Robbins-Sponaas, R. and Nolan, J. (preprint) MOOs: Polysynchronous collaborative virtual environments. In P. Zemliansky and K. St. Amant (eds.) Workplace Internet-Based Communication: Industry and Academic Perspectives. (pp. 130-155) Idea Group. (Available from http://jasonnolan.net/papers/moochapter.pdf
A long time ago I saw an interview with the proprietor of Lambda MOO. He claimed they tried pure democracy and that failed miserably. Instead, they had to use AccessLevels: a hierarchical system of wizards, demigods, gods, etc.
But that was years ago. I wonder how it's doing now. ~220 users connected at midnight EDT...
Still, I wouldn't say it was a complete failure. The petition system in place was mostly useless for implementing any sort of policy, but it was quite effective when dealing with less personal issues, which were usually technical in nature. (Often it would involve a change to the root of the object model that only a wizard could implement.) Discussion on these issues were spirited and respectful, and measures were passed and implemented.
You could make the point that in a smaller community, a formalized petition system like they had at LambdaMoo is unnecessary, but in the cases where it worked on LambdaMoo, it seemed genuinely helpful. It helped the users feel like they had a say in the community. And I think that given the prevalent combativeness that suffused Lambda politics, the wizards probably felt a little comforted by having a more formalized way to establish consensus. Nobody could be mad at the wizards for implementing a ballot: Vox Populi, Vox Dei. -- FrancisHwang
At last look, the archive has a dozen or so ballots. LambdaMOO has had hundreds. Bit of a snapshot of LM history, really, not quite a historical archive.
I was there too, pretty much from the inception of LambdaMOO through to today. I was particularly active during the early political period, the early to mid 90s, but became less and less interested towards the late 90s, mainly as I began to notice a sort of passive-aggressive agenda, conscious or not, on the part of the wizards in how they ran the petition/ballot system.
This is a wiki, but the pages I've looked at so far seem to favor a linear approach, so I'll put my comments down here instead of inserting them at relevant points.
First, LambdaMOO never tried pure democracy. It went from:
- direct autocracy (the wizards are in charge, largely hands off, but willing to get hands on in egregious cases)
- to somewhat bureacratized (Haakon delegated handing out quota space to a body of 15 long-time players he trusted to be competent and reliable)
- to Haakon abdicating all responsibility but not letting go of the actual power ("LambdaMOO Takes A New Direction", aka LTAND, in 1992)
- to Haakon imposing the petition/ballot system and promising that the wizards would refrain from social decision-making, restricting themselves purely to implementing passed ballots,
- to the active wizards (several years later, Haakon having more or less ceased active invovlvement) announcing that they would no longer refrain from overt social decision-making, but would retain the petition/ballot system as a means of establishing player consensus, which the wizards consider when making decisions.
During the LTAND phase, several bureacracies were established or changed by petition/ballot. Arbitration was created (though at first renamed to Mediation to distinguish it from the ARB, Architectural Review Board, which name change caused all sorts of quibbling about mediation being non-binding). The ARB was changed to an elected body. Etc.
It's important to note two things; first, Haakon's initial abdication of responsibility was fundamentally flawed because he did not give a clear direction or provide any mechanism for players to actually enact any changes.
And second, perhaps more importantly, the petition/ballot system had a subtle agenda in the form of vetting and implementation, which favored moronically simple petitions ("everybody gets twice as much quota!") and complicated, verbose, grand manifest destiny petitions that nobody could actually understand, and therefore almost never gained enough signatures to go to ballot.
Shortly after the MrBungle incident, and its demonstration of an apparent need for some kind of democratic government, "Haakon" (PavelCurtis?'s wizard character) posted an interesting essay introducing the PureDemocracy? mentioned above. The idea was that the players would use petitions and ballots to compel the wizards to act. So if a virtual troublemaker appeared, the community could vote on sanctions or exile. The petition system itself was also subject to revision by popular vote. The interesting thing about this essay was how it emphasized "social decisions" versus "technical decisions". The wizards were to abstain from doing anything that would have social effects, and limit their activities to writing privileged code as needed to implement the players' ideas.
In practice, this proved completely impossible. The players almost immediately split up into 3 groups:
One could postulate a Group 4, composed of a few sane and clever characters ("Gilmore", "crayon") who saw all this for the joke that it was. They provide the only comic relief you'll find if you venture into the archived mailing lists, and they never took any of this seriously or got much involved in it at all.
The climax of all this was the Arbitration system, put into place by a ballot circa 1995. It provided a means for players who were harassed by others to seek intervention. However, the mediators had essentially no power, so the vast majority of arbitrations ended in the mediator saying "ok, you two should avoid each other from now on." Not that there was ever anything at stake anyway, other than a few screenfuls of objectionable text, easily avoided by the use of the @gag command (which prevents the display of text originating from a certain character).
Since the mediators had no power, Group 1 bandied about a number of different petitions to set up a judicial system of some kind. All of these failed, because either people saw such things as pointless, too complicated, a tempest in a teapot, or a game (NomicGame?, only taken way too seriously). Group 2 realized that by exploiting loopholes in the Arbitration system, they could mire everyone in political rhetoric and shove their faces in technicalities and contradictions. Every so often (maybe one Arbitration dispute in 20) there was a legitimate case brought by someone from Group 3, but as always he or she would be drowned out by Groups 1 and 2 arguing about the nature of power.
Some of Group 2's posts were spectacular. A character known as "Sunny" would post reams and reams of meandering, increasingly paranoid discourse, with such titles as "J'Accuse!! (part 1 of 9)", to the MOO's mailing lists. Most of the serious members of Group 1 had already resigned by this point, but a few held on tenaciously and tried to point out the frivolity of Group 2's actions and rhetoric. Between them, they generated almost 10 megabytes of text between 1995 and 1998.
Throughout this grand experiment, the wizards took endless abuse, mostly from Group 2, who tended to file "formal" complaints every time the wizards did anything at all, on grounds that whatever it was they did had some social consequence, and was thus technically illegal. A few serious things had gone on by then, including some cracking by a Group 2 character, a bunch of posts by a Group 3 character detailing episodes of child molesting, and an instance of RL harassment by a Group 2 character. The pedophile was summarily @toaded (permanently exiled, a rare action) by the wizards, as they were unsure where they stood with regards to RL law and understandably did not want to take chances. The harasser was also @toaded, though I can't remember whether that was by ballot, or by fiat.
The cracker, on the other hand, got away with a slap on the wrist, because the wizards foolishly decided to use the Arbitration system in dealing with the matter. Groups 1 and 2 seized that bull by the horns and had a spectacular battle about the SocialContract. Certain Group 2 characters, including "Sunny" and "Boonton" (I provide names in case anyone wants to search for their posts in the lengthy archives) posted vituperative messages browbeating the wizards for leaving any security hole in the first place. They rudely demanded answers to irrelevant questions regarding former wizard activities, and "Sunny" posted insane conspiracy theories. The world will probably never know whether she acutally believed the things she wrote, or was just gaming the system (as "Boonton" admitted to have been doing later). The conclusion of this cracker scenario is surprising: "Haakon" stepped in many posts later with a message explaining who the cracker was, what he cracked (the DB containing all characters' login sites and IPs), and who he shared it with, followed by a mere reprimand. This had all kinds of implications for the nature of the LambdaMOO government project. Considering how precious site data was considered by the MOOers -- second only to their passwords -- this showed the administration/government in a very ugly light indeed.
In the end, the wizards jointly posted a second essay explaining that all "technical decisions" had social consequences, acknowledging that they had made such decisions in the past, and that they would continue to do so. With the re-introduction of "wizardly fiat", the petition system was basically castrated, as the wizards could arbitrarily choose to act or not to act at will. The arbitration system was eventually repealed (by vote), and the rest of the ballots began to stagnate as people discovered things like Counterstrike and Wikipedia. Year by year the population shrank, until it stabilized at around 100 users connected at a time, most of them idle, and hardly anyone doing anything besides chatting and posting to *video and *current-events.
The point of all this is that, ironically, the government really was the fun part, even though it had no tangible purpose, and once that was eliminated, there wasn't much else to do. In the end, they really were playing NomicGame? at a crowded diner in New Jersey: Group 1 was getting out index cards and trying to play, Group 2 was throwing pencils and tennis balls at Group 1, and Group 3 was milling about eating pancakes, making origami out of the index cards, and complaining about the high prices and noise. The petitions now hang around in limbo waiting for signatures that will never come, some of them being 3 or 4 years old by now. The occasional features that are desirable to implement are done by the presiding wizard, "Nosredna" (whose character was created in 1990) after discussion on the general mailing lists.