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Emergent democracy refers to the rise of political structures and behaviors without central planning and by the action of many individual participants, especially when mediated by the Internet. More recently, Clay Shirky has referred to this as "the power of organizing without organizations." The term was coined to stand in contrast to more traditional forms of democracy, such as representational democracy and direct democracy. The phrase draws upon emergence theory for the idea that the simple actions of individuals can collectively create complex and unpredictable results, as when the behavior of termites results in large, efficient nests beyond the comprehension of any individual participant.
In the paper that first drew attention to the term, Joi Ito expresses a hope that the Internet, as a large and decentralized network, will enable innovative responses by citizens to highly complex problems. From its outset, emergent democracy has been seen arising most clearly among bloggers who, as a decentralized network of writers, can provide a fuller airing and development of ideas than can the relatively limited resources of traditional media. Supporters of the idea point to instances in which bloggers have brought about political change by posting about issues that mainstream media had not paid much attention to. The canonical example of emergent democracy was the December 2002 resignation of Trent Lott as Senate majority leader after bloggers publicized his praising of Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign for the presidency.
Ito had been vocal about issues with Japanese democracy, and had spoken at Davos about how broken he felt Japanese democracy was. "Afterwards, Ms. Ogata, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees told me that I should stop ranting as a Japanese and think more about global democracy and global issues," he posted. "These words stuck with me and last year I tried to think about blogs and emergent democracy outside of the Japanese context."  He organized a group effort to discuss and document the emergent democracy concept, using a term initially coined by Ross Mayfield. He announced meetings on his weblog, inviting his readers to attend a conference call that was augmented by IRC chat for posting realtime visual cues and backchannel conversation, and a wiki for gathering notes from the call. This "multimodal" approach was called a "happening" by Ross Mayfield. The conversation resulted in Ito's online article that generated discussions about the potential for weblogs and other social software tools to have an impact on participation in governance. The discussion and notes were captured in a paper that was placed on a wiki for collaborative editing and enhancement. Jon Lebkowsky edited the wiki version, and published it as a chapter in the 2005 book Extreme Democracy. A "teach-in" on that topic was held on February 9, 2004 as part of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. The emergent democracy paper was incubated within the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies framework along with Tim O'Reilly's "What is Web 2.0"; the two can be considered as seminal works that influenced the emergence of today's social web.
- List of politics-related topics
- Direct democracy
- Open source governance
- Second Superpower
- Shirky, Clay (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The Penguin Press HC. p. Subtitle. ISBN 1-59420-153-6.
- Joi Ito (2003-02-13). "a "EmergentDemocracyPaper"". Retrieved March 5, 2007.
- Gillmor, Dan (2006). We the Media. O'Reilly. ISBN 0-596-10227-5.
- Gillmor, pp. 44–45
- Shirky, pp. 61–66
- Joi Ito (2004-02-22). "Caring about the rest of the world". Retrieved February 22, 2004.
- Joi Ito (2003-04-29). ""happening" on "emergent democracy"". Retrieved March 5, 2007.
- Lebkowsky, Jon (2005). Extreme Democracy. Lulu.com. ISBN 1-4116-3139-0.
- O'Reilly Publishing (2004-02-09). "Digital Democracy Teach-In". Retrieved February 9, 2004.
- Extreme Democracy: A Collection of papers on Emergent Democracy and related concepts
- Emergent Democracy, pdf of Jon Lebkowsky's edit of the paper that resulted from the Emergent Democracy discussions.
- Demosphere Project—The wiki & global project to develop a community based democratic framework using open source and interactive software.
- O'Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-In
- Nodal Politics