Book review: Nathan Schneider looks for ways to democratise online spaces

‘The ways people can and cannot collectively self-govern in daily online life … have been constrained in dominant social networks’

Governable Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life: Nathan Schneider, (illustrated by Darija Medic) University of California Press, £30/US$34.95

As the world lurches deeper into crisis, much of the drama is played out online – still a new setting for human discourse, with basic standards of good conduct flouted, truth battered by fake news and conspiracy theories, and the arena of social media owned by a handful of tech giants.

Prominent among volunteers for the daunting challenge of changing it for the better is Nathan Schneider, a leading light of the platform co-op movement and professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Involved in the long-running campaign to turn Twitter into a mutual, he returns to the fray with his latest book Governable Spaces. It’s  a timely intervention: a Washington Post analysis found that Twitter – renamed X under the ownership of Elon Musk – fed additional hateful and racist content to users after subjecting it to an algorithmic echo chamber. The book is also elegantly written and argued, drawing on a wide range of research and sources. There is more at stake than the fate of one platform: online social media, says Schneider, takes its share of the blame for polarisation of society and rise of authoritarian populism.

“The ways people can and cannot collectively self-govern in daily online life … have been constrained in dominant social networks,” he says. This has “contributed to the peril of democratic politics in general. It is not enough to merely defend existing governmental institutions; healthy democracy depends on enabling new forms of self-governance, especially on networks.”

Online communities need to “self consciously cultivate democratic practices”, he says, but these practices are doomed to be “marginal within antidemocratic infrastructures”. Schneider likens those infrastructures to feudalism, with an “unalterable power structure” governing platform and training users to interact in a certain way.

Related: Can co-ops calm the social media storm?

Co-operativism offers a brighter future, he says, despite difficulties surrounding scale, anonymity and a geographically and socially disparate membership. He points to the way co-op activity connects the small and local to the large and global, such as the alliances formed between small retail co-ops in the UK of the Industrial Revolution and the abolitionist movement of the USA.

One task to be accomplished, he says, is to turn the social media user’s voice from an “affective” one – a free-for-all Babel of dispute and dissent – to an “effective” one that actually gives “the power to change something”.

For precedents, Schneider examines the achievements – and failings – of previous online ventures, such as the syops computer bulletin boards of the 1970s, open source operating system Linux, and self-governed co-production Wikipedia. And he draws inspiration from transformative justice movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, and the lineage of radical thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, CLR James, Grace Lee Boggs, adrienne maree brown and co-op icon WEB DuBois.

He finds mileage in a number of ideas from the co-op movement, such as its application of subsidiarity –for instance, the way local grocery co-ops answer to their communities while leveraging buying power through membership of national purchasing co-operatives. Online, this principle works in open source microblogging platform Mastodon, where online communities were able to mobilise against Islamic State and white supremacist platform Gab.

What this points to is the concept of metagovernance that can “veer human societies toward accountable connectivity and toward the planet now asking us to get our act together, or else”.

This, says Schneider, means “a convergence of transparent information flows and decisions, under democratic control” that allow us to “co-govern more of the jurisdictions we inhabit”.

For those wanting more ideas as to how this can come about, this new work offers a useful reference point.