Governable Spaces: Democratic Design for Online Life

Governable Spaces cover

February 2024, University of California Press

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When was the last time you participated in an election for a Facebook group or sat on a jury for a dispute in a subreddit? Platforms nudge users to tolerate nearly all-powerful admins, moderators, and “benevolent dictators for life.” In Governable Spaces, Nathan Schneider argues that the internet has been plagued by a phenomenon he calls “implicit feudalism”: a bias, both cultural and technical, for building communities as fiefdoms. The consequences of this arrangement matter far beyond online spaces themselves, as feudal defaults train us to give up on our communities’ democratic potential, inclining us to be more tolerant of autocratic tech CEOs and authoritarian tendencies among politicians. But online spaces could be sites of a creative, radical, and democratic renaissance. Using media archaeology, political theory, and participant observation, Schneider shows how the internet can learn from governance legacies of the past to become a more democratic medium, responsive and inventive unlike anything that has come before.


“A prescient analysis of how we create democratic spaces for engagement in the age of polarization. Governable Spaces is new, impeccably researched, and imaginative.”—Zizi Papacharissi, Professor of Communication and Political Science, University of Illinois at Chicago

“This visionary book points a way to scrapping capitalist realism for community control over our digital spaces. Nathan Schneider generously brings together disparate wisdom from abolitionists, Black feminists, and cooperative software engineers to spark our own imaginations and experiments.”—Lilly Irani, author of Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India

“Tackles profound questions of how communities should govern themselves offline and online, engaging with scholarship from feminist theory to blockchain governance. This dizzying array of topics pulls readers out of their comfort zone and forces a novel look at very old questions. These juxtapositions invite us to forget what we know about governance and reconsider basic questions of how consensus, consent, dialogue, and deliberation can scale from small groups to entire nations.”—Ethan Zuckerman, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Communication, and Information and Computer Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst