My dictionary says that control is the power to influence or direct people’s behaviour or the course of events. Control can be exercised in many different ways and at all sorts of levels in the online world. Control is built into the very walls of the online world! Facebook, for example, has a limit of 420 words for status updates that is hard-written into its system. And this is only one of thousands of tiny examples of control that often pass unnoticed. As in the Facebook example, control can be and is extensively exerted through technology. It can also be imposed through structures, organisation, ways of working, culture, beliefs,… But before we shoot down control in the name of sacrosanct individual freedom, we need to acknowledge that control and structure are absolutely necessary to the functioning of online communities. You only have to look at the defining nature of communities to see the inbuilt need for control at every corner. Communities are defined first and foremost by who belongs to them, but deciding who can belong and who not is an act of control. The fabric of a community is the communication between its members, but the nature and form of that communication depends largely on the communication channels chosen by someone.
The case of technology
There is a fundamental difference between technology and the other vehicles of control like structures or ways of working. For the most part, the latter are decided on by the community itself or by a member or group of members of the community. However, although the community also makes choices about technology, much of the nature and resulting control of usage lies with people who often have nothing to do with the community: those who design and market the software. Now marketplace ideology would have us believe that the freedom of the user is in the choice of the product. This freedom is extremely limited. First of all because the choice of appropriate tools is very limited. A viable marketplace cannot support too many options. Secondly, the intrinsic limits of the tools chosen may only be apparent after extensive usage. And thirdly, the mechanisms which provide feedback from users to software makers is unable to produce the kind of responsiveness on the part of software makers that users need. The latter may improve with the increasing popularity of Apps, tiny modular software with extremely short development cycles.
Control as decision-making
Above, I mentioned that control can be imposed through structures, organisation and ways of working. The way these forms of control (especially the first two) are decided on reflects the decision-making structure of the community. Bacon (2009) identifies three general categories of governance. I want to extend his categories and adjust them slightly.
The apparent absence of control
No one person or group of people is designated to decide. This is not a landsgemeinde either where everybody is periodically asked to raised their hand to vote on key issues. In such a set up, it is difficult to know how decisions come about. Decision-making is totally opaque and can often hide the covert influence of an individual (hidden autocracy) or small groups (often a form of hidden meritocracy). In addition, the absence of apparent control often implies that there is no clear sense of direction in the community. Which in turn can lead to conflict or compromise and inaction.
One person, often the founder of the community, makes most or all of the important decisions. Bacon (2009) cites the example of Linus Torvalds for the Linux community. If charismatic leader listens to voice of his or her ‘people’ and tries to accommodate what members want, this way of functioning can be a viable solution. But if the leader’s views differ from those of the members, at some time or other the frustration is going win out over the charisma. There is another problem with autocratic solutions. Succession! Who takes over when the charismatic leader is no longer around? Michael Fullan (2001) talks about the need to cultivate leadership at all levels of an organisation to combat the dependence on the charismatic leader.
A small group of people, generally acknowledged by the other members of the community for their knowledge, skills or great work, are those who decide. Their knowledge-set is seen as pertinent to the community. It makes sense for them to decide. But one of the limitations of such a control system occurs when new knowledge is required. The ruling ‘cast’ may not appreciate the shift in emphasis or may not understand why it might be necessary. And, as there is probably no mechanism in place to change the people in control, such situations cause a problem.
he power to decide and, as a result, control is delegated to elected people. By elected we mean that from a number of designated candidates all the members of the community vote for the person or people they want to be represented by. And the person with the most votes (voices) is chosen because he or she represents the most people. This system has the advantage of being open and apparently transparent. It is also flexible in that the degree of delegation can be varied. And the ultimate control lies with the community in that they can remove a person from office if they don’t think he or she is doing a good job. This system refuses to directly invest power in the hands of experts as in the meritocracy. However, as the elected people often have to deal with complex situations requiring specialised knowledge, those elected people depend on the help of and are subjected to the influence of experts. Further more, given modern media and sophisticated advertising techniques, a cast of people has grown up that is specialised in getting elected and staying elected. This situation may be less acute in communities, but it remains an unavoidable consequence of the system.
In communities that function using a democratic system, it is easy for a rift to form between those who have been elected ‘to the committee’ and those who are not on the committee. The elected few work hard to get things done. They function at the highest levels of participation (See: Participation) and despite having effective channels of communication, they know more than the others about the situation. There is a tendency for them to want to get ahead more quickly than other members can keep up with or they want to change things that others can’t see the need for. At that moment, the process of delegation breaks down because those who gave their voice to others begin to think they are not being represented as they would like to be.