Sunday, February 20, 2011

Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters


Here's a really excellent post by Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist whose work is new to me, about the emergence of hierarchy and leaders in groups that start out acephalous, with particular applications towards the ongoing revolutions in the Mideast. She cites the iron law of oligarchy, and the underlying dynamic of preferential attachment that generates it. Also the related tendency of movements to coaselse around 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.
Preferential attachment generates the power-law distribution of connectivity that network theorists have noticed for some time. Social media does not flatten these emergent hierarchies, in fact it makes them much worse:
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.... 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.
She also mentions The Dispossessed, which treats the question in fiction, showing an anarchist society consciously battling back the emergence of power relations (like me, she had a youthful attachment to the book).

The reality of charismatic leaders is an annoying pheonomenon that I've noticed both in academia and in industry. The people who acheive major success have a certain personal magnetism that verges on magical. The clustering around charismatic leaders is somewhat hidden in academia, but frankly acknowledged business, here for example:
People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.
I'll admit to being jealous, because (to put it mildly) that's always been a quality I've lacked. So despite being pretty good at some aspects of "the vision thing", I've been frustrated by an inability to sell my visions. I find both leading and following to be highly problematic, but the flat society of The Dispossesed looks like it's going to be a long time coming.

2 comments:

TGGP said...

Thanks for the link to the technosociology post. I dropped a James Scott reference so folks won't have to resort to, ugh, fiction.

How does one actually know they are any good at the "vision thing" if they're visions never come to fruition? The aspiration is mocked in I Too Want A Big Picture Job (a contrary argument that work shouldn't suck here).

mtraven said...

Well, speaking for myself I make sure I'm not completely full of shit by actually building stuff. Connecting the stuff up to the vision is always a challenge though.

I just heard a talk by Ted Nelson, who was something of a mentor to many years ago. There's someone with a vision, and plenty of charisma, but couldn't get his vision built to save his life, and he's been trying for decades. It's not because the vision itself is bad, exactly. There's lots of elements to "success", including clarity, charisma (aka "leadershit"), the right combination of single-mindedness and flexibility...and the availability of funding. The race is not always to the swift.