A Drafting Committee of Thousands

Is it possible to scale a small group discussion into a conversation among hundreds or even thousands of people? One of the more interesting new software tools for online collaboration is MixedInk, a platform that enables large numbers of people to work together to develop a single document. "Many people, one voice," is the site’s tagline. The software is a fascinating new vehicle for forming and governing online commons.

MixedInk software is a combination of a wiki and a recommendation system. It lets a large collective efficiently identify its most popular proposed texts for a given purpose — say an op-ed, a letter to the editor, a petition text or a mission statement — and then lets the group forge a consensus about which text best reflects the group will. A short video explaining the process can be watched here.

MixedInk formally aspires to "allow organizations and informal groups to harness the collective wisdom and power of their stakeholders, empower communities to mobilize, dissent constructively, develop consensus and affect change, and further democratize the production and distribution of information and opinion on the Internet."

It’s unclear how successful its platform will ultimately be, but so far it has been used by the White House to let citizens draft collective policy recommendations for the Open Government Directive. The Associated press used the software to collect readers’ viewpoints for and against Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination as Supreme Court justice. In the weeks before President Obama’s inauguration, Slate magazine asked its readers to write their own People’s Inauguration Address Bloggers and other progressives who consider themselves part of the "Netroots" used MixedInk to prepare a Netroots Platform, portion of which was included in the Democratic Party’s 2008 platform.

DailyKos, the progressive political website, is now using MixedInk to let its registered users collectively review and rewrite two basic rules of community conduct for dealing with "trolls" (people who post inflammatory or off-topic material online):

Do not troll rate someone you are actively having a fight with. If you are in a heated argument with someone, you should not be judging whether or not what they say is trollworthy. Leave it to others to decide what behavior is or isn’t over the line….

Do not give retaliatory troll ratings. If you get what you believe to be an undeserved troll rating, do not retaliate. Leave it to others to decide if the rating was abusive. It is begrudging community practice to respond to an undeserved troll rating by troll rating the ratings abuser, thus reducing their own level of “trustedness” and making them less able to abuse ratings in the future. But don’t do it unless you are absolutely positive the original rating was abusive — and I mean 100% positive. And never do it if you’re the one that got troll rated. I repeat: do not troll rate fights that you yourself are in.

DailyKos plans to see how its members regard these rules, and whether they should be modified in some way. If the experiment succeeds, it plans to let its membership review and rewrite other community rules.

While MixedInk is probably useful in some contexts and less so in others, it’s encouraging to see such imagination and effort in developing new tools for commons-building. This is an important frontier.