What Gamers and Redditors Can Teach Us About Democracy

Illustration of a group of people with thought bubbles above their heads.
Seth Frey, a UC Davis assistant professor of communication, and colleagues at other universities are studying how groups create and enforce self-rule in a wide array of domains, including Frey’s focus: Reddit forums (called subreddits) and video games. (Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)
Portrait photo of UC Davis faculty Seth Frey
Seth Frey

Despite the ongoing threat of misinformation spreading online, UC Davis cognitive scientist Seth Frey still believes in the promise of the internet as a force for political and economic empowerment.

“I aim to foster democracy through the internet, one chat room at a time,” said Frey, an assistant professor of communication who researches self-governance in “designed societies” like sports matches, theme parks, multiplayer video games and online communities.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Frey and colleagues at three other universities a $460,000 grant to study how groups create and enforce self-rule in a wide array of domains, including Frey’s focus: Reddit forums (called subreddits) and video games.

“Governance systems, whether cooperatives or countries, are hard to study scientifically,” Frey said. “For example, the very policies and rules that are so important to understanding an institution have historically been some of the most inaccessible to scientists. Few frameworks exist for classifying rules, and those that do take tremendous manual effort to tame.”

Crunching data to foster civic engagement

Frey and his collaborators will apply machine learning methods in analyzing large collections of policies. They hope to better understand how policies are created and followed in domains as varied as informal clubs, judicial opinions and environmental regulations.

Frey said one of his overarching goals is to identify best practices from self-governing online communities to help foster civic engagement and effective governance — both online and offline. 

“Every day, I stumble upon inspiring online communities that are unwittingly giving self-directed citizens a crash course in democratic leadership,” Frey said.

Related stories

“Internet Communities Can Teach Amateurs to Build Personalized Governments,” UC Davis News, July 11, 2019

“How rants on social media can come back to haunt you,” University of California News, Nov. 1, 2018

“Just like pigeons, people tend to flock,” UC News, Sept. 27, 2018

“Poker Has a ‘Tell’ About Strategic Thinkers,” UConn Today, June 15, 2018