Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Online Group Coordination

I know this piece has been out for a while, but my home internet connection is still not up, and I want to write about it anyway.

I always find it a little tough to get through Clay's pieces (too much jargon) but it's almost always worthwhile. In this one he discusses how groups become their own worst enemies by 1) wandering off topic, 2) bonding over a common enemy, and 3) electing the most paranoid and aggressive individual as their leader. And while people think (thought?) that one of the Internet's benefits was bringing like minded groups of people together, it's not clear to me if this feature is, on balance, positive.

I just finished reading Losers by Michael Lewis, where he follows the various doomed Republican presidential campaigns in 1996. Some people don't like the US two party system because they feel it does not give them any real choices, but after reading about the crackpots on the edges of both Democrat and Republican parties, I'm very pleased they are on the fringe and I hope they stay there.

One last thread: Nobel prize-winning economist Ken Arrow (who spent a little time at U Chicago) demonstrated in his "Arrow's Impossibility theorem" that all voting systems are imperfect. This isn't "imperfect" as in "real life markets produce suboptimal results" are imperfect, it's a "any result from a vote is entirely a construct of the voting procedure." Chicago economist Dick Thaler puts it as a joke: "A woman walks into a deli that only serves beef and turkey sandwiches, so she orders a turkey. The man behind the counter discovers he has some ham left over, and asks the customer if she would like to change her order. She does, and orders a beef sandwich instead."

Lewis split the political world into "insiders" and "outsiders", insiders may belong to either party but are fundamentally committed to the system itself, while outsiders just want to tear the whole thing down and replace it with something better. Arrow teaches us that voting systems by their nature are flawed (technically, the term is "intransitive") so there is no better -- you just substitute one set of problems for another.

The thread that ties this all together is that the Internet, by lowering coordination costs, is raising the coordination abilities of outsiders to rival those of insiders, while polarizing and radicalized those same outsider groups. We're going to see more "Power to the People" and it is going to be ugly.

I think William Gibson wrote something along the same lines recently, but I have not been able to find it (if anyone has a link, please email it to me at zimran at

Given how conflict is so inherent to the system, I don't see any way out of it except taking more classes of decisions out of voting mechanisms and putting it in markets (with "good" defaults -- best of luck on agreeing on those).

Last fragment: it'll be interesting to see what happens to the Internet heavy Howard Dean campaign. Slate worries that Dean may lose control of his message to unofficial groups, but I think the real issue is if he will still be electable now he's decided to represent far-left outsiders united only in their hatred of Bush through a medium that polarizes and radicalizes. My guess is "no" and I cannot predict the knock on effects this will have on other Democratic candidates.


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