Order of Multitudes

Is the internet a democratic space?

Scholars who pose this question understand it in two distinct ways. Some scholars ask if the internet is democratic in the sense of allowing its users equal opportunities for public self-expression regardless of their race, class, gender, or economic status. Digital media promise such equality, but do they actually achieve it? Others ask if the internet is democratic in the sense of being supportive of, and compatible with, the institutions and traditions that support contemporary democratic states, given that these institutions and traditions tend to presume representative, rather than direct, forms of democracy.

Theoretically, anyone could create a blog or a Facebook account. But, some voices receive more support and recognition from other internet users than other voices. The distribution of online likes and shares tends to form something called a Pareto curve. Most posts receive very little attention; a very small percentage of posts attracts the vast majority of attention. Sharad Goel and his collaborators at Stanford University analyzed Twitter and showed that these few viral posts do not tend to emerge at random.

Instead, large online news outlets and celebrities direct most of the daily traffic on social media platforms. Twitter is only one platform among many, of course, but the example of Twitter confirms many scholars’ fears that the internet is not more democratic than traditional media. Gatekeepers and attention bottlenecks do not really go away online; they merely reappear in this new digital environment in changed guises. Amid these gatekeepers and bottlenecks, old patterns of social bias reassert themselves. For example, women’s comments tend to be shut down more virulently than men’s; the rich can afford better online publicity and reputation maintenance services; people of color and LGBTQ minorities suffer harassment and marginalization online as well as in “real” social spaces.

When the Internet first got started, many hoped that its inner mechanisms would work against such biases. However, at least as of right now, that hasn’t happened. Scholars who consider this issue wonder how much of these anti-democratic tendencies are structural, baked into the architecture of the internet in a way that can only be amended through constant, conscious monitoring and intervention. Of course, everyone cannot attend to everyone else all at the same time—but what would it mean for these distributions of attention to be as unbiased as possible? The movement to “decolonize” the internet is one such effort to undo these forms of bias, by promoting accurate representations of marginalized groups and their histories and seeking to draw attention to the voices and perspectives of those who belong to these groups.

Scholars also ask whether online communication and expression are conducive toward, or corrosive of, democracy as a system of state institutions and citizens’ expectations about governance. Around the world, democracies have traditionally followed a representative model: citizens elect representatives to whom they entrust their values and interests. Nadia Urbinati also argues that this representative system gives society more time and space for public reflection and open-ended debate, “teas[ing] apart” “the time between will and judgment.” Does the internet’s greater immediacy and directness, which privileges rapid, emotional opinion-formation and decision making, paradoxically make our politics less democratic and easier to manipulate by charismatic authoritarian leaders? Many political theorists, including Yasha Mounk, Evgeny Morozov, Urbinati, and others, wonder whether that might be the case.


Marta Figlerowicz

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Yale University

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Marta Figlerowicz

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. Her research articulates a counter-tradition to aesthetic individualism in Western art and literature. Her work connects this history from the seventeenth century to our contemporary digitally-mediated moment. Her first book, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford University Press, 2016), discusses an odd group of characters found across the long history of the French and British novel whose construction simplifies in the course of a narrative, instead of deepening or expanding. Her second book, Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Cornell University Press, 2017), studies representations of intersubjective affective awareness in American, British, and French fiction and poetry. She is currently developing two new projects: a scholarly examination of the non-individualist phenomenology of contemporary digital media called Myths of Obscurity: The Self in the Age of Integrated Media and a popular audience book on global histories of selfhood. She also writes literary and cultural criticism for publications such as The Washington Post, n+1, Cabinet, Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Yale Review, Logic, and Boston Review.

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