On the relationship between leaderless peer networking and hierarchical structures: the case of Egypt

Networks which start out as diffuse can and likely will quickly evolve into hierarchies not in spite but because of their open and flat nature.

A very important thinkpiece by Zeynep Tufekci warns us against a too easy equation between p2p networks and leaderlessness.

Zeynep Tufekci:

“Many commentators relate the diffuse, somewhat leaderless nature of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia (and now spreading elsewhere) with the prominent role social-media-enabled peer-to-peer networks played in these movements. While I remain agnostic but open to the possibility that these movements are more diffuse partially due to the media ecology, it is wrong to assume that open networks “naturally” facilitate “leaderless” or horizontal structures. On the contrary, an examination of dynamics in such networks, and many examples from history, show that such set-ups often quickly evolve into very hierarchical and ossified networks not in spite of, but because of, their initial open nature.

This was the revolution of a networked public, and as such, not dominated by traditional structures such as political parties or trade-unions (although such organizations played a major role, especially towards the end). I have also written about how this lack of well-defined political structure might be both a weakness and a strength.

A fact little-understood but pertinent to this discussion, however, is that relatively flat networks can quickly generate hierarchical structures even without any attempt at a power grab by emergent leaders or by any organizational, coordinated action. In fact, this often occurs through a perfectly natural process, known as preferential attachment, which is very common to social and other kinds of networks.

Preferential attachment … is the “rich-gets-richer” model, sometimes dubbed the “Matthew Effect” after the biblical saying “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

In the preferential attachment scenario, the more followers you have, the more followers you will add, ceteris paribus – i.e. even if the merit of your tweets is the same as someone of fewer followers, your followers will grow at a faster rate. Multiple mechanisms can facilitate preferential attachment — this need not be a mere exposure effect but will likely be confounded by a popularity effect. In almost all human processes, already having a high status makes it easier to claim and re-entrench that high-status. Thus, not only will more people see your tweets, they will see you as having the mark of approval of the community as expressed in your follower count.

This third kind of process, defined by preferential-attachment dynamics, tends to give rise to what network scientists call “scale free” networks, which end up exhibiting power-law distributions. (They are scale invariant because they look the same at whatever scale you look at). Sometimes informally-called the 80-20 networks, such networks are very common in multiple natural and social processes and create top-heavy structures in which a few have a lot and most have fairly little.

So, what does all this have to do with revolutions and leaders? A lot, it turns out. Preferential attachment means that a network exhibiting this dynamic can quickly transform from a flat, relatively unhierarchical one to a very hierarchical one – unless strong counter-measures are quickly and firmly employed. 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.

First, let me say that many late-20th century uprisings which predate the Internet happened without strong leadership so a “leaderless revolution” is not a new phenomenon. Iran in 1979 did not start as a theocratic movement at all—the despotic and unpopular Shah was overthrown by a broad-based movement including the secular middle-classes, organized labor, communists, etc. Many of the 1989 revolutions did not have strong leadership as they were happening. My initial impression is that the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings have been even more diffuse and that this is related to the role social media played in facilitating certain kinds of organizing—but I am willing to remain agnostic on that question till we have more data.

However, few revolutions remain leaderless—which is exactly why it is very important to understand that the diffused nature of this revolution is hardly an inoculation against the emergence of this dynamic; in fact, it might even contain the seeds of extreme hierarchy

Many networked structures, including the World Wide Web, have been shown to be such scale free networks.

Ghonim and other emerging leaders of this revolution would be well-advised to keep in mind that social media not only do not guard against one of the strongest findings of sociology called the “iron law of oligarchy,” they may even facilitate it. The iron law of oligarchy works rather simply. Basically, take an organization. Any organization. Stir a bit. Wait. Not too long. Watch a group of insiders emerge and vigorously defend their turf, and almost always succeed. (Example one could be Western democracies — See work by Robert Michels for more details). Further, revolutions almost always depend upon or create figures who possess what sociologists call charismatic authority. Both of these processes are so widespread in human history that it would be foolish to ever discount them. But to discount them by hoping that social media, as it stands, can provide a strong-counter force would be naïve.

In fact, if anything, it is quite likely that preferential-attachment processes are part of the reason for the rise of oligarchies and charismatic authorities. Ironically, this effect is likely exacerbated in peer-to-peer media where everything is accessible to everybody. Since it is just as easy to look at one person’s twitter feed as another’s, no matter where you are or where the other person is, it is easier to draw more from the total pool and further entrenching an advantage compared to the offline world where there are more barriers to exposure and attachment. Thus, networks which start out as diffuse can and likely will quickly evolve into hierarchies not in spite but because of their open and flat nature.”

However, Zeynep insists that: Disposition is not destiny.

And she concludes:

“If the nascent revolutionaries in Egypt are successful in finding ways in which a movement can leverage social media to remain broad-based, diffused and participatory, they will truly help launch a new era beyond their already remarkable achievements. Such a possibility, however, requires a clear understanding of how networks operate and an explicit aversion to naïve or hopeful assumptions about how structures which allow for horizontal congregation will necessarily facilitate a future that is non-hierarchical, horizontal and participatory. Just like the Egyptian revolution was facilitated by digital media but succeeded through the bravery, sacrifice, intelligence and persistence of its people, ensuring a participatory future can only come through hard work as well as the diligent application of thoughtful principles to these new tools and beyond.”

2 Comments On the relationship between leaderless peer networking and hierarchical structures: the case of Egypt

  1. AvatarJusten

    Built-in anonymity/pseudonymity might be a key feature in maintaining a relatively flat network, since it works contrary to the creation of cults of personality and cliques (by providing little or no proof that any given identity is the same person as it was yesterday), and facilitates the evasion or repressive tactics on the part of entrenched interests (e.g. top-down enforced ostracism of contrary viewpoints and other targeted elimination). In which case we might start considering Anonymous itself a more important political movement than it otherwise seems.

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