Posted by: Gwyneth Llewelyn | June 3, 2010

Democracy or Community?

Voting in the CDS, May 2010

How important is the CDS’ history? Some of it has been published on the Second Life Wikia, and a serious effort has been made by Claude Desmoulins and Delia Lake to start gathering as much historical material about the CDS as possible under the auspices of the CDS Historical Society. But does it really matter so much?

If in the real world we tend to forget how things change, it’s impossible to do so in Second life, where change is perceptible all the time. Some might thus argue that embracing change is the only honest attitude to have, and this means discarding old ideas (and people!) and start afresh with what we’ve got here and now, not with what we had in the remote past. I totally agree with the first part of that statement: refusing or rejecting change is childish, since it’s impossible to prevent change. All we can do is adapt to it.

Nevertheless, even in spite of change, there are some guidelines for human societies that have been remained “constant” (in the sense that the principles remain, even if their interpretation is socially conditioned). A typical example is “do not kill”, which is pretty consistent across all human societies, as well as “do not steal”. At least, do not kill or steal from members of your inner circle — family, friends, neighbours, and so forth. Societies change all the time and so do relationships, but those “rules” remain. Technology, external conditions, financial crisis, all these might provoke profound changes — but still we stick to not killing others or not stealing others.

Now I’m not going to argue about “universal ethics” — I’ll leave that to my philosophy blog 😉 — but at least point out that even though everything else might change, there are some things that remain. And all these are related not to “sticking to the outdated, old-fashioned past” but to create a functioning society. We could resume those rules to “do not make others suffer” as a basic principle — a functioning society would be one where the “others” are made to suffer as little as possible. This is the fundamental pillar of humanism that brought forth modern democracy, and, so far, we haven’t found any better way to deal with the creation of societies where people are supposed to be as happy as possible.

Naturally, since things change, we might require re-interpreting some of those humanist ideals. “Do not kill” doesn’t really apply to Second Life, for instance, because avatars cannot be killed. So we don’t really require to make killing outlawed in a virtual world where everybody is immune from virtual death. Nevertheless, one could forbid that citizens attended the RA meetings heavily armed (with virtual weapons, of course) and start shooting around. Nobody would die, of course. But (except as a parody, which would actually be fun!) this would be simply disturbing, and, well, rude. It would be a form of griefing. It would disrupt meetings totally. So even if our avatars cannot die in SL, we generally forbid this kind of “virtual slaughter” to be enacted (specially if its intention is to disturb others or prevent them from focusing on what they’re doing as a public service). We’d ban griefers who start to shoot at RA members, and they’d have to appeal to the SC to revert their ban. In a sense, we are still sticking to the “do not kill” ethical conduct, just adapting it to SL, but we still believe that “not killing” avatars (even if they don’t die) is a functional way of dealing with in-world relationships. Other communities, for instance, might not have those rules.

If we start listing all the central tenets of humanism and see how the democracy in the CDS has evolved out of them — embodied, for instance, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — we will see that all of them, even if adapted, still provide us with a functional way to inter-relate and build a long-standing community. And some things even change. For instance, “do not steal” was irrelevant before 2006, because you could not steal content in SL. We would probably think that this rule didn’t make any sense for SL. With the advent of CopyBot, suddenly stealing content became possible. Thus, the respect for private property, already embedded in our Constitution through the UDHR, all of a sudden made sense again. A rule we had given little importance in the past started to make sense again as things changed, and nobody could really have predicted that.

While these examples are extreme, they show that, even if conditions are different, societies are different, everything is constantly changing all the time, the ethical principles that emerge from humanist ideals and that lead to democracy still apply. Obviously they require re-visioning and adaptation. One fundamental difference between modern forms of democracies and totalitarian (even if benign) regimes is the ability to easily adapt to change, because all it takes is a vote. Ironically, the greatest virtue of democracy in the CDS — its ability to change — has lately been under attack by claiming that our democracy tends to stick to a conservative approach of letting everything be immutable in the past.

It’s the ultimate irony! Few communities can actually claim that they have changed as much as the CDS did in the past six years while still keeping their fundamental tenets. Let’s give another two examples. FurNation in Luskwood, which is older than the CDS, hasn’t changed much as a community. People have changed; the environment has changed; things discussed today have changed (except lag, which is a constant…). But they still organise themselves pretty much as they did in early 2004. Caledon is still ruled by Desmond — it has grown, expanded to other virtual worlds, added a lot of different groups and sub-communities, embraced a lot of interesting projects, but… it’s still Desmond that rules and pays for the sims. He might have “advisors” and “influential residents” which will often push their ideas ahead. But it’s fundamentally the same model as when Caledon was launched: “I pay, I rule”.

Almost all communities in Second Life work precisely the same way. Instead of having humanist principles behind them, which might be very high-brow-philosophy, but nevertheless contribute to a functional society, almost all are based on the “I pay, I rule” principle — and it’s felt that the owner of the sims is the one responsible for paying (in this case, to Linden Lab), so the owner “rules”. It’s only natural to do so: after all, it’s the owner’s credit card that is on file and their financial liability at stake. Obviously, in this model, the functional requirement for a valid community is that people are happy to sub-rent parcels, and generating that happiness is the role of the owner (or their hired hands). No community manager is stupid enough to aggressively turn against their tenants, because it will mean they won’t contribute to tier and go away. Thus, the most widespread model of community-building in Second Life is the one of the “benign dictator” (or, like I prefer to call them, the “Enlightened Autocrat”), which is the most functional form of society built on the “I pay, I rule” model.

There is a good reason I like the term “Enlightened Autocrat”. Before the US and French revolutions, enlightened autocracies were seen as the best form of government. Under this model, the autocrat gave their subjects a lot of rights. They had freedom of speech and to a degree freedom of religion (even some Catholic states in the 18th century started kicking their religious orders out of their countries). There was a body of law which was enforced on relatively independent courts of justice (subject to bribery, but at least they did exist). Property was, most of the time, not arbitrarily seized. Culture and the arts flourished, because enlightened rulers really believed that a happy population is an educated population. Science, finally free to be pursued outside the claws of religion, flourished. Trade spanned world-wide (even in spite of piracy!). The industrial revolution was about to start. The late Baroque period was, for all purposes, a golden age of trade and culture, and the label of Age of Reason definitely applies to it.

Of course it was not perfect, and it would be an illusion to claim it was. Famine and poverty were common for the majority of people, both in rural and urban areas. Even though there was some upwards mobility, to a degree that hasn’t been possible before, it still meant that the “friends of the king” would continue to hold all power — this is the model of an oligarchic meritocracy, where people of value (to the king) would be placed in roles of power (and swiftly removed once they lost their sovereign’s grace). Most ministers would come from the aristocracy, or turned into aristocrats as soon as their value was recognised by the monarch. In the countries with a parliament (like the UK), not everybody was allowed to vote — namely, women were out, no matter what their social condition (and some of them were wealthy and powerful enough to command huge trading operations — but they still were not allowed to hold office in government or be elected for it, or even to vote). Although citizens were bold enough to loudly complain against government or even against the autocrat, they would routinely be hushed, suppressed, or even killed. We all know about the two major exceptions in that period and so I don’t need to remind you about them 🙂

Although I have no qualms to admit I’m a fan of the Baroque period, I still find it amusing that after we learned the lessons of the past, we’re still very stuck to this ideal — so much, in fact, that it’s pretty much widespread around Second Life’s communities. No matter how much decision power is vested into a member of a community, they ultimately have as much power as the owner allows them to have, pretty much like on an enlightened autocracy.

This was true even of 2004. All communities, without exception, used that model. They were all enlightened autocracies, with more or less freedom of expression and decision. Some labelled themselves as libertarian utopias — until the moment came to pay for tier, and when some declined to do so, it was quickly showed how flawed those libertarian utopias were 🙂 And, of course, once the enlightened autocrat went away (either selling the land or leaving SL altogether), the community died, literally overnight. Autocracies in the 18th century dealt with that through monarchic succession, but this option is not available in SL. You can, as a dictator, designate your successor — but we know from history how fragile that model is. China and the old USSR (and the old East Block countries) are the only ones that managed that system for over half a century — China apparently being the last one. North Korea managed the trick once, but it’s unlikely their regime will survive the next dictator; similarly, Cuba will very likely not survive the death of both Castro brothers. There is a lesson to be learned from history: you need a mechanism to deal with succession, and we earthlings have just found two: monarchic succession or democratic election of the next leader in power.

Democracies are not perfect. They breed inside themselves the seeds of their own destruction, as the 20th century has shown, because freedom of expression is an absolute value — even the freedom of speaking against democracy.

The CDS started with a set of assumptions that are today contested openly. It had a strong focus on longevity, which meant, in those days, making sure that the CDS would go on even if the “founders” left. People burn out in SL all the time. There was only one solution: instead of depending on a single charismatic leader who would pay for tier, we created a model where all citizens are effectively co-owners of the land held by the CDS (just like on a apartment co-op). Co-ownership means that the fundamental principle of “I pay, I rule” is given to all citizens, not just one. That means that all citizens need to have a mechanism to make their options and preferences known. It’s clear and obvious that there is only one model that allows them to do so: democracy. And I’m employing the word “democracy” in the sense of “the people ruling”, not in the sense of allowing people to discuss things but being able to be overriden by someone with “more power”. Great Britain in the Enlightened Age had a democratically elected Parliament, and the King had to ask Parliament for a budget to be approved, but not all British subjects could be elected or vote for Parliament; also, the King certainly could kill (or exile) members of Parliament that he was not happy about (still, the system was far more open and democratic than anything else at the time!).

The model of the CDS is of a modern democracy, where there really are no differences between citizens. There are no “special powers” that any citizen is allowed to have permanently — all roles are removable through a system of balances and checks, and, ultimately, by universal suffrage. There is no one who is not replaceable (including the Estate Owner, which is just a technical requirement for LL). There is no Star Chamber or Secret Organisation that rules on behalf of the citizens but is not in direct control of them.

Then we naturally can — and have! — discussed what form of democracy was best. Typical organisations that have a general assembly of all members (like some non-profits, or shareholders in public companies) elect a Board to represent their wishes and preferences for a limited time (one term). This was the model used for the CDS: a representative democracy. Since elected individuals might drop out in the middle of the term, it was felt that, instead of calling for elections every time someone needed to be replaced (which would happen quite often!), we needed a better model. The theory was that if the citizens elected a group of representatives with similar-aligned ideas, they would prefer that, during that term, someone else with the same ideas would replace the representative that left. This could be made more or less formal: we started with a formal system and called those “groups of people with similarly-aligned ideas” factions.

But of course this is not the only way to do things. Direct democracy is a possibility, although it tends to create a more conservative organisation, and we felt that in the so-quickly-changing world of Second Life, it was not the best model (change happens much faster in SL than in RL, so we needed a form of government that allowed us to react to change quickly). Abolishing formal “groups of people with similarly-aligned ideas” and simply allowing informal groups to be elected for the RA seemed to be a better idea. It might well be the case — for the first time in the CDS’ history, we have a RA where an absolute majority of members belong to the same informal group. No faction ever achieved that (the previous system was designed to make it impossibly hard to achieve, to foster compromise among groups). The same informal group also includes the Dean of the SC and will elect a Chancellor.

By itself, this isn’t “good” or “bad”. It just reflects the will of the majority of the citizens, and that’s what’s important for me. However, it also shows the new direction the CDS is taking: its focus, from now on, will be on what benefits the community. If we have to discard “democracy” at some point, that is felt not to be so important. If we have to silence dissenting opinions and hope that they go away in frustration, even better. The majority of citizens will be much happier once everybody who disagrees with them simply leaves, or is tightly packed in a corner where they cannot prevent the “important things” from happening.

Again, it’s not a major problem. For years the main issue of the CDS’s survival was to know if being a democracy would attract or reject more people. This question is really not settled, but it’s clear that the focus on community just really started with Jamie Palisades’ first term as Chancellor, and I think that, in general, most people were much happier about that model. As a matter of fact, the Executive was always thought as being the “Community Branch” of Government: the place where the daily issues of managing a strong community are executed, without much interference — just with overseeing and overall direction. The balance between “community” and “democracy” was held between RA and Executive, with the SC as final arbiter. So long as “community” remained the focus, and “democracy” didn’t interfere in the pursuit of community, this model worked. It’s only recently, i.e. the past year, that the majority of the CDS citizens see those concepts to be antagonistic. For the first five years of our history, one would imply the other: democracy was what kept the community afloat.

This was perhaps too optimistic or too simplistic. The current model might work better for the community: after all, “bickering at the RA” (or in the forums) takes little time; community management is a full-time job requiring a lot of people to volunteer their spare time (and then some!) fully to it. It is thus reasonable that community managers become, over time, more important than legislators; in fact, even on RL democracies, we tend to give more importance to the Cabinet (which actually does things) than to Parliament (which mostly discusses things), even though in most democracies (not all) we just elect members of Parliament. Thus, this detachment between who gets elected and who gets to decide over things is quite fundamentally present on many RL democracies. Why shouldn’t the CDS be the same?

In my mind, I just worry that I have to put my blind trust in individuals currently in power as opposed to institutions which are independent from people who happen to hold offices there. The social pact between the CDS citizens and its government became instead a social pact between the CDS citizens and the individuals who currently rule them. We have to put our faith in them: believing they will work for the best; believing they will listen to us sometimes; believing that we’ll be financially more solid this way; believing that there will be less bickering, less dissent, less discussion, and instead, more community-bonding. It takes a lot of more trust and belief than ever before. But, again, this is the kind of trust and belief that the majority already has, and, in democracy, the majority will decide.

For myself, I might even welcome the change, for purely personal reasons. It’s been ages since I had little time else than worry about the state of the democracy in the CDS, which, frankly, was never fun since the first term, and didn’t improve with time. It’s also a task (or a role) that most (at least now) view with scorn and despise. It just creates enemies, people that are unable to walk in others’ shoes and understand things from their viewpoint, and thus attribute malice, cunning, and manipulation where there is only a sense of duty towards preserving humanist ideals and universal principles for a functioning society. This means often being harsh when the line is crossed; and people prefer kind, encouraging words instead — theories and philosophy don’t sell land or attract people to events. Theoreticians might get Nobel awards, but technologists (e.g. people that use the theory to put it in practice) get to be rich selling shares of their companies in the stock market. So perhaps it’s really best for me personally to give up “theorising” and start having some fun, too, and even start organising some events again, like I used to do in the olden days — or miss all the fun.

So I might not feel comfortable about dropping democracy in favour of community — it just looks to me that we’ll be “yet another community” among the myriad of others, and not really so “special” to keep us going — but if that’s the citizens’ will, that’s what I’ll have to accept.



  1. Congratulations on your new CSDF house organ. Many political movements over the years have benefitted from a partisan press outlet; look what Berlusconi & Murdoch achieved! it will be interesting to see how this one develops.

    I read this with some interest, and am fascinated by your grouping or simplification of several issues into a “community versus democracy” paradigm. Debates often are more fun when there’s a black and white cartoon (like immersionist versus augmentationist). But I’m not sure the simplification works.

    I remember some of those themes from an old CSDF campaign. I remember Jon Seattle’s descriptions of his Cedar Island town meeting governments, as well. On some level, I’m sure everyone wants everything: a lot of the protections of ‘democracy’ and a lot of the values of ‘community’.

    But is that so impossible? What is there to this dichotomy, other than personal style differences? Is there a >500 word way to describe how you see the two goals as conflicting?

    You helped design CDS’s government, and dominated it for a while. I got power away from your group, for a few years, and ran CDS as well. So we both have some interest in how it works. 🙂 I’d like to challenge you to get past sloganeering and personality issues, and talk about policy. How does this dichotomy inform the policy choices that CDS (or any government rule designer) faces? What choices do you think CDS has made, or changed, in its policies? Is that good or bad?

    Cordially, JP

  2. Ah, Jamie, I’m afraid this article was a bit over-simplified. I agree that most (not all!) people want both.

    In my mind, however, “community” is what people do, while “democracy” is just how they organise themselves to do it. It’s quite clear we can have both separately: the whole point was really just to say that most communities are not democracies, much less representative democracies, and this is not a problem for them. On the other hand, one might agree that the CDS has “too much democracy” without “caring” for what happens at a social level with its citizens. It’s a valid argument, and one that certainly might have been the case in our past.

    So I don’t see a “conflict”. Representative democracy is worthless if there isn’t a community to be managed. But communities need management, and managing them with representative democracy is just one of many possible ways, one that has worked for us in six years.

    Oh, and it’s ironic how people always think that “our group had all the power” lol. How strong are perceptions! The CSDF never managed to secure a majority at RA; it always promoted non-CSDF Chancellors (except once, just for the sake of having an alternative candidate to allow RA members to have a choice when voting); and while it had a majority of 50% at the SC for several months, that’s just because the SC only had two members — one was CSDF, the other was not 🙂 With the third appointed member of the SC, that was never the case any longer.

    So why people “fear” us? We never had the power, we just are… vocal.

  3. >> On the other hand, one might agree that
    >> the CDS has “too much democracy” without
    >> “caring” for what happens at a social level
    >> with its citizens. It’s a valid argument, and
    >> one that certainly might have been the
    >> case in our past.

    See? We mostly agree. That certainly was my concern when I came to CDS, and I spent a few years trying to change it.

    RA seemed in 2006-08 to have been a festival of pogroms .. picking someone to revile & unseat every 4 to 6 months. I don’t think that “democracy” requires that. A pattern of constantly attacking and tearing people down is a style or personality thing, not a rules thing.

    Ask yourself who was usually leading the charges to unseat people. Is there a pattern?

    The size of a community matters, too. A few constantly negative people, in a 735-member Europarliament, doesn’t slow them down much. But one or two in a small village can kill its spirit. This is true whether they’re loud bile-spitting crazies, or just polite, deadly character assassins.

    Here’s another way to look at it: what if we held a community secret ballot vote for “person who is most likely to destroy or attack my project”? Assume there would be a few clear consensus winners, who are widely known as attackers, and not enablers or encouragers. Let’s call them the local “haters.” Now: whoever they are, does placing them on a town council make it better? (Is that a balanced “democracy” ideal?) Or just drive out everyone they attack? (Is that a “community” ideal?)

  4. I hear you, Jamie… but I’m afraid there is not an easy way out. I remember a similar argument made by one of our most esteemed citizens a couple of years ago. She suggested a form of ostracism: every term, we’d have an election to pick someone to be kicked out of the CDS. The reasoning behind that was that people would behave in order not to be the one kicked out — but there always would be one. So everybody would have to make a serious effort to be as nice and polite to make sure they’d stay as long as they could… you were never sure what would happen… small things, like picking the wrong dress colour, among a community of all-smiling, gentle, kind, and polite people, would be enough to get you kicked out. The system worked in some Greek city-states of the past which they considered themselves as “democratic”.

    However, this is not really a functional solution. It might work fine on the beginning, as consensually “hateful” people are quickly weeded out. The problem is that nothing is ever black and white. We all see other people through our filtered perceptions. A kind and gentle act by a person might be seen as hypocrisy by another; a harsh word, going straight to to point, might help way more than sarcasm — but be interpreted as unpoliteness instead of honesty and bluntness, and thus make that person a serious candidate to be kicked out. A long-term strategy is thus to adopt a façade of gentleness and over-politeness which will sound artificial — and still some people would get annoyed with that and vote people out.

    “You can’t please Greeks and Trojans”, so goes a saying in my country. The point is that it’s impossible to make sure everybody finds you nice, no matter what you do.

  5. It IS a tough issue, and as a moderator of some fractious panels, in various contexts, I’ve found it a challenge. Of course, my comment here was a thought experiment — I don’t really think we should have a “beauty contest” for “biggest meanie”. Disenfranchisements of minorities is an issue too.

    But I don’t like the idea of abandoning the search for civility … or giving up on the goal of installing a social moral force against personalized negativism, either. Bullies *should* be shunned. Meetings *must* be managed to keep any one party from taking away everyone else’s rights to be heard. The search for solutions continues, including in procedural rules.

    We should not let ourselves be complacent. CDS is significant: how many 6 year old virtual governing entities even EXIST, anywhere? Experimentation is called for. Moon had a great idea a few years ago: a script with balloons for each member, that blows up the “Jamie balloon” or “Gwyn balloon” bigger, in the meeting room, every time Jamie or Gwyn speaks more words. (Need I say, we were sitting in an RA legislative session when she IMed that one to me?)

    Of course, that tool would disincentivize blabbermouths, not meanness: but it’s a good example of our general opportunity here, in virtuality, to continue to invent tools & methods not common or possible IRL.

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