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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.”

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