Learning how to use a parliament: Interview with Carlo von Lynx (part I)

Carlo von Lynx is a member of the Berlin chapter of the German Pirate Party and of the Italian Pirate Party. A Pirate since 2009 (the year in which the German Pirate Party saw its membership spike from 1,000 to 11,000 members) Carlo remains a staunch supporter of Liquid Democracy and of its first working implementation, the software LiquidFeedback (LQFB). In this extended interview, which was held in Berlin in several rounds on June 7-9, 2017, Carlo gave me further insights on the inner workings of LQFB and on the political processes that the platform set in motion both in Berlin and at a national level.

In the first part of the interview, we focus on the software usability. In particular, von Lynx notes how, far from being an objective property of the UI design, usability can be facilitated by the particular motivations that users may have in using the software. Simply put, if users know that the stakes are high (i.e. the decisions are binding) they will be encouraged to learn the inner workings of the software even if they have relatively low digital skills. This suggests that a software affordance is never just an objective property of the software, but a third space (I call it a zone of indetermination) emerging at the intersection of the user subjective capacities and the material properties of technical systems.  

A second point that striked me is Carlo’s insight on how LQFB could be to allow those who want to amend a proposal to compete on an equal foot with the initiator of the proposal. Borrowing from the free and open source (FOSS) development process he calls this idea of having alternative proposals to compete side by side, a fork. Interestingly, I have used this same term in a theoretical article on technopopulism where I argue that LQFB sets in motion an agonistic politics of forking, by which I mean that the risk that your proposal may be slightly amended and duplicated forces initiators to retain a cooperative attitude towards potential and actual supporters–something that is typical of the FOSS development process–so as to attract resources (and brainpower) in order to compete with alternative initiatives on the same topic.

This means that these platforms do not only shape participation processes, but they also enable the emergence of distinctive technopolitical cultures, which appear to be translations of preexisting sociotechnical cultures such as the one of the FOSS development world.   Continue reading “Learning how to use a parliament: Interview with Carlo von Lynx (part I)”

Conference Announcement: The Direct Parliament

I am pleased to announce that on June 8, 2018, the COSMOS Center for Social Movement Studies at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence will host The Direct Parliament: The Impact of Digital Democracy on Political Representation, which will be the closing conference of this research project.

Bridging gaps between academic research and hands-on experience, The Direct Parliament will bring together scholars, software developers, and party activists from Spain, Germany, New Zealand, United States, and Italy to discuss a range of critical questions, including: the political values, or different conceptions of democracy, embedded in the design of participation platforms; the impact of digital democracy initiatives on the relationship between the represented and the representatives; the technological, political, and normative challenges to the extension and wider institutionalization of such initiatives; the transformation of the public sphere; and the pioneering role of digital parties such as the Italian Five Star Movement, the Spanish Podemos, and the German Pirate Party.

Here is the list of confirmed speakers, (some of which have been featured on this blog):


Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University


Richard Bartlett, Loomio (NZ)
Davide Casaleggio, Rousseau (IT)
Guido Boella, LiquidFeedback/WeGov (IT)
Simona Levi, X Party-X Net (ES)
Martin Haase, German Pirate Party (DE)
Moreno Yague, Podemos Andalusia, Democracia 4.0 (ES)
Enrica Sabatini, Movimento 5 Stelle (IT)
Sergio Arrojo, Podemos Participation Team, Participa (ES)
Marco Deseriis, Scuola Normale Superiore (IT)
Francisco Jurado, Universidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla (ES)
Michele Sorice, LUISS School of Government (IT)

The conference will be held in the Room Altana at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, which is located on the 5th Floor of the Scuola Normale Superiore, Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza Strozzi, Firenze.

I will post a definitive schedule on this blog in the upcoming weeks.

Stay tuned!

The Direct Parliament is the closing conference of the research project Scalable Democracy, which is coordinated by Dr. Marco Deseriis as part of a Marie Curie research grant funded by the European Commission.

On the Decline of Participation and Voter Turnout in Rousseau

Davide Vittori and Margherita de Candia have recently published an interesting analysis of the decline of online participation in Rousseau, the Five Star Movement’s participation platform. Their data, which shows the decline of the average number of voters in Rousseau both in absolute values and percentage values, is in line with previous data published by Lorenzo Mosca and Christian Vaccari as well as myself.

Davide Vittori and Margherita De Candia’s elaboration. Source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk


Davide Vittori and Margherita De Candia’s elaboration. Source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk

Vittori and De Candia do not really explain the causes of this decline. However, they seem to correlate it to a certain normalization–some may say institutionalization–of the FSM whose growing electoral consensus may curb the “participatory impetus” of the early phase of the Movement:

These descending trends and the low participation rate seem at odds with the initial claim that the Five Star Movement “has direct democracy in its DNA”. Hence, the question arises as to whether the party has become more interested in electoral consensus rather than citizens’ active participation. The former is not an unreasonable process in itself, but it shows that in less than four years the party has ‘normalised’ its participatory impetus.

If there is little doubt that the 5SM is undergoing a process of institutionalization–which is inevitable for a party that nears 30% in the polls and governs large cities such as Rome and Turin–here I would like to advance an alternative explanation of the causes of such decline.

Continue reading “On the Decline of Participation and Voter Turnout in Rousseau”

Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 3)

After their failed attempt to turn Plaza Podemos into a real engine for the development of Podemos’ political program Arana and other tech activists such as Pablo Soto and Yago Bermejo Abati joined the electoral platform of Ahora Madrid, which managed to win the 2015 city elections through a highly participated, citizen-driven political process known in Spain as the confluencia, which Arana briefly discusses in the third part of this interview.

Since September 2015 Arana has been in charge of  Decide Madrid the city participation portal, which has over 300.000 registered users. Through this website citizens can propose their own initiatives, engage in collaborative legislation, and vote on participatory budgeting projects for which the City has allocated €100 million in 2017 alone. As I previously reported, the first binding city referendums based on the new system were held in February 2017, and were a mixed bag of citizen initiatives and consultations that were launched by the city.

Screenshot of the Participatory Budgeting landing page of Decide Madrid (as of January 2018)

The two citizen initiatives on making Madrid 100% sustainable and the introduction of integrated ticketing for public transportation were based on proposals that passed the 1% support threshold an initiative must collect on Decide Madrid in order to be put through a city referendum. Because Madrid has 2.7 million eligible voters, the two proposals were initially backed by 27.000 city residents. It is Arana himself and his colleagues that have set this threshold after they had tried to introduce it without success in Podemos.

Continue reading “Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 3)”

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

Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 1)

Last year-–on March 16, 2017–I had a chance of interviewing via Skype Miguel Arana, who directs the Participation Project of the City of Madrid  (Proyecto de Participación del Ayuntamiento de Madrid) and overviews the participation portal Decide Madrid.

Image result for miguel arana
Miguel Arana, director of the Participation Project of the City of Madrid

Our conversation lasted 2 hours and half and touched on many topics, including the role that Arana played as a member of the Participation Team of Podemos back in 2014, when he, along with a few others, tried to convince the party leadership to transform the political proposals that were emerging out of Plaza Podemos (a highly participated discussion forum based on Reddit) into binding initiatives for the first Podemos congress, which was held in Vistalegre in October 2014. As I have previously noted on this blog in relation to the use of Loomio within Podemos, this attempt to let ordinary members determine the political direction of the party was openly rejected by the party leadership, which preferred to control the political process from above.

Of course this tension between what Richard Katz and Peter Meir call the party on the ground and the party in central office exists within every party, and I challenge anyone to find a single party where the party leadership voluntarily gives up its leading function. But the Podemos of 2014 appeared to many as a movement party, that is, a party that inherited, at least in part, the extraordinary participatory experience of the 15-M movement. Indeed not only many who had participated in that movement were now ready to engage in party politics, but also saw the Internet as instrumental to scaling up the Indignados’ assemblies from the local to the national without necessarily reducing the complexity and diversity of mass participation.

Continue reading “Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 1)”