I have been talking for some time about a split between formal and informal participation in democracy. I draw this distinction in order to show the difference which acts which are politically aware but not linked to a formal decision making process (ie informal participation) and formal acts which are in some way connected to the rule of law and mandated in some way. This is my own distinction and one which I have looking for an external reference for as it seems to me to be a useful distinction – especially when talking about social networking sites. Increasing user participation online has the potential to bring with it increased informal democratic participation and this has been evidenced by many successful online campaigns by lobbying groups. What is not yet clear is where this participation can be linked into the formal decision making process and it is this link which is missing should you want to try and use an increase in informal participation to improve formal democratic activity.
One of the many difficulties in doing this is in addressing the inherent bias towards direct democracy that this informal participation brings and a need to address the role of the representative in this model. While it is tempting to get on with work that strengthens any kind of democratic activity to do so without taking into account our representative democratic structure is storing up trouble for the future where effective informal participation becomes a stronger voice than the formal democratic structures and these are either required to evolve or to be made irrelevant.
This is one of the points that Manuel Castells is making in this article “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society” where he talks about the need for new democratic structures to evolve. He is discussing this in relation to the rise of mass media but this is a point which is also well made with respect of the social web.
The warning here is the idea that at some point working outside of formal democratic spaces is a short route to mob rule.