The development of the internet and web communications has enabled people from across the globe to connect, interact, and communicate with each other. People who share similar interests, similar ideas, and similar values can easily come into connection with each other over this medium, despite the large distances between them. Mary Chayko argues this point, saying that “each subsequent invention of communication technology has enhanced the ability of people to discover and explore commonalities with one another, even when they are very distant in space or time” (Chayko 13). Over time, as people with similar interests communicate and come together, virtual communities are formed, each unique in their organizational structure, community norms and values, and developed community culture. Because of the existence of shared interests and values and a proximity of people in the same domain (be it on a web forum or via internet communication software), these communities find the need to organize and govern themselves. Of interest for study is the ways that particular communities structure and organize their administration, and how government is enacted. Further, a study of how the members of a community interact with those guidelines and the government structure would provide insight into whether the political processes of a small, online community can become corrupted or disregarded in a fashion similar to offline societies and communities.
With this study, I intended to examine whether an online community rooted in a liberal, democratic political philosophy could function free of political intrigue and corruption from its body politic. I chose to study a community with which I have a personal connection and a history. This community is named UnitedOperations, and is an online gaming community based around a tactical military simulator called ‘Armed Assault 2’. This particular community is of interest for my examination because I understand its history and its function closely and deeply: I helped both form the community and draft its ‘constitution’. Additionally, this community was developed with the intention of instituting and experimenting with a democratic framework for community interactions and thus possesses a distinct, codified democratic process. A study of this process reveals underlying principles about community management and societal conduct, while a review of the actual function of the process provides answer to my question of whether democratic ideals and norms can be followed free of political corruption and misconduct.
The ‘legal’ framework for UnitedOperations, which codifies its political processes, its rules and guidelines, and the community’s principles and beliefs, is called ‘The Charter’. The charter serves a function for the community similar to a constitution in a ‘real-world’ country. The charter has provided legitimacy to the structure of government within UnitedOperations from its founding and has governed the social and operational hierarchy that has developed since. In the various polls and votes on procedural proposals which circuit the community’s ‘legislative’ forums, the charter is referenced to, multiple interpretations for its statements are drawn, and arguments over its intention and meaning ensue. It is constantly being shaped and reinterpreted as the community matures, as new members are inducted and old members leave the ranks, and as the community faces new situations. Again, in many ways, it is representative of the constitution of an actual state, such as the United States of America, both in its legal aspect as the legitimate source of law and procedure and in the conflict over its interpretation and meaning by those who are governed by it.
In order to better understand the political actions of the members of the community, an understanding of what is detailed and outlined in the charter is important. The charter begins with the community’s ‘mission statement’, a series of principles and philosophies which serve as the foremost embodiment of the spirit and purpose for the community. It states that “United Operations is hereby established to serve as a community for fostering teamwork, simulation and cooperation in gaming.” It discusses the principles which unite the members of the community: the virtues of friendship and cooperation, the equality of members and of opportunity, the promise of equal influence among members in community matters, protection of freedom of speech, and an approach to community commitment embodied by “merit over title and action over pretense.” The mission statement is largely political in its message and principles, and demonstrates a deep influence by liberal, democratic philosophy. There exists an affirmation of a social equality and equal worth between each member, so that no one is granted special privilege over another. From this comes quality in political influence, so that the direction of the community is shaped and influenced equally by each individual. An equality in the opportunity to take up roles of leadership and government positions is also evident, with the stipulation that political office is to be won through merit instead of through connections or privilege. This meritocracy is affirmed in the belief that action is valued as more virtuous than “title and pretense”.
These principles are followed by a detailing of how the governance of the community is conducted. Section 2 of the charter discusses ‘operations’, defined by the charter as “the standard method of community involvement in the decision making process and can be enacted across all aspects of the community:” Operations are conducted through polls, which may be proposed and voted upon by regulars and which require a 2/3rd’s majority of affirming votes to pass. A system of direct democracy is thus instituted in the community, with the hope that it would foster community involvement and growth. Section 3 discusses the addition and removal of game modifications for ‘Armed Assault 2’ These modifications are added and removed in the same manner as operations, through a system of proposals, voting, and a 2/3rd’s affirmation. Section 4 details community rules, specifically the purpose and process of bans on cheating and hacking, the importance of respect for the chain of command and for other community members, and further specifies that “all operations of government must be publicly displayed. Any regular may request and shall be entitled to any and all information regarding administrative operations.” Demonstrated by this last rule is an effort to ensure transparency in the governing of the community, with the hope that corruption and internal ‘rot’ within the administration does not occur.
Section 5 details the rights and responsibilities of everybody who participates in the community. The charter lays out a system in which the community is split into 3 sections, ‘members’, ‘regulars’, and ‘officers’. Members are described as having “no representation in operations of government, although they are free to express their opinions and are a valued part of the community.” They are “gifted with, but not guaranteed, due process, protection of the charter or standard operating procedures. Non-regulars are guests who may be removed by the summary justice of other regulars and overseeing officers of respective areas if there are blatant violations of the charter rules, standard operating procedures or other clearly demonstrable reason.” Members are thus, in essence, just visitors to the community. They are able and permitted to play on the game server and participate on the forums, but they lack the political and legal rights of regulars. They are analogous to non-citizen residents in a real-world country, while the regulars are analogous to the state citizenry.
Regulars are described as “representing the core of the community. Regulars are players who wish to take part in the organization and administration of the community” They are entitled with the right to vote on polls and discuss procedures, thereby influencing the direction of the community. Additionally, they are granted the right to temporarily ban or remove non-regulars, and are given the opportunity to hold positions of office within the community. Because of the rights provided to them, regulars serve as the backbone of the community. They are perceived as and treated as the members who have dedicated their time and loyalty to the community and who thus gained the rights to shape it. The process in which a member becomes a regular is representative of the dedication and loyalty required: according to the charter, the process of applying for “regularship” involves “all applicants being registered and active members of the forums for a minimum of 45 days prior to application. All applicants are expected to participate reasonably in Teamspeak [an online speech communication software] activities prior to application.” Regulars are inducted by a 2/3rd’s affirmative poll, and any member may nominate themselves to become a regular or be nominated by a regular. A commitment to the role once the position has been obtained is important to maintain, however. Regulars who renege on their duties to the community may be removed by a 2/3rd’s affirmative poll result, and regulars who have not logged into their forum account within 90 days will be removed automatically.
Also described in section 5 is the role and responsibilities of the “officer”. Officers are regulars who are, as described by the charter, “expert volunteers oriented to perform a defined task within a category of expertise”. The induction of officers into their position is conducted by a 2/3rd’s vote, and they can also be removed by a 2/3rd’s vote. The officer positions are set up as follows: the Officer of Web Services, who ensures that the online forums and website are functional, the Officer of the Game Server, who maintains the online game servers and regulates the conduct of players on the server, the Officer of Mission Making, who manages the game missions on the game server and ensures that they are functional and free of game-breaking issues, the Officer of the Training Center, who is tasked with the official implementation of training courses within the community and creating courses which coincide with the standard of play at United Operations, and the Officer of Public Relations, who is tasked with developing inter-community relations and promoting and expanding the community base. Officers are therefore the administrators of the community, who monitor and assist its function. They are elected into their positions, though they are not, as per the charter, not granted any power greater than any regular outside their assigned role.
The UnitedOperations charter thus laid out the framework for community interaction and governance. It was developed as a sort of community constitution, one which codified the ideals of democratic and egalitarian member participation. There was a want to develop a community based on principles and a legal tradition, one which had an order as opposed to one based off of the wills and wishes of unaccountable administrators. There existed a hope that each member would contribute to the direction of the community, therefore strengthening it and making it malleable to certain situations or changes, and that this could only be accomplish in a democratic sort of system. Indeed, the charter was founded off of the ideas of community and equality. The belief was that everybody who wanted a stake in our community would be committed to developing it and serving it, and therefore the people who would become the body of the community were endowed with the right to shape and direct it. Democratic participation within the community and leadership from within its ranks appears apparent upon review of the legislative forums in which policy changes and officer appointments are discussed and voted upon. For the year and a half that the community has existed, multiple people have entered and left officer positions. Policy changes and modifications to the charter are also clear: a review of completed polls shows multiple different proposed changes to standard operating procedures and game policies. The charter itself has been modified fourteen times, four of which were cosmetic but ten of which amended or added to the charter. Discussions regarding these charter modifications, as well as other proposed changes to operating procedure, are quite prevalent in the ‘legislative’ forums. Many of the discussion topics focusing on specific issues have numbers of regulars and non-regulars posting their opinions and their beliefs, as well as proposing amendments or other changes to the proposals. The average amount of votes for each proposal is around thirty votes. There therefore appears to be at least a modicum of participation in the democratic processes of the community as outlined by the charter’s guidelines and principles. With closer examination, however, it is revealed that not everything operates in accordance to the stated principles, nor is the political participation without examples of deeper, more concealed ‘backroom’ conduct. A review of the reality of the situation demonstrates that much of the charter is not realized in actuality.
A primary issue, according to some members of the community’s leadership, is a lack of actual participation amongst the community’s political body. There exists less than a fifty percent ‘voter participation’ among the members who possess the capability to shape the political direction of the community. This inactivity and ‘voter apathy’ has in fact prompted a movement for change, as made apparent by a recently approved charter amendment enabling the removal of regulars who have not participated on the forums for ninety days. Following the ratification of this proposal, ten people were removed as regulars. The problem of voter apathy is a large one. It appears as though most people don’t care about community policy issues, even people who are regulars. There exists a small, dedicated bloc of regulars who will often propose and debate on issues and proposals, but the majority of regulars either participate infrequently, or not at all. Many people fail to live up to what it means to be a regular. Some take the position for the prestige, while other people were grandfathered in [given status as regulars upon the creation of the community]. In general, people only use the powers granted to them in limited amounts, and sometimes they don’t even use them at all. The issue of voter apathy among the people with political power in the community mirrors voter apathy in actual state societies, analogous in a way to the low turnout among the American population during the election season. The primary reason behind the lack of political participation from regulars seems to be an indifference about the effects of the proposals and an indifference about shaping community direction. Most regulars aren’t directly affected by changing the Standard Operating Procedures or a modification of the charter. They simply want to play the game and have the right to vote in officers. Of course, this isn’t what a regular should be doing; they should be participating across the whole spectrum of community operation, but it is what they do because it is what they feel is actually worth spending time focusing on. When regulars don’t participate, what happens is only a few, involved people direct the course of the community. Being a regular, according to the charter, means that someone have invested a stake in the community, and the founders of the community envisioned regular status as carrying political influence and clout. Not realizing that influence means that someone is not doing their duty as a regular, and in that case they shouldn’t be one.
Another major problem with the function of the political process is apparent in the voting patterns and behavior of the regulars. In a fashion similar to real-world political systems, many votes are reportedly based on group allegiances or hopes for personal and political reward as opposed to a rational weighing of options. Regulars don’t vote always for what’s best, and instead vote for each other, regardless of what is being put up. Occasionally promises are made in which a regular votes for something in return for a promise to get a vote on something that they propose. Often times, they’ll vote against something if it’s being proposed by someone with a less-than-adequate reputation in the community, even if it sounds good. Much voting behavior amongst community members is influenced by ‘backroom’ deals, such as vote promising or purchasing, although it isn’t apparent at first glance on the forums. This voting behavior is a corruption of the idealized political function laid out in the charter. Additionally, it points in the direction of another issue, that of group alliances and factions within the community.
The charter laid out a framework conducive to the development of a community valuing friendship and cooperation between all of its members. An issue which has developed, however, is the splitting of community members into various cliques. Factions have formed between members of the community. While it is natural for people to find, associate with, and group with friends, these cliques have, according to some, become more powerful in political influence and clout than the individual member of the community and thus corrupt its political system. The problem is when these cliques start to exert political power and influence, or draw off the power and influence of those within it. Groups in UnitedOperations basically corrupt the system: people vote for their friends, won’t allow their friends to get banned or reprimanded, and little groups become like special interests, lobbying together for some vote or some modification on Teamspeak or on the forums. This is contrary to how the framers of the charter envisioned their version of direct democracy. A review of Teamspeak demonstrates that a sizable number of regulars do in fact associate with and hang out more with certain other regulars, and form cliques of varying sizes. These groups then argue against other groups over votes or against the community administration when someone within the clique is reprimanded for bad behavior. Additionally, the members of these cliques will often only want to play the game with one another, or demand that friends from their clique remain near them while in game. This leads to hurt feelings when actually trying to play and enjoy the game which the community was based around. An observation of the game server demonstrates that people want to play games with their friends. They want their friends to be in their squad when playing Armed Assault. They know each others strengths and weaknesses, their leadership patterns, and while that’s not a problem, what happens is that people will whine when they can’t play with their friends, log off the game and occasionally quit if they can’t. The problem of groups has become so prevalent that a modification of the charter, which expressly forbade the creation of ‘cliques and political groups’, was put up for vote, and although it was voted down because the general sentiment was that it is impossible to prevent the natural formation of friendship groups, many members in the thread expressed their frustration with the growing influence and strength of some of these cliques.
A review of the UnitedOperations charter reveals the particular nature of the organization of this community. It is one rooted in democratic ideals, as well as liberal philosophical approaches. Such an approach entails equality among members and a freedom to direct the political direction of the community. Through the principles of equality and the codification of a meritocracy, a community of respect and cooperation can be developed, as well as one which enables the best and brightest to take positions of leadership and responsibility. The liberally-influenced approach to community management intends to foster the growth of a community which is responsive to the desires and political will of the population. Political freedom within the community is, according to Morris Rosenberg, conducive to producing a strong community. The ‘major gratifications’ which political behavior offers people, according to Rosenberg, induces them to contribute time and effort in behalf of a political organization. Politics “can be interpreted as a device for uniting people to their reference groups. Politics can serve to provide psychological strength and ego-enhancement. Politics can serve as an expression of creative abilities” (Rosenberg 6). Thus, enabling the members of the community to interact in the political process helps strengthen their connection with the community and provides them a stake in the community’s well being. The codified guidelines for UnitedOperations thus set about to develop a community in which there is a respectful, mature environment, and a community which will develop and bend with the will and desires of its members.
Upon review of the actual function of the political system, however, the answer to the initial question of whether political practices in small, open, online democracies can be corrupted and misconducted is a solid ‘yes’. Multiple issues were addressed by the leadership and members of the community, and a deeper review of the system in work serves to reveal these issues. The problem of voter apathy, where large amounts of the regular population do not vote on proposed legislation and changes nor participate in much of the political discussion, means that political power is, while distributed evenly and equally among the regulars per charter guidelines, skewed in favor of the few who participate in actuality. Because of this, the direction of the community can become more easily changed and swayed to the opinions and views of a vocal or prolific few, instead of being representative of the community at large. The source of this political apathy may be because of disinterest in what changes the proposed legislation contain or a perception among regulars that their single vote will not make a difference. Dwight Dean presents this scenario when he argues that powerlessness leads to political apathy: “Politics is avoided because of feelings of psychological inadequacy or weakness… other factors in the world view of the individual which discourage political action are powerlessness and fatalism” (Dean 186). Because of such perceptions, members are unwilling to take the time to weigh the options of proposals or vote on specific topics, because they feel that, since their vote does not matter, time spent doing so would be time spent wasted. Still, the lack of participation by regulars in the political realm of the community is disconcerting to members of the community leadership and counter to the guidelines and expectations laid out in the charter.
Another problem facing the community is the voting behavior of regulars. Regulars tend to vote for their friends, against their foes, and in return for a promise that their proposed legislation would receive affirmative votes, all regardless of the merits of the legislation being proposed. Such voting behavior is an absolute corruption of the democratic process, in that it does not represent the true will of the community, nor are proposals rationally considered and the best proposals accepted while those actually detrimental to the community refused. Regulars will vote for their friends and against their foes because of the nature of the small community: as opposed to large societies where legislation and candidates do not share personal connections with the voter, in a small online community such as this, each piece of legislation and each person proposing it has a personal connection with the voter. The social nature of a community and the power of social interaction are strongly influential in shaping the voting behavior of a regular: people want to help out their friends, and they want to set back their enemies. This social phenomena becomes manifested in the voting patterns of regulars, even though the result may not be conducive to actual political development. The nature of vote ‘trading’ and ‘sharing’ is also an explainable one, motivated by an individuals political self-interest. According to Thomas Schwartz, vote trading enables minorities to frustrate the wishes of a disorganized majority (Schwartz 999). Put into terms resembling this study, regulars who propose unpopular legislation can have it passed because of organized vote-sharing and promising when facing an unorganized majority against the legislation. The regular proposing the legislation is invested in it, and thus has a self-interest in getting it passed. Because of this, they will utilize all tools at their disposal to circumvent democratic functions which would otherwise ensure their defeat. Due to the nature of this circumvention, however, vote sharing is a corruption of the democratic process, and therefore weakens the institutions which were put into place by the charter.
The issue of groups and factions within the community is also of concern. Cliques operate as special interest groups, lobbying for the members within the group or for a specific piece of legislation or modification. By utilizing the collective power of the groups members, such groups can influence the political direction of the community more than the individual voter. In a system of direct democracy such as the one framed by the charter, however, the amplification of power for a group disrupts the principle of political equality among the body politic. Additionally, the social aspect of cliques amplify the voting behavior described previously, in which friends in a clique will support each other regardless of the merits of the proposal.
Thus, a review of UnitedOperations reveals that, even while communities may develop guidelines and organizational structures conducive to democratic participation and growth, the nature of human political participation serves to corrupt the application of those guidelines. While by no means is the democracy within UnitedOperations illiberal or unreceptive to the desires of its members, it does not adhere firmly to the guidelines laid out or fail fall victim to political intrigue and corruption. Lessons drawn from this study include conclusions that human nature is inherently self-interested, and that this self-interest serves to prompt people to circumvent democratic processes. Additionally, motivating factors such as interpersonal ties or beliefs outweigh rational decision making when approaching policy developed by a personal connection or in a small, direct democracy setting. Of course, the goals UnitedOperations set out to achieve, those of maturity and respect in the community and democratic community participation, are respectable and bold, and perhaps demonstrate a trend towards more open, democratic societies in the realm of cyberspace.