Joho the Blog » The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way

The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way

Jay Rosen has a great post, full of links (because Jay practices what he preaches about transparency) on the popular article that keeps getting written that argues that Twitter does not topple dictators. By the time Jay is done exposing the predictable pattern those bogus articles take, you will not be able to take them seriously ever again. For which we should thank Prof. Rosen.

One extremely fruitful place the conversation can move to is Zeynep Tufecki’s fabulous post on why leaderless networks tend to develop leaders. “Preferential attachment” just tends to have that outcome, as much for political leaders as for bloggers (as per Clay Shirky’s famous “power law” argument). Zeynep writes, for instance:

It is not enough for the network to start out as relatively flat and it is not enough for the current high-influence people to wish it to remain flat, and it is certainly not enough to assume that widespread use of social media will somehow automatically support and sustain flat and diffuse networks.

On the contrary, influence in the online world can actually spontaneously exhibit even sharper all-or-nothing dynamics compared to the offline world, with everything below a certain threshold becoming increasingly weaker while those who first manage to cross the threshold becoming widely popular.

Zeynep’s analysis and presentation are brilliant. I come out of it only wondering if the almost-inevitable clustering around particular nodes is an indicator of leadership, and, if so, how much that itself changes the nature of leadership. That is, the fact that Wael Ghonim and Mohamed El-Baradei are likely to gain many, many Twitter followers, and to loom large in Web link maps makes them important social media personalities. But Ashton Kutcher by that measure is also important. Kutcher (because there is a God who loves us) is not a leader. But Ghonim and El-Baradei are. This seems to me to be a very different sense of leadership, indicating a serious change in the mechanics and semantics of leadership.

 


[The next day:] Paul Hartzog responds, criticizing Zeynep’s assumptions for presenting “one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.”

7 Responses to “The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jean Burgess and Richard Smith, Sally Freeman. Sally Freeman said: RT @smith: David Weinberger's reading of Jay Rosen on "leaderless networks" and understanding twitter power. Well done. http://bit.ly/fyHz8P [...]

  2. [...] The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don&… [...]

  3. the problem I have with the “twitter can topple dictators” idea
    is that it s like saying that Nokia was responsible for the “sms revolution” in the philippines in 2001

    can we say is digital peer to peer communication that is doing the trick ?
    or we will be forced to call a revolution for every single platform that will succeed, and there are many to come for sure

  4. David,

    It dismays me to see people like Zeynep Tufecki lapse into tired complex systems rhetoric to present a biased picture of networks and organic systems.

    Time and again we see the standard responses: preferential attachment, the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer), the supposedly “iron law” of oligarchy, the evolution of power laws.

    It is disingenous to present one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.

    By way of example, imagine airports. As the global network of air traffic increases, a small world network evolves in which most air traffic goes through particular hubs. Those dynamics are well known.

    BUT, those hubs cannot grow indefinitely. The “rich” cannot get infinitely “richer.” There are limits. Complex systems reach built-in homeostatic limits that cause them to evolve to the “edge of chaos,” a dynamic balance which is neither “too little” nor “too much.”

    In other words, there are upper thresholds AND lower thresholds. I have shown this graphically in a post about carrying capacity here: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/understanding-carrying-capacity/2010/07/01

    ( I think I’m going to blog this response in other locations also, since it continually dismays me to see complex systems so frequently and badly misrepresented.)

  5. [...] Also posted as a response on David Weinberger’s blog here: http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2011/02/14/the-twitter-doesnt-topple-dictators-cliche-undone-but-lea… [...]

  6. More thoughts,

    Flocks and swarms can be said to have a member who is “out in front” but not necessarily a leader. Furthermore, when the group changes in response to its environment, a different “leader” emerges.

    I posted all of this over here as well: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/misrepresenting-complex-systems/2011/02/15

  7. Joho the Blog » The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone…

    Joho the Blog » The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way…

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