Democracy in Cyberspace

How is cyberspace to be governed? Bulletin boards systems, text-based virtual reality systems (or "MUDs"), and other services on computer networks are not merely sources of information; they are communities. Those communities are playing an increasing part in the daily lives of a broader and broader segment of the population. Are they to be controlled by the owners of the hardware and software, or by the participants?

Commercial service providers require new members to agree to a set of "terms of service" which establishes standards for appropriate conduct. Changes to services offered are made at the discretion of the management who may or may not consult the members involved. When there is a dispute between members and management as there was on the Prodigy network in 1990, the management may choose to exert social control by manipulating fee structures or suspending individual member's accounts.

More democratic methods of governance are possible. A text-based virtual reality system or "MUD" called LambdaMOO became a direct democracy on May 1st, 1993. MediaMOO began a gradual transition to representative democracy in September of 1993. These systems are not static but evolving through a complex combination of formal and social processes. These ongoing experiments have made it clear that "democracy" is not one thing but a general term for a form of government that can take many shapes. Just because a community is a democracy does not make its governance fair or efficient. A host of practical problems must be dealt with, forcing us to challenge our assumptions about what democracy is in the real world.

While there have been extended discussions within certain communities about the direction the governing system should take, there has been little dialogue between communities. One aim of this workshop is to begin a hopefully ongoing dialogue on these issues.


Amy Bruckman (organizer and panelist) , Pavel Curtis (panelist) , Nancy R. Deuel (panelist) , Mitchel Resnick (moderator)


Bruckman, Amy (1994). "Democracy in Cyberspace." Proceedings of DIAC94. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.