Usenet Voting Fails Democracy Test

John Paolillo
Fiber Hand
The voting system is more of an "interest poll" than a democratic vote.

by Michael Crowther

SLIS Alumni Magazine, Spring 2002
MIS Knowledge Base

MANY PEOPLE CONSIDER THE INTERNET A DEMOCRATIC TOOL and Usenet -- a worldwide system in which online newsgroups are created by voter choice -- an example of a good online democratic voting system. But research by SLIS associate professor John Paolillo suggests that the voting process for creating new Usenet newsgroups is a poor model of democracy.

The Usenet model is different from voting in a political model because only people who have an interest -- positive or negative -- in a new newsgroup are supposed to vote. People who are not interested simply do not participate. The voting system is more of an "interest poll" than a democratic vote. However, the fact that any person or group can initiate the formation of a new newsgroup makes the actual creation process rather democratic.

Paolillo presented his findings, "Democratic Participation in the Discursive Management of Usenet," at the 35th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences in January 2002. Paollilo and his coauthor, IU computer science professor David Heald, used visual representation and analysis of Usenet voting data in the study.

In the past, says Paolillo, many voting rights groups have focused on the so-called "digital divide" - the comparative lack of access to technology among low-income and minority citizens - as a key issue in discussions of online democracy.

"What this kind of work suggests is that we're going to have to watch some other things now," Paolillo says.

Paolillo's Internet voting research "is focusing on the quality of democratic participation and asking if this really does have the benefits that we expect. People haven't really asked that question. Everybody kind of accepts that 'this is going to make things better.'"

While he thinks that we are a long way from having a working Internet voting system, Paolillo believes that "some kind of electronic voting is inevitable." His research is aimed at making that eventual system effective.

Posted May 16, 2002