phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

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Mills
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phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by Mills » Wed Nov 19, 2008 6:38 pm

Hi all,

I am a social scientist with a strong interest in collaboration on the internet; and I believe that a new way for vast numbers of people to produce solutions to social problems collectively online (that has enormous potential) is within our reach. I also believe that we could produce a basic version of this kind of web space with what (I think) are relatively minor modifications to phpBB3; although the combination of these mods would turn phpBB into something fundamentally different...

Why do I believe this?
The short answer is: because the world is full of people like yourselves; people who would gladly give a little (or a lot) of their time to make something better, not just for themselves but for anyone and everyone; and without expecting to be explicitly rewarded for their effort. Open Source Software development on the internet is, in my opinion, merely one very obvious manifestation of this fundamentally human characteristic.

Having said that, I would not currently be working on this kind of project if it wasn't for Open Source developments such as (and in particular) phpBB; they provide evidence not only that people can work on projects like this collaboratively - but that when they do they can produce something truly fantastic - something qualitatively better and with more potential than that which is achievable with a more traditional approach.

The "problems" with open source software development from this perspective, are that (1) only skilled programmers can make useful contributions and (2) the endeavor is limited to the domain of computer software. I recognise that these are not really problems but features of Open Source software development; but in my opinion they are the only features preventing the "open source" idea having a much more significant and positive impact on the world.

And this is a world with many problems. Our most serious problems are arguably those which exist at a global level, and what makes these problems so difficult to tackle is the fact that they are all related to each other, often in extremely complex ways. It is thus almost impossible for an individual to solve a given "social problem" without having unforseen impacts on others, or even creating new problems. A good example of this increasing complexity is in issues related to national governments and the global economy... although the institution of government in many countries has remained stable over the last few decades or longer, the effective power of people who are elected to these positions has seen a dramatic decrease - the increased freedom companies are afforded to move their manufacturing operations (or indeed any other aspect up to and including their headquarters) puts hidden limits on what a national government can change (e.g. minimum wage or corporation tax rate) without having unintended, often severely negative, consequences.

I will not go into any more detail about the nature of the problems I see with the world and how they relate to each other, this is not the place for that discussion. I will only say that I believe the nature of these problems' complexity is such that it has become impossible for individuals or small groups (no matter how knowledgable or intelligent they might be) to produce a practical solution which actually "makes things better" for the majority of people in a meaningful and lasting way.

The implication of this perspective is that we need a better way of producing solutions to the problems we face; we need a way of integrating the ideas, thoughts and opinions of more people than ever before, in one place; and with the aim of producing interrelated solutions to as many problems as possible. This is what I refer to when I use the term Open Source Democracy, and while this ideal might seem in itself excessively complex and unattainable, I believe there is a way for us to (eventually) achieve this kind of system. I believe the key to making this happen is to first create a web space which is fundamentally democratic, and at the same time "open source", dedicated to the discussion of social problems and capable of modifying the mechanics of the space itself to improve or streamline these discussions. If we could do that, then the people who use it might eventually transform it into something which could be called an open source democracy.

In a sense, the hard work has already been done; the internet provides the perfect medium for huge numbers of people to communicate in this way, and there are already fully featured applications like phpBB which allow them to have meaningful discussions.

There are in fact only two major obstacles that I can see to using phpBB itself for this purpose. The first of these is in upscaling the number of users who can contribute to a given topic in a meaningful way, without that topic becoming overly lengthy, convoluted and ultimately unreadable. This I believe can be circumvented by making everything (e.g. posts, users, threads, forums, translations) rate-able by users, and then using these ratings to alter the appearance of said content for subsequent users.

The second obstacle I see is the distribution of decision-making power among users; I fear that the traditional roles of Admin and Moderator would have an extremely negative effect in a web space such as this - ultimately resulting in a bias or skew to the activity in any given section that would be extremely unhealthy and problematic for the site as a whole. My solution to this problem isn't as easy to sum up as the previous one, but essentially the site would need to be configured to self-regulate; using the user ratings I mentioned above, but also an explicitly democratically controlled "Administrator Control Panel" (conceptually similar to the current ACP, but functionally quite different).

I have been working on this project for the last year or so, and I've spent a lot of that time on the concept itself, trying to figure out where the obstacles lie and how to get around them. About two months ago I moved on to trying to turn that concept into a reality. I began to learn PHP and mySQL, and have figured out roughly how the modifications I'm looking to make should work, but I've hit a bit of a brick wall... I'm not a very good programmer, so I'm having difficulty with getting to grips with the phpBB3 source. I have a list of features I would like to implement, and while I don't think any single one would be too difficult to implement for a skilled programmer familiar with phpBB, I do not match that description. Also, my understanding of how this would work at a person-to-person level necessitates all the features I have in mind being implemented and interacting with each other as planned. Taking all of this into account, I have come to realise that it will take me a very long time indeed to implement this kind of alternative use for phpBB onmy own.

And so I've (finally) come here, to see what you guys think of my proposal (any ideas/criticisms or suggestions for how to proceed would be much appreciated)..... and whether there's anyone who'd like to get involved.

Mills
Last edited by Mills on Thu Nov 20, 2008 9:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.

kzone
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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by kzone » Wed Nov 19, 2008 6:50 pm

Woow..I started reading this post when I was having breakfast. When I finished, I took a break for lunch :D

Well put man. I will come back with more details

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by dsavi » Wed Nov 19, 2008 10:49 pm

Wow indeed.

That with the limited access administration control panel, I've had a similar idea in my head for a long time now. A large group of rule-abiding users could react to a rule-breaking post faster and with a wider perspective of judgment than a team of moderators could; But their power could not be absolute. Banning decisions can not be held publicly, due to the immense amount of tension it would create. Those users behind the "bannee" could become less for the rules and more for their own way. It's not a good idea, generally, to do something like this unless there are thousands of people involved, essentially creating one, non-biased decision. A post advertising a website or selling illegal software could be locked, or at least hidden within a minute, to put it onto a moderator's post approval queue. Or then you can look at it from the other way. Users holding a grudge could force a ban by soliciting other users.
Basically, welcome to the real world on the internet.
Another thing is the post ratings. The same principles could easily apply to this.
Which by no means means that I'm against your idea; It sounds like a very intriguing and productive experiment.
Good luck, and I'm interested to hear what you have to say on this.

Mills
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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by Mills » Wed Nov 19, 2008 11:42 pm

I agree that it would be a bad idea to have public "banning" votes. My ideal situation would be for no banning to be necessary on the site at all, instead users could individually choose to "bump down" a post or user (if they were a persistant nuisance) and this would have the effect of limiting the visibility of the offending content. This could be done in a number of ways, for example by altering the size, colour or even position of the content in question along a continuum. At a certain threshold on the negative end of this continuum the post (or in the case of a user all their posts) would cease to appear in the threads they were a part of. I would like all posts like this to still remain part of the thread and viewable by any user who wanted to change their filters and do so, but I guess their might be legal considerations which make this impractical for certain kinds of undesirable content?

I also think anything which can be "bumped down" should have a "bump up" option, with a positive aggregate rating moving the content further up on the "visibility continuum"; and that certain aspects of the content should be rate-able along a number of criteria (e.g. importance, agreement).

With a high number of users tagging might become an option as well, but I'm not really familiar with this mechanism so can't say for sure... any ideas on this?

I also think opinion polls would play a larger role, and would like to introduce a "reflexive" opinion poll type. In this kind of poll only the question would be "locked-down" when the poll was created, with users able to add response options and these being subjected to the "bump up/down" mechanism for a certain period of time before the poll moved on to its active voting phase.

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by Mike.XIII » Thu Nov 20, 2008 12:14 pm

I have to admit, I only skimmed across your first post so I may not completely understand, but awhile back I found a MOD for a different forum solution you might be interested in implementing for phpBB.

http://lussumo.com/addons/index.php?Pos ... ddOnID=412

I liked the general idea of this MOD but since I don't use this forum software and I don't have the skills to make a phpBB version I've never gotten the chance to test it.

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by SamG » Thu Nov 20, 2008 3:38 pm

This isn't the first time I've seen this type of idea floated past the phpBB community (perhaps it is a university assignment somewhere?), so some of us old guys have had opportunity to think about it before. There are several entry points for evaluation, I think. In no particular order and without any attempt to be comprehensive, consider the following:

At a technical level, this would be no small undertaking. One practical result of the technical and funding challenges related to large scale information processing is distributed computing. The Internet itself is about decentralization. To centralize problem solving in the way you suggest is swimming upstream, both technically and fiscally.

Language is a natural, perhaps even healthy barrier. (Consider the Open Source procedure of using a variety of languages in naming conventions alone -- that is, ignoring academic examples of language borrowing to achieve precision. Ubuntu is a textbook example of an Open Source appeal to language to capture a specific, relevant philosophical position. The implication is that by common consent, no single language can sustain the breadth of human insight.) A single just (as in justice) virtual community based on phpBB and with appropriate language diversity is a nontrivial undertaking.

While the idea of bulletin board democracy sounds pleasant, experience may indicate that more is accomplished by specialized boards run by powerful moderators whose job description is brief -- keep all conversation strictly on topic, ban those who refuse to comply. The full history of the electronic bulletin board, which includes its pre-Web incarnation, is instructive, I think.

That's about it for now... :)
We should talk less, and say more.

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by dsavi » Thu Nov 20, 2008 5:16 pm

Mills wrote:[...] and that certain aspects of the content should be rate-able along a number of criteria (e.g. importance, agreement).
That raises a red flag right there. Agreement is a dangerous thing in a forum, again causing large amounts of tension and potentially creating huge flamewars, but only if it's in a statistical form like that that you suggested. I suggest you become a regular member of a medium-sized forum somewhere, could give you some insight on what can happen in these kind of situations.

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by Mills » Thu Nov 20, 2008 7:17 pm

Thanks for this, I was totally unaware of lussumo nevermind this addon, will try installing it on a test server tonight and having a play with it. There's actually a post-rating mod for phpBB already (PRS, by Alfatrion) which I've got working on my test server, and I was thinking of extending this to other aspects of content, but I currently lack the required skills.
This isn't the first time I've seen this type of idea floated past the phpBB community (perhaps it is a university assignment somewhere?)
This is encouraging, it re-enforces my thinking that considering this avenue of development is a kind of emergent property of modern society. By this I mean that there are underlying societal factors which are causing individuals to arrive at similar conclusions in isolation from each other (e.g. it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I discovered the term "Open Source Democracy" with a google search, up to that point I thought my ideas were unique to me!).

I doubt if there is a University assignment anywhere which would lead people to come here asking about this kind of idea (lol, I wish there was!).
At a technical level, this would be no small undertaking. One practical result of the technical and funding challenges related to large scale information processing is distributed computing. The Internet itself is about decentralization. To centralize problem solving in the way you suggest is swimming upstream, both technically and fiscally.
Very good point(s). I would effectively be relying on the community itself to meet the technical (and indeed fiscal) challenges associated with moving from "large" to "extremely large" numbers of users. I do however believe that if the initial configuration of the site was adequate for the purpose I intend then this kind of transition would be achievable. I don't foresee funding the project when it has a small, medium or even large number of users being a problem, its the technical challenges involved in making it work with medium-to-large numbers of users which concern me the most at present.

Regarding (de)centralisation and the internet, a friend has already raised this issue with me and its one of the more serious concerns I have about the project as a whole. I guess my answer is that I think the benefits of having something like this would far outweigh the cost associated with "swimming upstream".
Mills wrote:[...] and that certain aspects of the content should be rate-able along a number of criteria (e.g. importance, agreement).

That raises a red flag right there. Agreement is a dangerous thing in a forum, again causing large amounts of tension and potentially creating huge flamewars, but only if it's in a statistical form like that that you suggested. I suggest you become a regular member of a medium-sized forum somewhere, could give you some insight on what can happen in these kind of situations.
I was a very active member (and eventually moderator) on a medium-to-large sized forum back 6-10 years ago, and without that experience the project I'm discussing with you now would never have occurred to me. Admittedly though I haven't been involved in much on the internet since then, has the kind of activity taking place on discussion boards changed a lot in the last 5 years?

If I had a few hours (or maybe days!) to spend discussing this with you in person I am confident I could get across my understanding of the problems that would arise and the ways in which the system could be designed and configured to get around these. Unfortunately, the solutions I have in mind are themselves extremely complex. This renders the task of creating a post which could represent my ideas (in a way that was understandable to everyone) tantamount to impossible. If I thought this was an achievable goal I'd be working on it right now, but even if it were theoretically possible the resulting posts would be so long virtually nobody would read them.

Mills

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by SamG » Thu Nov 20, 2008 7:51 pm

Mills wrote:I think the benefits of having something like this would far outweigh the cost associated with "swimming upstream".
Since Open Source, by definition, is about collaboration (even in a relatively closed development project like phpBB), I mean something more than logistical issues by "swimming upstream," though I do mean those as well. You may be talking about something built on open source software, but you aren't talking about anything uniquely Open Source, I think. If true, the concept you are describing and the hurdles between here and there boil down to mere technical issues and support questions, it seems to me.
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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by Mills » Thu Nov 20, 2008 8:11 pm

You may be talking about something built on open source software, but you aren't talking about anything uniquely Open Source, I think.
Anything about the site could be changed with approval through the explicitly democratic control panel I mentioned; including modifications to the code its running from, enabling features to be added or removed as users decide. In theory you could add any modifications or additions you like, provided the majority of users backed you. This concept seems uniquely open source to me, but I am by no means an expert.

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by SamG » Thu Nov 20, 2008 8:30 pm

Consider the possibility that alternatives offered in existing models are even closer to Open Source, some of which I've already touched on: decentralization, distributed computing, localization, and freedom. As J.S. Mills (play on names intended :) ) observed, democracy can mean nothing better than the tyranny of the majority. There is no reason I can think of why swimming upstream will improve the interchange and evaluation of ideas for the purpose of problem solving.

But then, I'm not an expert either.

So let's use phpBB itself as a model for evaluation, praise and criticism alike, to improve our grasp of Open Source as a concept. Since phpBB is a non-democratic Open Source project, it qualifies as a real world discussion item to your purposes that offers the possibility of avoiding lengthy, complex, and specialized posts. Think about what phpBB.com would look like under your model, and think about what it does look like. I think phpBB as a project is instructive.
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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by Mills » Thu Nov 20, 2008 8:52 pm

Consider the possibility that alternatives offered in existing models are even closer to Open Source, some of which I've already touched on: decentralization, distributed computing, localization, and freedom. As J.S. Mills (play on names intended :) ) observed, democracy can mean nothing better than the tyranny of the majority. There is no reason I can think of why swimming upstream will improve the interchange and evaluation of ideas for the purpose of problem solving.
I think that if you want to discuss changing a society in ways which would ultimately effect everyone in it, then its important to have a mechanism whereby every member of that society can voice their agreement or disagreement with your proposals. This is important more for the discussion and development of ideas about society (which the site would be dedicated to), than for the functioning of the site itself; but I feel it would be beneficial to implement this principle at every possible level.

Mills

P.s. I edited the 7th paragraph of my first post to make it clearer what the site I'm looking to develop would be about.
Last edited by Mills on Thu Nov 20, 2008 9:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by 3Di » Thu Nov 20, 2008 9:06 pm

Woah, it was a long reading (done in four steps). :)

Okay, topic joined. :geek:
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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by greggish » Thu Nov 20, 2008 11:26 pm

I just wanted to add a word of encouragement here. Starting with phpbb v5, communal decentralized moderation features became default. This has enabled many forums across the web to behave in the way that Mills describes. http://www.phpbb.com/community/viewtopi ... 5#p7651125

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Re: phpBB as a starting point for an open source democracy?

Post by 3Di » Thu Nov 20, 2008 11:40 pm

greggish wrote:I just wanted to add a word of encouragement here. Starting with phpbb v5, communal decentralized moderation features became default. This has enabled many forums across the web to behave in the way that Mills describes. viewtopic.php?f=64&t=1285395#p7651125
Greeting and welcome to the Earth mate, thanks for the heads up. 8-)
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