Book of the Week: Cyberchiefs (2): a typology of online governance

We continue the presentation of the landmark study of peer governance, i.e.

Book: Cyberchiefs. Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes. Mathieu O’Neil. Macmillan/Pluto Press, 2009.

This excerpt makes for a little more complex reading, but show the interpretative scheme used by the author, to understand various subtypes of peer governance.

Mathieu O’Neill, from chapter 4:

“Since the mid-to-late 1990s and the democratisation of Internet access, non-technically able users have joined in online information sharing and cooperative work. In today’s Web 2.0 environment, the range of those who exercise technical control has dramatically risen. Examples dealt with in this book include Wikipedia articles and progressive political weblogs. Figure 1 presents a spatial representation of the field of online authority in the form of four quadrants intersected by two main axes of charisma and sovereignty. Online tribes are positioned in the quadrants according to the structure of their authority relations.


The top-left quadrant is empty as it corresponds to the space of governementality: that is, popular sovereignty with no autonomy. An example would be the online networks developed by political candidates to give their supporters the impression that grassroots activism is taking place.

The schematic representation of the space suggests that online authority regimes do not exist in a perfectly pure state, but rather in various forms of combinatory amalgamations. Since sovereign and charismatic authority tend to contradict one another, can we expect to find an especially high occurrence of conflicts in the top-left quadrant, where the overlap is the strongest? And what are the consequences of rejecting all forms of authority, as in the bottom-left quadrant? An important question for understanding online authority concerns the passage from autocratic systems based on charismatic authority to democratic systems based on sovereign authority, as occurred in LambdaMOO, or in the Debian free software community. What factors enhance or prevent the emergence of more democratic forms? If the quest for justice is a driver of a change in authority regimes, why does the contestation of archaic force on weblogs not lead to the development of sovereign authority?

A central tenet of pragmatic sociology’s focus on action is that research should endeavour to determine how online authority is justified in situation. To this end, the following four chapters propose case studies of online tribes, which will serve to illustrate the different positions in the space of online tribalism as represented in figure 1. The four tribes are: radical anarcho-primitivist websites and forums (lower-left quadrant); progressive political weblogs (lower-right quadrant); the Debian free software mailing lists and the English Wikipedia wiki and mailing lists (upper-right quadrant). As mentioned above, the upper-left quadrant is tribeless. The analysis will compare the four tribes in terms of three main parameters: project and space, authority structure, conflicts and enemies. These categories are briefly presented in the remainder of this chapter.

Project and space. How does the project embody autonomy? What kind of computer-mediated communication is it, what technical possibilities are available for ordinary users? In terms of participation, how does recruitment operate, what kind of contract is offered to new entrants – what are their roles, duties and privileges? How are boundaries maintained? Finally, how do tribes deal with the embedding of online autonomy in network capitalism?

Authority Structure. What is the relationship between expertise (learned authority) and leadership (administrative authority)? To what extent is charismatic or sovereign executive authority distributed? What are the tools of governance, such as norms and rules, monitoring, adjudication, and enforcement mechanisms? Is authority strong, weak or inconsistent?

Conflicts and enemies. Since antagonism is central to tribal activity, a particular focus of analysis will be conflicts. Rules regulate the integration of patches or the positions of people. Conflicts, triggered by the application, justification or absence of rules, are the means by which people affirm their adherence to, or rejection of, the rules and the authority order which they underpin. A central concern will be the role of enemies. The definition of outside enemies is vital to coalesce project cohesion and exclusionary boundaries. This is all the more the case when projects experience internal conflict: outside enemies will help to reinforce project solidarity.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.