The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Now in Print: Anarchy, Status Updates and Utopia

I have just received the final PDF version of my symposium essay in the pace Law Review on the impossibility of online anarchy, Anarchy, Status Updates, and Utopia. If you have already seen the version I posted in 2013’s Speed Scholarship Week, there is no need to read this one; the substance is mostly the same. But if the last time you saw this piece was at the 2011 Governance of Social Media Workshop at Georgetown, or at the 2007 TIP Group conference at the University of Toronto, please check out the new one. Four and eight years, respectively, have helped me really hone the argument. Here is the introduction:

Social software has a power problem. Actually, it has two. The first is technical. Unlike the rule of law, the rule of software is simple and brutal: whoever controls the software makes the rules. And if power corrupts, then automatic power corrupts automatically. Facebook can drop you down the memory hole; PayPal can garnish your pay. These sovereigns of software have absolute and dictatorial control over their domains.

Is it possible to create online spaces without technical power? It is not, because of social software’s second power problem. Behind technical power, there is also social power. Whenever people come together through software, they must agree which software they will use. That agreement vests technical power in whoever controls the software. Social software cannot be completely free of coercion – not without ceasing to be social, or ceasing to be software.

Rule-of-law values are worth defending in the age of software empires, but they cannot be fully embedded in software itself. Any technical design can always be changed through an exercise of social power. Software can help by making this coercion more obvious, or by requiring more people to join together in it, but software alone cannot fully protect users. Whatever limits make social software humane, free, and fair will have to come from somewhere else – they will have to come from We the Users.