The world is a mess, and we want to work together to make it better. We can probably all agree on that much. But we need to come up with a plan we can agree on, and that plan will depend on what kind of a world we think we live in.
We live in a globally connected world, and are accustomed to getting both products and information from all over the globe. However the exchanges of products and information are not peer-to-peer exchanges from one normal person to another normal person, they are controlled by the powerful elites who run corporations and government.
We still get most of our information from media outlets run by corporations, and this information is necessarily coming from a very narrow viewpoint. We get the picture of the world that corporations want us to see.
Furthermore, while direct peer-to-peer communication, such as tweets, Facebook statuses, blog posts, etc, are becoming more important in our lives, these usually happen in a bubble: we see posts and tweets from friends and friends-of-friends and people whose opinions we find interesting, but we don’t communicate with people who are very different from ourselves. That means that everything we know about people who we haven’t met in our own lives comes from the corporate-controlled traditional media.
What all this amounts to is that we know a lot less about the world than we think we do, and our world-views are a lot less universal than we think they are.
Two UK trending topics on Twitter today made me smile. #CofE: reactions to the Church of England’s opposition to marriage equality on the grounds that it would “radically redefine marriage”, and #PolicingDebate was initiated by “private security contractors” G4S, who were contracted to provide security for the Olympics. This one was particularly great because G4S clearly did this as a PR exercise, and it blew up in their faces quite spectacularly.
Is it too utopian to suppose that social media is providing a space for people to talk back to powerful groups like the Church of England and G4S, which is not available in traditional media?
Most writing that I’ve been able to find on the topic of ‘participatory democracy’ focuses narrowly on decision-making procedures; on consensus decision-making processes, voting systems, workers councils and syndicates, recallable delegates, and the like. All of that stuff is interesting, but I don’t believe this is what we need to focus on in order to actually bring about participatory democracy.
Think for a moment about what it would actually be like for society to be run as a participatory democracy. Very large numbers of people would have to be able to participate in making decisions that affected their lives. The people who live on your street, and the people who work in your local shop, and your local pub, would have to have some way of communicating with each-other, negotiating, and reaching a decision. This doesn’t just require a new set of procedures, it requires new skills, and also a cultural change, a move toward a new social norm of engaged, responsible participation.
Furthermore, the move from representative democracy to participatory democracy would fundamentally change the type of decision that people can make. We’re used to democracy being a multiple choice test, where we choose candicate a, b, or c, but in participatory democracy the questions are long form and open-ended, requiring creative, collaborative problem-solving. Do you have the skills to do this kind of work, in collaboration with people you don’t know, who might come from a different background than your own? I’m fairly sure I don’t. This isn’t a problem of rules and procedures, but of communication skills, and of the social norms that limit the kinds of conversations we are able to have.
In my experience, most campaigning/activist groups don’t pay a lot of attention to the quality of their online communication tools. Virtually all the groups I’ve been involved with used mailing lists as the main way of communicating online: either Yahoo Groups or something similar, or an activist email provider such as Riseup. Riseup is very good on security, but there isn’t much focus on useability.
Email discussions, involving a group of people talking about subjects they feel passionate about, can be incredibly frustrating. There can be misunderstandings, people sometimes respond too quickly and thoughtlessly, sometimes angry words fly back and forth. I’ve found this often leads people to say ‘online communication doesn’t work, we just have to meet face to face’. However the reality is that there is a limit to how often groups can meet in person, and some communication will take place on the mailing list.
All of this has been a long and rambling build-up to the point that it makes a difference what kind of mailing list you use, and it’s worth spending some time looking at what’s available and choosing the best one. Except you don’t have to because I’ve done it for you 🙂
The best kind of mailing list is Nabble.
– You get very fine-grained control over who can read, post, add or remove users, etc.
– When you create a mailing list you also automatically get a forum, where emails to the list automatically go to the forum and vice versa. The forum is brilliant for more involved discussions – rather than clicking from one email to another you can see the whole conversation at once.
– People can choose to receive all the emails, or a daily or weekly digest. This is great for busy times when there might be ten or twenty emails per day, and some group members might be feeling annoyed or put-off at having such a full in-box.
– The forum website has a clear, uncluttered layout.
– Nabble doesn’t do anything sleazy, like adding your information to a gravatar profile without telling you, or trying to get you to sign in with your Facebook account. There aren’t a billion social networking icons on the website, and unlike Google or Yahoo they don’t automatically sign you up for “a range of products and services”. They show ads, which you can pay to get rid of, and that’s it.
Do you disagree, or have something to add? Have you also searched for a discussion-friendly mailing list? The comment form beckons.
A post-script on the (lack of) security of activist mailing lists:
Riseup does everything they can for security: only allow HTTPS connections, store the minimum possible amount of data, encrypt their data, and, unlike pretty much any commercial ISP, won’t give up a user’s data just because the police and/or a corporate lawyer asked them to nicely. Despite all this, for many reasons, these lists can’t really be considered secure – an easy example is that you send an email to a Riseup list, your friend replies to it from her Gmail account, quoting the original message and your email address – all of which is now stored on Google’s servers.