Sun 1 Mar 2015 5:04PM

Scaling Loomio, Functional Decision size?

AL Adam Lake Public Seen by 237

Hey All. I am interested to know what size group discussion Loomio can reasonably facilitate? I am interested in using Loomio for decision making of groups of people in the thousands to millions. It seems to me that Loomio would not currently be suited for such large scale group decision making. Is this true? And if so, what might be some new features to distill opinions of massive groups down to a decision? Liquid democracy comes to mind. If there is already a discussion or information on this, my apologies--please point me in the right direction. Thanks.


elaineX Sun 1 Mar 2015 9:36PM

I think the polling helps for mass numbers, the coordinating group deciding the polls and what decisions to make, i found with Occupy, it was only good for preconsensus groups already working in the same mindset. If a new idea or person joined in, it spiraled quickly into the defensiveness and an emotional unintelligent typical AOLforum. I don't think you can fix that with an algorithm! For our same page things, it very excellent to hash out formal proposals from sketch ideas.


naught101 Mon 2 Mar 2015 12:31AM

You can't fix anything with algorithms, but they can definitely help to mitigate problems. Of course, they can also cause more problems than they solve ;)

This is a pretty interesting question. I am under the impression from readings from many years ago that humans just aren't good at discussions at that scale - people start to become anonymous, because no-one can keep track of more than a few hundred people. Anonymity allows youtube-comment-itis: everyone can be an arsehole and get away with it. I think for organising at this scale, you're better off looking into some kind of confederalism - split the group up into smaller groups than can reasonably manage their own decisions. You can split the group along arbitrary lines, and can have cross-over (e.g. region-based and interest-based affinity groups).


Daniel Nephin Mon 2 Mar 2015 1:08AM

I am under the impression from readings from many years ago that humans just aren’t good at discussions at that scale

Humans aren't good at a lot of things, so we build technology to allow us to do those things better. It was not that long ago that humans were pretty terrible at communicating with other humans on the other side of the planet in realtime.

You can’t fix anything with algorithms

Completely agree, and I think this is one of those problems that you don't fix with algorithms. You fix it by improving the user interface.

The tools we have now (loomio included) aren't well suited for large scale discussions (in many cases they aren't even well suited for small scale discussions, but more for sharing random information). They don't address the problems you call out (youtube-comment-itis, conversations are hard to follow, etc), but I don't think these are unsolvable problems. We just haven't actually put much effort into solving them.

I think one of the major improvements will be changing how we think about discussion. A chronological sequence of posts just doesn't work at that scale. Discussions need to be able to flow organically without interfering with other threads of discussion. Instead of a linear sequence, a large scale discussion is more of a directed graph.

Tools like http://www.reddit.com/, and http://www.discourse.org/ have started to realize this and try to expose some of that structure, but I'm my opinion they don't go nearly far enough. You're still distracted by a lot of unrelated posts in different threads of discussion because they try and show you everything.

I think http://assembl.org/ is another step closer, but still under active development.

There was a bunch of related discussion in the Political use for Loomio thread.


Greg Cassel Mon 2 Mar 2015 1:12AM

The basic question of how big does Loomio scale is a great question, which the core team could probably give some opinions on here. I'll just opine on some non-technical matters.

Decisions can scale better than discussions, because some decisions require little if any discussion for the vast majority of potential participants. That's mostly a question of whether or not people are framing proposals that are truly within the shared interests of a large group. The shared interests of a large group are fewer than those of a subgroup.

If people can only be convinced to support something by way of intensive discussion, well then I think that doesn't scale well at all, nor IMO should it. I'm a bit radical here but I doubt I'm alone in that.

I have a pretty strong opinion on liquid democracy: I don't think people should delegate their votes to others on any long term basis. In fact I prefer for it to be on a decision-by-decision basis. Passive ongoing delegation of votes can lead to a lot of problems which, IMO, may end up looking an awful lot like the problems we already have.


Simon Tegg Mon 2 Mar 2015 3:41AM

@quentingrimaud might have some insights here.


Richard D. Bartlett Mon 2 Mar 2015 4:59AM

Personally the two models of scaling that I'm interested in are delegative & deliberative.

See Wikipedia on delegative democracy and Aaron Swartz on the deliberative model known as parpolity

DemocracyOS and Liquid Feedback are exploring the delegative model, where votes can be passed between people to form blocs of influence. I can imagine that being pretty awesome, and pretty problematic too.

Loomio is currently far down the deliberative end of the spectrum. We've stayed away from the "hard" problems that come with scale (e.g. identity verification) and are working on the difficult "soft" problems like teaching people to engage with each other respectfully in pursuit of shared understanding.

In my opinion any model is always going to end up with a relatively small group of people deliberating together in pursuit of consensus, so that's the point I've put my energy into. It seems like a pretty sure bet.

When we're talking about nation-scale decision-making, the problem with either electoral or delegative systems is that the point of citizen engagement is entirely discontinuous with the actual crux of governance: negotiation, compromise and consensus-building. Voting leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, it feels like I'm giving up my autonomy in the hopes that some jerk who I don't even know is going to exercise it in my interests.

Conversely, the deliberative model is fractal, self-similar at all scales, so the grassroots participants have an insight into what operations look like at the uppermost or innermost decision-making body. Participation is an enriching experience for the individuals, and it draws out collective intelligence greater than the sum of its parts.

There are something like 25,000 Podemos members using Loomio right now, in 1,000 different groups. It's pretty easy for me to imagine Loomio 2.0, where all those groups are associated together into one network. Imagine sending a proposal out to all the different groups in the network and seeing distinct deliberations underway in each local group, watching points of agreement or controversy or insight or initiative spreading virally throughout the network, everyone participating in their full autonomy and simultaneously contributing to a massive collective roar, or a song, a unity of unmerged voices.


Adam Lake Mon 2 Mar 2015 10:57PM

Thanks all for the quality feedback/input. I'll do some more research and post back at some point. I am developing a civic engagement platform and am looking at Loomio as part of the integrated set of tools.


Alanna Irving Wed 4 Mar 2015 5:17AM

@richarddbartlett can you please turn that gorgeous comment into a blog post?


Adam Lake Wed 4 Mar 2015 5:34AM

What about a version control system like github for collective documentation for functions such as public policy coauthoring, or group business plan writing for large groups? Not everyone would need to co-author, but hopefully many would vote on which versions they favor. This voting would steer the group toward the majority's version until some limit closest to consensus is met, perhaps. Maybe a version control wiki with a WYSIWYG editor.where the voting steers the direction of the documents evolution. You all know of functionality like that? I have seen some examples of people directly using github for co-authoring, but not with the voting intertwined. And for very large groups, I think liquid/delagative democracy makes a lot of sense. Yes, there is risk of people becoming complacent, but that is always a risk. At least once they start to see things going in a direction they don't agree with they can take their vote back, immediately.


Purple Library Guy Tue 7 Apr 2015 8:59PM

Hello. Apologies in advance for wall of text. I’ve been thinking about these issues for a while.
It seems to me that there are two problems of scaling. If anything the less serious one is how to make a decision involving huge numbers of people. The more serious one to me is, over millions of people there are too many decisions. Not everyone can be involved in all of them. How do we scale the use of Loomio-like direct democracy mechanisms to allow all the decisions to get made? How can we make all the decision-making direct and accountable without everyone spending 57 hours a day making them?
A few thoughts about the first problem. First, it seems to me that while on a smaller scale there are good reasons to favour consensus approaches to decision-making, when you get to a decision with huge numbers of people participating, while it would be good to retain some of the sensibilities of consensus approaches I don’t feel that actual consensus is a feasible way to do things. If you have twenty people you can work things out so you get a result everyone can live with, or even work things out so you have an everyone who will be able to work consensually together. If you have two hundred thousand, I suspect there will always be some who disagree.

Second, taking that as a background assumption, I also think that with that many people it becomes a bad idea to structure things so that voting is on one proposal. There will be many ideas, some will not be able to be assimilated into a single proposal or persuaded to back off. A mechanism for decision-making on a large scale would ideally accommodate voting among multiple options suggested by discussion participants. Otherwise the first mover would control the debate, and the structure would be very vulnerable to the whole “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, this must be done!” fallacy. I tend to favour a ranked ballot type setup for deciding among the multiple options, but there are lots of possibilities.
For really large decisions, this would also likely become unwieldy. With enough participants, you could end up with hundreds of proposals to choose among on a single decision topic. Many of them would be largely redundant. There would have to be some way of winnowing them down before the real decision was made. I envision a couple of things, first having some moderators who would look proposals over, try to figure which ones were functionally about the same and get the proposers together to draft a common unified version. And some kind of pre-decision dealie perhaps, where only the (some number of) proposals with the most “likes” or whatever actually got decided among in the end.
For me this problem, while difficult, has been less of an Achilles’ heel for egalitarians than the second problem, of decision overload.
The current approach divides decision-making hierarchically and among things like ministries, departments and so forth, such that top-level political representatives make very broad decisions and set the tone for those further down, who make decisions on less broad issues within their particular silos, and set the tone for those still further down in further-subdivided silos and so on. Eventually you get down to the majority of people who make very trivial decisions in very narrow contexts, or effectively no decisions at all. Those higher up can generally countermand the decisions of those below. Overall, an awful lot of people are involved in making decisions of some sort, and on average few are involved in each such decision. All of this is a result of a lot of practical compromises with the core organizational goal. In hierarchical decision-making, the ideal for those at the top would be for them to be in complete control, make all the decisions, and for everyone else to make none. This is physically impossible, but they do try, as terms like “Taylorism” and “micromanagement” attest.
One key objection to serious popular involvement generally in decision making is that if you radically expand the number of people involved in each decision on average, the total amount of time and effort devoted to the making of decisions greatly increases. And indeed, increases even more than the number of people, because of the very problems we’re discussing here; the more people who might have something to say, the more there is for each of the people involved to assimilate and potentially respond to, and so on. It’s a process of communication, and more people means more happens; without care it can be exponential.
But I think a lot of the problems with the ways decisions are currently made are more about the hierarchy and the silos than they are about the number of people actually making the decision. Hierarchy means those deciding are different from either those the decision impacts or, much of the time, those with knowledge of the issue, both of whom are generally lower on the totem pole than those deciding. Thus hierarchy also means those affected and those with knowledge cannot change the decisions. And of course people higher up, deciding what will happen to others, typically have different interests from those of the people they’re deciding for. Silos, the idea that a particular group owns a kind of decision and is allotted sole power over it but has no involvement in or power over other kinds which may be related, make all this worse—they further limit information and accountability, and widen divergences of interest.

None of these problems have much to do with the sheer number of people involved in the decision. It’s just that we think of it in a binary opposition: The opposite of elite/autocratic decision-making is decision-making by “the people”, and so we think in terms of everyone in general deciding. That would be the ultimate. I think for an egalitarian approach to decision-making, the practical compromises should not and need not involve a little limited re-introduction of hierarchy. Rather, we still need to split up decision-making but the split can be done horizontally. What’s needed is distributed decision-making, with groups making decisions about particular kinds of things, but flat groups open to entry on a voluntary basis by anyone who cares to, perhaps also deliberately inviting people with relevant expertise. Further, groups could nest, be broader or narrower. There will be a need for some decisions to see wider participation. Rather than someone higher in a hierarchy being able to countermand decisions from lower down, a broader group should be able to countermand the decisions of narrower groups that are part of it. And, a narrow group contemplating a decision should have a way for people in it to decide it’s too big and needs to be kicked out to the wider group.
So in this sense, the model I’m proposing remains the opposite of the hierarchy model in a sense. Rather than the big, wide decisions being made by the few at the top with decisions going narrower as they go down to the masses, the few big wide decisions would be made by pretty much everyone, the public at large, with narrower decisions made by smaller groups according to their interests (in both senses of that word).
We see something like distributed decision-making today in Free/Open Source software production; people decide what projects they will involve themselves in, if any, and a huge ecosystem of software has grown up this way. It has its shortcomings, though; many important but unnoticed niches end up with crucial work undone. In an actual full-blown society trying to make decisions this way, I might expect compensation through something analogous to jury duty—everyone might have to be involved in some minimum number of decision-making groups, and in addition to the ones you choose, there might be some sort of random assignment so that necessary but unsexy things got some attention.
(On a side note—Richard Bartlett mentioned Parpolity. Back when I first heard of it, I was expecting great things from Parpolity because I’m quite a fan of Parecon. Then I read through the basic proposals, and it strikes me as just a delegate model pretending not to be one. Worse, it’s multi-layer delegation, making those in the “top” layers even more distant than they are now. It seems much like the way the more unwieldy, unresponsive large union federations operate today. Not an improvement, not immune to capture by powerful interests, not the direction I’d like to see at all. This sort of committee-of-committees-of-committees model has been proposed many times, I think because starting from a single group that seems like the obvious way to generalize, and perhaps without technology it would be all that could be done. But I don’t think it stands up to serious thought and I am certain that we can do much better nowadays.)
Well. That’s my, rather more than two bits especially at today’s prices. I hope it’s in some way useful or thought-provoking to somebody.


Joum Tue 7 Apr 2015 9:37PM

A great lot of thoughts @purplelibraryguy. I hope you don't mind that I reposted it. The group is open if you wish to join and I am happy to remove it if you don't approve.



Purple Library Guy Tue 7 Apr 2015 10:24PM

Don't mind at all, to the contrary flattered.