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The worst crisis is the first crisis, because it's not just "We need to have some rules." It's also "We need to have some rules for making some rules." --ClayShirky, AGroupIsItsOwnWorstEnemy

Initially, most communities get away with very little in the way of formal rules, instead solving problems socially. When a group is small, this is often the best approach, being simple and flexible. However, there may come a time when a RulesSolution is required, and the community requires some form of internal law to progress.

The problem is that, with no formal rules, there is no formal way for rules to be created, so new rules face a legitimacy problem. Where does authority to create rules come from? Why should people follow the newly created rules? Who enforces the rules? What are the benefits, what are the penalties?


In smaller communities, it is often taken as read that all power derives from the BenevolentDictator, and thus he can create some new rules, or write down what he always had in mind, but never made explicit. If acting as a FirstServant, he may first try to seek a consensus of some kind. However, many communities have no clear leader, or some form of AbsentLeader, or a leader who is simply not up to the task.

Fortunately there are other ways to give rules legitimacy, some of which are better than others:

If the community continues to grow and to require law-like structures, it will eventually acquire an extended rule-system (constitution), written down to create a clear situation for contributors and TheAudience. Even where a community has an unwritten constitution, there will emerge documents written by members of the community that act as guides to that unwritten constitution. Once such an extended rule system is created, the possibility of future constitutional crises is greatly reduced.

See CommunityLifeCycle.


An OnlineCommunity typically cannot rely on much in the way of common political values. Community members come from many different countries, and the political differences between Europe and America, say, are difficult to bridge. Most communities will have at least a few strong libertarians in their midst, while others favour strong leadership. Further difficulties are caused by AntiAuthoritarian voices in the community. Finally, recall that there must have been some severe problem that caused the demand for a RulesSolution in the first place. In many cases it may be better to solve the immediate problem using existing methods, and then deal with the ConstitutionalCrisis as a separate issue.

I think the solutions above don't really work for online communities. There are no military coups leading to "rules for making rules". Consensus never leads to constitutions, why should it? We are on new territory. It's a painful bootstrap process, because the systems must make a difference between a trusted voting member and a non-trusted non-voting user. A real-life society can replace this by "born in this country, age above NN" but online you can't. If you do, then voting is evil. -- HelmutLeitner

Pure democracies are rare, to be sure, but there are lots of places which take "votes", or we wouldn't have written VotingIsEvil. Perhaps it is not the best solution, but it is surprisingly popular - c.f. Debian, WikiPedia, etc. A democracy of course requires some notion of suffrage - who is eligible to vote, and hence a membership system, as you wrote yourself. However, I see now that your emphasis was on establishing a group of trusted members, rather than on the democratic element. -- MartinHarper

No, that's a misinterpretation. "Trusted Members" and "Democracy" seem to me like two sided of the same coin. VotingIsEvil only holds because you don't have trusted [voting] members. There is no democracy in the world without an exact notion of what a [trusted and voting] member is. -- HelmutLeitner

Democracy requires some notion of suffrage - who is eligible to vote. The degree to which suffrage is "exact" varies - where it is imprecise, vote administrators gain additional power. See Florida, USA, 2000. In some democracies one can vote without being a CommunityMember. In other systems one can be a member without being able to vote. See UK prior to allowing women's suffrage. There are many different forms of democracy, both online and offline. -- MartinHarper

That seems a language problem to me. With online communities you start needing the term member when you start voting, so member=voting seem very natural to me. This wording is also used in non-profit organizations (at least in Austria) which require some kind of democratic member council. The RL examples you give seem to me like second class members, people who have some rights, enjoy some protection (children for example) but do not participate in the decision process. -- HelmutLeitner

You don't need membership for a poll. Votes are polls that decide over some collective resource, but if you aren't making a decision, but consulting as part of FairProcess, it's irrelevant who gets the vote. StuffingTheBallotBox is less of a problem in a poll since it may not have much of an impact. Membership also implies ownership, but there is no ownership in an OnlineCommunity since people are only there if they are interested, and they maintain the RightToLeave. Unless there is an AccessFee or some other obligation from the site to AnIndividual, there is no point in having a vote if in the end no one is obliged to follow the result of the decision. Or in other words, a trusted membership still means nothing; you need an obligated membership. -- SunirShah

Then you obviously need R1, R2, L5 (see BootstrapConstitution). I think there is a continuous spectrum from OnlineCommunity to CommunityOnline. WikiPedia already handles money and other resources. -- HelmutLeitner

The fact that WikiPedia "handles money and other resources" is a key distinction.

I believe wikipedia is set up (incorporated) as a Foundation. As such, it is an Entity recognized by the "law of the land" to have specific rights, entitlements, powers and privileges. In this context, both Individuals and Corporations have similar rights, especially the right of Ownership of property (Servers, Cash, real estate, etc.) and they enjoy specific treatments under Taxation laws (which is WikiPedia's case is 'tax exempt' as a non-profit entity.) That being said, Ownership of Assets and Control of those assets obviously requires a published set of rules which may be variously called a Constitution, or Charter, and which are supported by By-Laws or Minutes or other evidence of Authority. Most wikis make a point of declaring their 'copyright' (..., etc.) policies. I believe the do so because they care about matters such as IntellectualProperty Rights and the RightToFork. Interestingly, the courts are obviously less capable of adjudicating disputes regarding these matters than in the past, yet wikis in particular and on-line communities in general, somehow feel protected by their statements. Ironically, though, such communities have failed to take even the most rudimentary steps to protect the same asset from loss by documenting the Authorities that may be needed to recover their property, as in the case Scott suggests of re-building meatball from the Google cache. It would not be unreasonable to argue that a plaintiff did not value the property that they claim ownership of, if they did not even have an effective recovery procedure that clearly states who has the authority to trigger the process and direct the restoration on behalf of a vaguely defined Community of poorly defined Owners. In which case, the damages arising from a case of 'infringement' would be negligible.

Since the preceding inset became far too verbose, a few summary points... (relocated to [RightToVote#Conclusions]).

These thoughts arose while I was reviewing this page as background material during efforts on behalf of VotingSystemCollaboration. -- HansWobbe

To expand on the benefits of consensus, you can have a consensus over part of the problem. For example, suppose a community is grappling with the question of whether a name page should be edited by anyone except that person. There may well be different views on this, but there may also be a consensus that "we should ask Fred, and go with what he recommends". The consensus that Fred should decide means that whatever Fred says has higher legitimacy - in due course this may create a constitutional framework of some kind. -- MartinHarper


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