Preferential attachment in p2p networks: is that really the issue?

In a much cited blogpost, Zeynep Tufekci had warned that p2p networks, such as those responsible for the Egyptian uprising, can quickly lead to the consolidation of new hierarchies, through for example the workings of the law of preferential attachment:

“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.”

The Parliament of Things blog criticizes this approach:

“The problem I have with all this analysis is not that it is wrong, but that is misses the point, and does so dangerously. Dangerous because it reinforces the worst possible aspects of both sides of the debate. It misses the point because the real aspiration here, is the desire to replace corrupt hierarchical processes with a richer fairer discursive democracy. It is my assertion here that a great deal of this aspiration is being catalysed by technology, and that scale-free network or not, we should be celebrating the quality (not the form) of this new form of dialogue.

It is clearly the case that technology is enabling people to have new and richer forms of two-way political communication, and for these political conversations to scale in ways, and at a speed, that were not possible before. It is also clear that this process has only just begun, but that technology will continue to drive these changes as communication technology (in particular mobile and smart phones) become more ubiquitous, and new social structures emerge that leverage these new capabilities.

Scaling these technology-enabled conversations, may well mean forming natural small world or scale-free networks, but who cares? Isn’t that what we want, should we seek to elect a representative or decide together on a policy? We may well for instance decide together on a policy, without there being any clear (or indeed known or knowable) individual leaders. What really counts is how we form such decisions (the qualities of the conversations), and not simply the abstract shape or form of the social or decision making structure.

There are more hidden dangers in this way of thinking. The first is to equate the hierarchical structures of classical social organisations, with the more-or-less stable structures we find in scale-free networks. It may be true that the social connections between individuals, or other entities, has a scale-free or small world network structure, but this surely does not equate directly to the perceived deficiencies in the legal organisational structure? It is the latter that is the real target for most of the criticisms, and not simply the rich structure of natural networks founded on real diversity and freedom of opinion. Referring obliquely to both with the term “hierarchical and ossified networks” is not helpful. There are surely stable network structures (that are a result of fluid and flexible transactions), that have almost nothing in common with rigid hierarchical structures?

It is also dangerous because the above arguments are a direct and very effective attack on the hopes of the protesters and the intellectuals supporting the idea of new and richer forms of democratic participation. They support a sceptical “best of all possible worlds” view of politics.

The stated assumption, is that “strong counter-measures” need to be “quickly and firmly employed”, but why should it be important to flatten this hierarchy, and is this really something that people want and are calling for?

There is certainly a general background demand of activists in this area, and that is the desire that all voices are treated equally, and that ideas are allowed to flourish without party or other power structures suppressing them for their own organisational imperatives. However, I think this demand needs looking at more closely than it has been, as it is not as easy to reconcile a naive interpretation of equality, with a true respect for the far more important values of respect for diversity.”

1 Comment Preferential attachment in p2p networks: is that really the issue?

  1. AvatarRahma

    i totally agree with you that what really counts is how we form such decisions (the qualities of the conversations), and not simply the abstract shape or form of the social or decision making structure.

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