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| It doesn't stop|
at the water's edge
“”What's the matter, you dissentious rogues, that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion make yourselves scabs?
|—William Shakespeare, Coriolanus|
Mobocracy (literally "rule by the mob") is a layman's version of the term ochlocracy (Greek: οχλοκρατία), where the will of the majority rules, and disputes are often settled by brute force or the sheer weight of people. Another word is majoritarianism, for obvious reasons. The term "mobocracy" has been in use since the 18th century, often used as a pejorative description of democracy.
It is sometimes used to describe anarchism, but it's debatable whether mobocracy is a form of anarchy as one group is seen to legitimately rule over others by whim. Not even anarchy is this anarchistic.
On the Internet
Mobocracy can be considered to be the ruling principle of sites like Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia has rules which must be followed to regulate the behavior of users and the content of its articles, it is generally "run" by mass consensus. Votes are occasionally used, implying some level of democracy, but are generally discouraged in favour of discussion. Again, this idea is enforced by the mass consensus that this idea is a Good Thing.
Apart from wiki projects, which tend to borrow Wikipedia's philosophies, few community websites explicitly run on mobocracy-type systems of anarchic self-government and self-regulation. Usually, control is held by only a select few staff and admins who patrol and control content. As a result, normal users lack the power to partake in the mob. Intentionally anarchic imageboards such as 4chan are a notable exception, and are about as close to literal mob-rule as possible... except for all the janitors, mods, and admins. Okay, it might not be a mobocracy, but it's pretty desolate.
Mobocracy is the openly stated governing principle of RationalWiki. In this case, however, its use is part snark and (most likely) part laziness on behalf of the site's founders. It certainly has no basis in the violence associated with mob-rule "IRL."
How it works
The mobocracy in this respect means that users, by bickering, shouting, unilateral actions, complaints about unilateral actions, and ad hoc voting eventually reach a mass consensus. This consensus eventually forms a general site policy - which is subject to being overturned or ignored by the mob at any time - that is documented in the Community Standards page. The drawback to this is the difficulty in actively involving every single user in policy discussions, but it does mean that there are no "better" classes of user who can make unanswerable decisions. Even elected moderators can be called out for being asshats.
It seems that nobody fully remembers how RW became a "mobocracy," as there is no history on the site describing the development. One common theory is that RationalWiki is a reactionary ochlocracy in response to the Conservapedian totalitarian dictatorship, which itself may have been reactionary to the Wikipedian ochlocracy. In Autumn 2008 a debate about the mobocracy produced the following theories from various founder members:
- AKjeldsen: I think the basic idea of the mobocracy goes all the way back to the earliest days of RW 1.0, or even before that. It was mostly a counter-reaction to the power abuse of the CP sysops.
- Bob M: I honestly can't remember if we debated the issue, and I can't seem to find any history. My impression is that although Trent is the site owner he didn't want to dominate the site, and so he gave it to the users. Given that it was his to give I don't think there was any debate on it. But this is just my impression - I can't find diffs to back it up.
- PalMD: If we think back a little bit, the term "mobocracy" was originally imposed on us by certain people, the most important of whom shall remain nameless. Like "fag," "dyke" and other similar epithets, it was adopted and it's [sic] meaning co-opted by the, er, mob. We we're [sic], as AK says, never a mobocracy as such (except as RW 1.0 perhaps). Our rules have generally worked well, even in HCM. My 2 cents.
- Tmtoulouse: I was one of the main architects in setting up a lot of the phrases, guidelines, and the like that have been used to define the "governance" of this site. I was not the only one by any means, and a lot of it was developed in a zeitgeist that has probably left. Much of what was established was a reaction against our experience at CP and a desire to try a Web 2.0 experiment that was different than "established" wikis.
- Human: It started on RW 1.0, which was sheer mayhem anyway. The "rulelessness" was continued onto RW 2.0. Since the mob has no rules on how to change (or implement, for that matter) any rules, it has been fairly self-perpetuating.
- See also: RationalWiki:Cabal. There is no cabal.
Per The Tyranny Of Structurelessness, hierarchy tends to emerge in human interactions; the hazard of express anti-hierarchy is that the structure forms out of sight, instead of where people can keep an eye on it. In ochlocracy/mobocracy, this usually leads to rule not necessarily by a majority consensus, but by the most persistent, aggressive, and ballsiest people. On the internet, these are the people with the time to stay up late and keep posting long after everyone else has had enough, and in the real world it usually refers to anyone with the most guns.
Claimed mobocracies develop so they are actually run by intricate and unmapped social hierarchies. This can lead to people being upset when they discover that the promised non-hierarchy is a lie, and accusations of structural hypocrisy, conspiracy, groupthink and so on. The advantage of democracy, then, is that the hierarchy is open, accountable, and restricted by the people (or at least those within the voting franchise).
So, all human all SNAFU as usual, then. There's always a social hierarchy.