Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 2)

In the first part of this interview, Miguel Arana made some critical observations about the limits to the scalability of direct democracy via digital tools. In the 15-M the penetration of ad hoc tools such as Propongo and N-1 was quite limited as compared to mainstream social network sites. For a mass movement with a radically inclusive ethos such as the 15-M this must have been an issue because the vast majority of participants would not accept decisions coming out of contexts they were unaware of or unable to participate in.

I would add that all social movements of the 2011 wave had trouble taking collective decisions because of the lack of a stable membership, the constantly evolving configuration of assemblies and working groups, and the emphasis on consensus. (By this, of course, I do not mean that these movements were unable to make collective decisions–just that arriving to common decisions was a very elaborate process).  If we add that websites such as Propongo and N-1 did not embed any identity verification protocol, it is easy to see why this informal digital layer could exist in parallel to the movement on the ground but without having any real decision-making power.

This is how Arana put it:

[In the Indignados] even when you say, “ok, these are the ideas”, it’s difficult then to say what we do with these ideas, because there is not like the head of the movement or an executive group that takes the idea and does something with it. . . . Even when we agreed that these were the ideas of the 15M (and they were not) it’s difficult in such kind of movements to do something. If we could have something more complex than Propongo, that maybe was not just focused on the proposals, but also helping to organize us all every day maybe it could have been used as some kind of organizational method, like ‘what can we do now?’ and then people propose, vote and do it. Maybe if it was structured like a kind of a permanent global forum of the movement to take decisions, it would have had more impact.

In theory, this kind of organizational issues could be solved, few years later, in Podemos, which has a defined membership, established decision-making procedures, and formal executive bodies. Indeed, as Arana argues in the second part of the interview, the idea was to pass the most popular proposals discussed in Plaza Podemos to Participa Podemos so that they could be voted on by Podemos’ registered members. (Podemos verifies the identity of its members through a cell phone number, not a perfect system, but certainly more accurate than identity verification on Reddit). As we have seen, however, this proposal failed because of the party leadership’s opposition to lowering the support threshold for citizen initiatives before the Vistalegre Congress of 2014. Here is how Miguel and I kept discussing this issue.

Related image
A screenshot of Ask Me Anything with Pablo Echenique on Plaza Podemos

MD. Ordinarily Reddit is not associated to political parties, so Plaza Podemos was a pretty unique case in the world.  As you know, Reddit supports this multi-threaded conversations that can become quite complex, especially when you start developing multiple subthreads for each topic. But within a political party, especially if you are working on developing a political program, there is a moment in which discussions must be translated into decisions (and eventually into actions and policy changes, ideally). But Reddit is not really designed to make decisions. For example, LiquidFeedback is designed to have a discussion phase, but then after a certain amount of time people have to vote. The software is designed to make a group come to a decision (and so is Loomio). So I was wondering whether people started using Reddit to make decisions even though the software was not really intended for that purpose, whether you have developed some mechanisms to say, “Ok, this discussion now will reach a final moment, a moment in which we will decide something.” Or did the conversations just kept going and then kind of organically found their way to the party platform?

MA. The thing is that tools like LiquidFeedback are really designed theoretically to reproduce the way the things happen, debates or in life, in general never work. They are never used by communities, never used massively, never produce effects because even if they are well designed it is only a theoretical design, it is not designed with the real world. So you cannot force the people to go through some stages or through some moments that maybe are not the natural way for people to debate or discuss. So, our idea, and especially considering such an open movement as it was Podemos in the beginning, with the Circles, or all this kind of new political movements that are in the world.

These are very fluid and open movements and the potential of the movement is this quality. It is not the structure of the movement, it is not only that they are a lot of people, is that there are a lot of people and they are quite free and that could really be a mess, but there could also sometimes be a perfectly designed group to do something. And Reddit in that sense worked perfectly, because it doesn’t introduce some specific steps, some specific structure, it just lets the people control absolutely the debate space and lets them also organize themselves by voting, by debating, to produce things that are most supported, that had reach at debates, but in the sense that they want. So the intelligence of the space emerged. We let the space quite open, but with a lot of features that really let this collective intelligence emerge.

So this lets you have a day-by-day clear idea of what the people wanted, and how they felt about the issues, and what kind of proposals they had to solve the issues. For example, when we went to Vistalegre 1 a lot of people understood that it was absolutely a mess and everything was decided by the leaders. So a lot of people started to organize in Reddit to solve the Vistalegre problem. For example, to organize the documents, to be able to find the ones that were similar, to unify the documents that were similar, to propose that maybe in Vistalegre we should not vote the party documents but we should vote on the main problems that were in Podemos–and just decide about the problems, not the documents. So a real intelligence on how to solve the problems of Podemos began to manifest itself. Of course, since the leaders of the party didn’t care about this intelligence they didn’t use it. But if they would have had an interest in using this source of ideas, intelligence, collaboration and everything, then you could have canalized it, you could have channeled it towards something a bit more structured. For example, one of the main ideas that we had was this Participa website…

MD. Do you mean Participa Podemos?

MA. Yes, the idea was that all the proposals that had some level of support on Reddit could jump to Participa and then you could support them and finally vote. So then you have a clear decision, it is a clear debate, a bit more structured. But it was put like on top of Reddit, so a first phase of real collective intelligence is Reddit, and then we can do things with this kind of things.

[end of excerpt]

Before discussing how Arana implemented some of these ideas through the Decide Madrid portal, I am going to make two observations.

First, the Reddit discussion on how to “solve the problems in Podemos” is a debate that you would typically find in a social movement such as Occupy or 15-M, not in a political party. In a political party, the ruling group is generally in charge of solving the problems, and the party base is left with the task of providing suggestions. This is not to say that the Plaza Podemos discussions were worthless, but it seems to me that this kind of discussion demonstrates precisely why the leading group of Podemos did not want to empower the party base.

Perhaps this kind of discussion would have been welcomed in a movement party such as the X Party, which was much more open to networked participatory processes, and was seen by many as the true heir of the 15-M. However, the lack of a charismatic and recognizable leadership in the X Party made it difficult for this formation to get its message across. Podemos’ challenge was precisely to strike a balance between the the charismatic leadership of its ruling group and the open nature of participatory technopolitics. In this respect, it is a shame that the latter was largely sacrificed by the former with the rationale that Podemos needed to deliver a consistent electoral message.

Second, Arana’s criticism of LiquidFeedback as an excessively structured software is worth reflecting upon. However, LiquidFeedback was used among the German Pirates, mainly in Berlin, but not only. My interviewees generally deny that LiquidFeedback was too abstract or difficult to use. As I have previously noted on this blog, the proposal to make a binding use of LiquidFeedback also met significant political resistance within the German Pirate Party, especially at a federal level. In this respect, if the experience of Plaza Podemos in Spain and the experience of LiquidFeedback in Germany have something in common is that in both cases party leaders were against empowering the party base via the use of these tools.

In this respect, I am not sure whether the criticism of LiquidFeedback as an excessively structured decision-making software–a software that would prevent the development of organic and spontaneous deliberative pocesses–is well founded. Certainly, CONSUL–the participation software that runs the Decide Madrid decision-making process–as well as several other portals for citizen participation in Spain, is much less structured than LiquidFeedback. Arana and I discussed some of the features of CONSUL in the third part of this interview.

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