What to Know About the Uses of Decentralization in Online Community Governance in Five Minutes

Jul 19, 2023

The Decentralists, a twitter space series hosted by Filecoin Foundation speaks with top minds at the intersection of Dweb and technology created for real world applications.

Filecoin Foundation Senior Fellow Danny O’Brien spoke with Nathan Schneider, professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, about decentralization and the potential advantages it has for the growth of online community governance. Schneider is a renowned scholar, activist, and journalist, who has been recognized for his work on democratic ownership and governance models for online platforms and protocols. Stream the full episode here, and check out the highlights below:

“We are at risk of building digital systems that are effectively silencing and steamrolling governance practices that have long preceded them.”

Schneider drew upon the insights of Phil Agre, a pioneer in the field of internet engineering at MIT. In Phil’s last essay before he disappeared from public life on the idea of political skills, he saw clearly that the public was in danger of losing the basic skills of practicing politics on a small scale, which are necessary to practice politics on a large scale. Schneider contrasted that with decentralized technology, a Fediverse server called Social.Coop that he was part of helping to start about five years ago. He found himself practicing those necessary skills of formulating proposals, developing consensus and coordinating with other people. “... the more I do it, the better I get.”

Sometimes New isn't Always Better

The conversation touched upon the historical context of governance practices. Schneider highlighted how figures like Jefferson and Franklin learned from Native American communities, even amidst their participation in the attempted genocide of those communities. He drew a parallel to the current context of emerging technologies, warning of the risk of eroding functional and proven governance practices with new digital systems. Schneider's reflections underscored the importance of learning from the past and integrating those lessons into our digital future. “How do we make sure that we're not doing the kind of work of cooption and appropriation and, you know, perpetuating the silencing and suppression of cultures that we may be learning from?”

Diversity of Governance Models is Key

O’Brien emphasized the need for a diverse selection of governance models to guide the conversation around decentralization. "Looking back in the past sometimes locks you into things, but it also gives you an opportunity, if you've got a sufficiently diverse selection, to widen what people can construct."

Overall, the conversation was a deep exploration into the intricacies and potential of decentralized online governance. It underscored the need for a thoughtful approach to the development of decentralized technologies and governance models, one that takes into account the lessons of the past and the diverse possibilities of the future. As we continue to explore the potential of decentralization, conversations like these are crucial in shaping our understanding and guiding our actions.