Tuesday, March 1, 2011

in which I respond to Dr. Tufekci's article on leaderlessness

Dr. Zeynep Tufekci is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.  She wrote an article titled "Can 'Leaderless Revolutions' Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks" that was published online Feburary 14 [http://technosociology.org/?p=366&cpage=1].  Tufekci claims that there is an inescapable mechanism that drives all organizations to create a hierarchy or leadership.  This article has bugged me from the moment I finished reading it. I wrote a study of Project Chanology, which is an Internet collective action against the Church of Scientology that started in January of 2008 [http://www.lisamcpherson.org/pc.htm].  Project Chanology has never had a hierarchy and in fact almost by definition of the group cannot have one.  So right away I have this example of a group that has never had leadership for three years.  Why does Tufekci think this is not possible?

Her main point seems to be "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."

Movements naturally evolve a hierarchy through random and meritorious selection, and "preferential attachment," which is defined as "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."

She uses the number of twitter followers a group of Egyptian activists have to show this mechanism in action.  "Let’s do a short-hand conceptualization and accept the number of followers in a Twitter network as a measure of importance."  Basically, some people become more popular than others, partially by just being the first with the most.  Apps on Facebook similarly spread and become popular by the three methods she delineates (random, meritorious, preferential attachment) and thus some become popular while others fade away.

 I really don't think twitter following is a good example here. Just because you follow someone on twitter, it does not make them your leader. You might follow them over others because they give reliable information. Or you might be related. There are lots of reasons for having a big following on twitter.

Groups, such as a revolutionary movement, naturally develop people who are listened to more than others.  Ok, I'll agree with that.  If a random group of people give random dates and times for a protest, then that would be quite useless. So some person or group gets the job of distributing when the agreed-upon (by whom?  some sort of consensus) time and place.  I agree that this is natural.  Another person may be the philosophical expounder of the reasons for revolution. This person would get a huge twitter following.  Yet is that a leader?  Kufekci doesn't define "leader," so this may be part of my problem with her article. I assume leadership is first people agreeing with you.  Then they consider your words of importance.  Then they either do what you suggest (meet here at such and such a time), or they promote your ideas.  And THEN, and this is what I think Kufekci's means by the word, you might gain a hierarchical position of power.  And this last step is not the case in Internet collective action or the recent revolutions. 

Kufekci does take a step back and admits that yes, Iran's revolution was a mass-revolt rather than one based around any particular leader. Ok, and so is Tunisia and Egypt, probably.  But then she's back out there punching for leadership:  "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."

So now she grabs the top 10 tweeters involved in the Egyptian revolution.  Ghonim comes out on top.  "Ghonim is the one that has been crowned the 'leader of the leaderless revolution' by Newsweek and he’s the one who is tweeting about meeting with top generals in the military."  Although I quake to quarrel with Newsweek, Wael Ghonim works for Google. He was arrested early in the Egyptian movement and held for twelve days.  During that time his arrest became a cause celebre as he had a popular facebook page. 

So, does this "leader" consider himself a leader?  "Ghonim revealed that he created the Facebook group that has been instrumental in the ongoing movement in the country. 'I didn't want anyone to know that I was the admin,' Ghonim said in a conversation with Mona El Shazly on Egypt's Dream TV. 'I'm not the hero.'" [http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2380402,00.asp]  This is strange for a leader. He wanted to remain anonymous!  60 Minutes called him "the symbol of the leaderless revolution" when they interviewed him after the fall of Mubarak.  "Ghonim told us he has no interest in politics, and he wants to go back to work at Google."  Again, strange of a leader to relinquish his position.

Remember the title of Tufekci's article is "Can 'Leaderless Revolutions' Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks."  Her point is that leaders will naturally arise.  Ghonim is her star leader in the Egyptian revolution.  Yet Ghonim rejects that title.  What can we make of this?  Tufekci admits that Ghonim does not consider himself a leader; "Wael Ghonim especially has been careful to talk about how this is a revolution without heroes because so many are heroes."  But then she argues that they are leaders anyway, because of the "iron law of oligarchy."  This law states that with every organization, if you wait long enough "a group of insiders emerge and vigorously defend their turf, and almost always succeed."  This happens so often in history that it can't be discounted, even if social media are now involved.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Kufekci sees no difference historically between the pre-social media and current social media times.  This is a mistake.  Project Chanology, a branch of Anonymous that took on the Church of Scientology [http://www.lisamcpherson.org/pc.htm], has been going on for three years now and still has no hierachy.  Internet collective action is a new thing with great changes in how such actions work socially.  I'll just let you read that article to see my points there.  Most academics and media still do not grasp these changes.  For instance, the media kept asking the Egyptian protesters when they were going to appoint a leader or leadership.  Consistently the protesters kept saying things like "There is no need for leadership. People are organizing themselves." (protester on Al Jazeera TV, Feb. 4).

Finally, the end of the collective action is important. The revolution's main goal was to remove Mubarak.  They had seven points altogether, but this was the one that bound everyone together.  When this was accomplished, that chapter in history was over. It was time to move on to organizing a country. And this is definitely where you need leaders.  But now they can vote for those leaders.  Too bad Ghonim doesn't want to be one because he seems to be the type of person Egypt needs in a position of power now. 

The revolution was an Interenet collective action.  It used Facebook, twitter, youtube, email, etc. to quickly and cheaply interconnect people and information.  It had simple goals, no hierachy, it was extremely connected and flexible. This is a new type of organizing that has yet to be clearly understood.  But we will see more and more of it.  We should not try to apply the old models to the new system.

3/5/11 addition: here is Ghonim speaking at TED Talk:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sigh...people applying pre-internet social values are out of touch with today. The neat thing about the leaderless collective is, nothing's static.

Many groups do ossify as they age. But online groups may exist only long enough to accomplish a goal, then the individuals are back in the pool until a new cause comes along that they want to support. This amorphous tendency keeps any sort of hierarchy from establishing itself.

This is not to say there aren't some in our cells who have charisma, or a talent for organizing events. People are welcome to step in and do whatever they wish to contribute, but nobody's around long enough to set themself up as a leader.