing more and more use of venues such as Facebook to make people aware of political causes and to be organized to take real-world action. Hundreds of thousands of people who are passionate about a cause can be organized in a matter of a few days. That's highly scalable political activism that just wasn't there a few years ago.

    We need the tools of social media to help us form our decision making, but it's up to us to take action based on those experiences.

    I trust and expect that the power of social media to enable such transformation of discussions in to action will catch the world by surprise in the months and years ahead.

    I doubt that the discussions in coffee houses and taverns in colonial American were taken very seriously by those who were not a part of them. But then people decided to act upon those discussions.

    So it will be with social media. People have no idea yet as to just how powerful a tool that it will become.

    The courage of convictions is all that's required to make that clear to the world. This happens again and again already in ways large and small, but some day soon the world will be aware that they are a nation of publishers, united in their ability to communicate to the world and to influence one another as citizens of the same.


Sepp Hasslberger of Health Supreme /


  1. Is this participation really democratic?

    If democracy means participation, then web 2.0 is really democratic.

    Actually it can be even considered more democratic than what we are used to calling our "democratic society", where participation is not invited. We are supposed to vote once every four-five years, and let the politicians get on with leading us wherever they wish. Not much of the original idea of democracy left there.

  2. Or is this a democracy paradox, where everyone can interact but the decision making places are all outside the net?

    You could call it a paradox. Everyone can interact on the web, but for now, the decisions are made in other places. Just as I said, we elect politicians and are expected to let them do the leading.

    It would be much better if there were some connection between what the people want and what the politicians are doing. I could imagine that the web might be used to discuss and decide on actual things in politics, and the politicians take the message that has been "filtered out" and act in accordance with it.

    But this is only a phase of transition. Sooner or later, the web will gain an important role in politics, even to the extent where we no longer need politicians.

    If we can discuss and decide, all we need to implement decisions are administrators - local, regional, national, international - administrators to carry out the will of the people.

  3. The horizontal leveling of internet communications is really an instrument of democracy?

    It should be and it could be, but right now, I think it isn't.

  4. How would it be possible to transform these emotional and communication-oriented extensions in real space connected with the physical world of true participation to decision-making?

    There are several efforts that attempt to bring electronic voting and discussions into the political reality, so far with very limited success.

    To bring true participatory decision making, first of all, we'll have to learn to take our share of responsibility. When there are decisions to be made, and this will be practically constantly, we must be willing to take time out from other efforts to get into the issues that are of interest to us, and participate in the process of maturing a consensus.

    At the same time, we need to link these decisions into the actual administration of things.

    It appears a huge step to take from where we are now, but things are in motion.

Originally written and prepared by for Master New Media and first published on October 10th 2008 as "Is Web 2.0 Really Democratic?"

Readers' Comments    
blog comments powered by Disqus
posted by Robin Good on Friday, October 10 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

Search this site for more with 








    Curated by

    New media explorer
    Communication designer


    POP Newsletter

    Robin Good's Newsletter for Professional Online Publishers  



    Real Time Web Analytics