Can “Leaderless Revolutions” Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks

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 question has been raised here by David Weinberger who asks the question, and, here, by Charlie Beckett who argues that the diffuse nature of these networks makes them less hierarchical and stronger:

The diffuse, horizontal nature of these movements made them very difficult to break. Their diversity and flexibility gave them an organic strength. They were networks, not organisations.”

I agree and have said before that 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.

In order to understand how this process works, consider the potential mechanisms by which a node in a network grows in importance. Let’s do a short-hand conceptualization and accept the number of followers in a Twitter network as a measure of importance.

Followers may increase through any of the following mechanisms:

1- Random growth: Here, we can assume that everyone gets some number of followers every time they tweet and that it all averages out over time. Nobody has any particular advantage and over time, most everyone acquires some followers, although some more than others. This is analogous to the movement of gas molecules in containers: they all bounce around in a way that is impossible to calculate, but important parameters (like temperature) can be calculated very accurately as averages. Random does not mean without a pattern–this would not mean it all end ups with everyone as equal but rather with a Maxwell-Boltzmann-type distribution. For a fascinating study of how the bulk of the economy (except for the very rich) function in this manner, see this paper by Victor Yakovenko .

2- Meritorious growth: In this model, the better, the more relevant, the more informative your tweets, the more followers you get. Surely, there is a lot of this going on. While this sounds good, it brings us to the next question: how will people know your tweets are so good? One mechanism, of course, is retweets. The number of retweets, however, may depend on how many followers you have to catch and retweet your posts in the first place. This means that those who have a large number of followers end up with an advantage even in terms of being recognized as meritorious. (Recent studies do show that influence is a lot more complicated than number of followers, but we are trying to abstract some basic mechanisms, so this will do for the moment).

3- Preferential attachment: This 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. (See this related paper by Yakovenko for an analysis of how the rich really are different than you and me in that their wealth indeed accumulates by power-law dynamics. They really are getting richer because they are rich to begin with).

Many networked structures, including the World Wide Web, have been shown to be such  scale free networks (See this paper by Adamic and Huberman in Science for an interesting discussion which also touches upon the merit aspect). More importantly, blogs and other influence-ecologies of the Internet often display such a shape. Here’s what a power-law distribution of blogs looks like from Clay Shirky’s widely-read post on the topic (this is a bit outdated, if anyone wants to generate a new one using Technorati’s top 100, I’ll happily include that one instead):

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. (Imagine Farmville versus hundreds of games nobody plays. In fact, don’t imagine this and read this great study by Jukka-Pekka and Reed-Tsochas that was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Turns out that’s exactly how app diffusion on Facebook works).

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

To try to understand whether this might be happening in Egypt, I used this “infograph” –which is, in fact, visualization of a social network analysis of Twitter users employing the hashtag “Jan 25”—to identify some of the more influential nodes. (In this graph, influence is visualized as size; the bigger, the more influential) Not having the underlying data, I eyeballed the graph and asked my twitter friends for names of Egyptians with an influential social media presence.

Thus, while my final list is somewhat arbitrary, let me assure you that I tried many variations of this top 10 out of the potential few hundred and constantly found the same pattern. In the one I present here, I’ve included male as well as female micro-bloggers, those tweeting in only Arabic as well as those tweeting in English and Arabic and two  traditional politicians, Ayman Nour (@ayman_nour) and Mohamed El-Baradei (@ElBaradei). (Baradei was not included in the infograph but I added him due to his obvious importance. I tried to check for other potential figures as well, none were as prominent).

What I found is that @ghonim, or Wael Ghonim, and @ElBaradei, Mohamed El-Baradei, are both definitely showing a different kind of growth-pattern compared to every other person of influence I have tested them against in this portion of the twitter-verse. Of course, you can see this pattern without any quantitative analysis; 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. Take a look at his and Baradei’s follower growth compared to 10 other top tweeters.

By all accounts, Wael Ghonim deserves an important leadership role. I absolutely do not mean for this post to be taken as a personal assessment of any leader of this nascent revolution. In fact, the point is that it does not matter who they are. Wael Ghonim especially has been careful to talk about how this is a revolution without heroes because so many are heroes—starting, of course, with the hundreds of people who lost their lives. He has dubbed the Egyptian uprising “Revolution 2.0” and has constantly talked about keeping it participatory, especially through the use of social media.

However, 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.

Disposition is not destiny. In one of my favorite books as a teenager, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Leguin imagines a utopian colony under harsh conditions and describes their attempts to guard against the rise of such a ossified leadership through multiple mechanisms: rotation of jobs, refusal of titles, attempts to use a language that is based on sharing and utility rather than possession and others. The novel does not resolve if it is all futile but certainly conveys the yearning for a truly egalitarian society.

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.

54 thoughts on “Can “Leaderless Revolutions” Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks

  1. Charlie Beckett

    Great post and thanks for linking to my effort.
    One of the important things we should differentiate between is the the politics of change or ‘revolution’ and the politics of governance/democracy.
    People usually have revolutions to remove an onerous regime – so they are campaigning against something or someone.
    These more diffuse movements are especially characterised in that way. They connect a coalition of very diverse complaints, rather than advocated an alternative platform.
    There was a leader of the Egyptian Revolution – it was Hosni Mubarak.
    Now he is gone, as you say, there has to be some sort of organisation to replace him. If it is not to be the army then the opposition must itself develop a structure. As you say, those structures usually need leaders/hierarchies/roles to be sustainable, accountable and efficient.
    Social media can still play a significant part in making those organisations more networked, but they will never have that dynamic, game-changing role again.
    Charlie Beckett

    1. zeynep Post author

      Hi Charlie — an interesting contrast here would be the Obama administration. Social media, used in novel ways, was integral to its campaign but seems to be an afterthought, at best, to its governance and limited to very traditional appeals. It remains to be seen that the youth of the Middle East, who dominate their countries numerically and who appear to have social media fairly integrated into their rhythms of life, will carve a different path.

      1. david

        I think the revolutionary vs governance distinction is a good one – mainly to point out how quickly this is beginning to break down. Correct me if I am wrong, but we don’t have any models where classical organisational hierarchies spontaneously form after the initial growth period, or that indicate that this sort of organisation is more efficient in some dimension or other.

        It is understandable that given the discursive costs of previous technology, the strong man, or the military hierarchy, scaled better than any sort of networked organisational structure. There is no evidence that I know of that indicates that this is still the case given a near zero cost of these exchanges using social media – even in its crude present day form.

        Rather, surely it is a lot more understandable that large institutions tend to take a generation to change, even in the face of more efficient ways of doing things. The Obama case is surely one, where we can see the collision between alternative organisational methodologies with the legal structures, security considerations and the deeply ingrained cultural habits of a massive institution. It’s not that the way these have been administered for the last x hundred years is more efficient than the alternative techniques as used in the campaign – it’s that the difference is more of a paradigm shift (in the Kuhnian sense).

        A Blackberry maybe a better phone, but that’s the least of the problems in changing an organisational structure. We shouldn’t jump from that to thinking that this is some sort of evidence that structures suited for rapid growth (revolutions / Obama’s election), are somehow radically different from those suited for stable administrations.

  2. David Baker

    Great analysis. What is interesting is to contrast this to led revolutions where, as time has shown us again and again (see David v. Goliath and King David) that the leader of the revolution becomes the tyrant of the next generation. If the Egyptian revolution can stay relatively leaderless (even if it has spiritual leaders like @ghonim) it will provide a good model for exploration of other relatively leaderless “revolutions” and networks like the Tea Party or the UK. Student protests.

    1. zeynep Post author

      Well, governance requires structures and we have yet to see an uprising that remains leaderless. I don’t expect the current youthful leaders to become tyrants –indeed, they do appear to be inspired by ideas of participation and horizontal organizations– but one, they are not going to operate in a power vacuum and many others are going to be vying for power; and, two, as I tried to explain, it is not a simple question.

      1. Seth Johnson

        It’s more a problem of not learning from history. George Washington was critical to the American Revolution, precisely because he didn’t seize control.

        Leaderless revolutions create messes. The people can rise up, but the more important question is the transition after that: what’s going to happen once you’ve overthrown the previous order — and that requires leaders.

        You could maybe steer the course in Egypt by calling for elections of delegates to a constitutional convention. At the moment it isn’t clear what the armed forces are going to do. But it’s normal and typical that the military plays the role of taking charge in a transition.

  3. Jeff Jacobsen

    If a collective action has one simple goal and works toward that, then there is no need for leadership. Citing Anonymous’ “Project Chanology” as an example, this is a movement that has been going on for 3 years now, yet has no leader. Also, citing Egypt’s revolution; it’s main goal was ousting Mubarak. They weren’t planning to take over the government.

    But Project Chanology has one simple goal; expose the bad side of Scientology. They don’t want to run anything. If you get into more complex goals and want to actually run a government, for example, then of course you need leadership.

  4. John Clarkson

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. Some of the mathematics reminded me of “catastrophe theory”; how dominance can emerge out of random fluctuations, or “noise”. Evidently there are several variants of these emergent patterns and it all seems quite determined, but only when viewed AFTER the fact of the emergence, of course. One wonders if it is ever possible for a determined system to go back to a state of indeterminacy without another catastrophe.

  5. Tim Pearson

    Terrific Analysis. Learnt more reading this than… well, lots.

    A few things.
    1. Is there any evidence of where those followers come from? Ghonim was all over Aljazeera around the time his numbers went up (due to the fact they were identifying his not tweeting as evidence he was arrested, and a big search was on). I started following him (from Norway) around that time. I wonder if thousands of those increase are foreigners (therefore he could be leader of the foreigners, not the Egyptians).
    2. Is location data available from Twitter?
    3. The initial number of followers, around 17 Jan, is a few thousand. Assuming many were following each other, it would indicate the initial numbers were very very few (just an observation).
    4. The supporting info is also terrific.

    1. zeynep Post author

      Thank you! Followers is clearly an imperfect metric and all the issues you raise are true. I was trying more to explain a mechanism than to find the perfect metric. Of course, the perception of foreigners matters, too, as they contribute to the sense of importance for a person which contributes to their status. All very mutually-reinforcing.

      Yes, a social-network analysis of the twitter-information network of the Egyptian movement would be a great study but, hopefully, it should be combined with interviews on the ground.

      1. Tim Pearson

        Thanks for the response Zeynep. Certainly my questions where in the “further consideration” box. The mechanism you have described is fascinating and inspires further analysis.


  6. Cara Culo

    Why are you trying to categorize something that is evolving everyday and that implies a new way to distribute power into “old categories” (grab power)? Anonymous can not be categorize into the existing categories.

    Have you visited an IRC channel during a “party”? if so you had realized how hierarchie works….for the lulz.

    Do you think a quantitative approach is the most pertinent for this kinds of phenomena?

    all yours,

    Cara Culo

  7. David Parry

    Couple o’ thoughts/reactions here:
    -Like you I remain agnostic on the question of whether or not these movements are diffuse because of the media ecology, although I suspect that what happens is that the media causes us to rethink how it is we understand diffusion and inclusion.
    -I think all to often critics in the mainstream media assumes networks are by nature egalitarian and/or grow randomly, such that the movement must be diffuse or otherwise it couldn’t be enabled by a network which must be egalitarian and/or random. Of course this is arguing backwards, the point as you correctly articulate here is that networks consistently demonstrate power law curves, the rich get richer. And this isn’t even about digital networks, the republic of letters network(s) demonstrate pretty substantial power law curves. If anything as you point out, networks are more hierarchical, or at least progress pretty rapidly in that direction, perhaps given the data (although I think we need more) in a more rapid way than analog ones. Networks aren’t egalitarian they are just more transparent about their non-egalitarianess. What is needed here then is an education on how networks work (myth is trumping reality at this point).
    -I also wonder though to what degree we could say that Twitter followers=leader of the movement. Sure Ghonim has a lot more followers than any of the others, but those followers don’t necessarily equate to people inside the movement. My suspicion, and we would need to run the numbers on this, is that most of his followers are people outside of Egypt. But the degree to which his Twitter following equals influence in Western media that plays back into how he is viewed within Egypt, means the model is probably more complicated than an either/or.
    -Perhaps also the means by which the hierarchy is achieved here changes also. Traditionally models have suggested that leaders attract followers based on the resonance of their message, but in this case that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case, Ghonim’s rapid growth is do to being released from captivity, or more accurately his captivity and then subsequent release. Maybe though, on the other hand this isn’t any different from prior moments, but rather than we can just “see” more clearly because of network data how the pattern develops, rather than letting the narrative after the fact determine how we see it.

    1. zeynep Post author

      1- Definitely agree on needing more data. We never had this kind of view of previous uprisings so this is very hard to compare.

      2- I think this is a common misunderstanding. I find Wikipedia to be an instructive example. On the one hand, it is amazing and indeed works because of crowd-sourcing. On the other hand, it has a pretty entrenched leadership and is a high-conflict environment which obviously is not the picture of the global democracy people sometimes think it is. On the other, other hand, I doubt one could run Wikipedia without an entrenched old-guard defending it vigorously.

      3- Agreed that Twitter followers is a flawed metric but I am just using it to demonstrate a mechanism.

      4- I am not sure about the resonance of message was every that dominant. I think it is a mixture of resonance, being-there-at-the-right-time (luck), preferential-attachment and self-reinforcing mechanism. I think this was always part of what happened but as you say, the after-the-fact narrative gave us a neater story based on choice and merit. (Although let me put it this way: I think leaders would be ruled out if they did not resonate but in any given movement, there are many, many who resonate, almost by definition. If something is not shared by many, it won’t resonate).

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  9. Paul B. Hartzog

    Time and again we see the standard responses: preferential attachment, the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer), the supposedly “iron law” of oligarchy, the evolution of power laws.

    It is disingenous to present one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.

    By way of example, imagine airports. As the global network of air traffic increases, a small world network evolves in which most air traffic goes through particular hubs. Those dynamics are well known.

    BUT, those hubs cannot grow indefinitely. The “rich” cannot get infinitely “richer.” There are limits. Complex systems reach built-in homeostatic limits that cause them to evolve to the “edge of chaos,” a dynamic balance which is neither “too little” nor “too much.”

    In other words, there are upper thresholds AND lower thresholds. I have shown this graphically in a post about carrying capacity here:

    In addition, flocks and swarms can be said to have a member who is “out in front” but not necessarily a leader. Furthermore, when the group changes in response to its environment, a different “leader” emerges.

    1. zeynep Post author

      Paul, carrying capacity may apply to physical phenomenon like airports but that is not as relevant in terms of leadership where rank matters more than capacity. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have as long as you have the most, and you have much more than the next people. Again, even limits in money, which exist, are not that interesting. Yes, probably, someone can’t have a trillion dollars but I think if you have a power law at that end (as Yakovenko argues) and a thermal Boltzmann distribution for the rest of us, that is pretty consequential.

      And homoeostatis is not necessarily a value by itself. Egypt under Mubarak was pretty stable too. And humans are not geese; they absolutely do care about who’s in front. Show me a society with that kind of revolving leadership.

  10. Larisa Breton

    Thank you for sharing your essay. Paul Hartzog, above, perhaps asks a more complete version of the question I have after reading your great analysis: Is there any research on social-media networks, once they have reached ‘formed’ status, that describes recursiveness and the network’s decline?

    1. zeynep Post author

      Larisa, can you clarify your question? Human networks are always dynamic but yes, there be more or less “stable.” There is a lot of research on this topic but a lot more to be done with the new kind of data we have from online footprints (ideally merged with offline data gathering).

      1. Larisa Breton

        Zeynep, thanks for your reply. I will email you to clarify question, and I can be contacted through @tweetlarisa as well. Best, Larisa

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  12. Gary Stock

    Fascinating comments, particularly about fundamental conflicts between meritorious growth and oligarchy. The greatest dangers in Egypt and similar states may come from emulating this disaster we laughingly call, “American Democracy.” Alternative voting systems are ESSENTIAL to any awakening nation. Moments ago, I posted at

    For any “open public dialogue” to have value, a government must actually HEAR and HONOR such dialogue. The United States utterly fails to do so, because two parties own the entire political apparatus, and both are unduly and wholly influenced by economic and corporate interests. Thus, we see zero action on climate change, and little serious effort to address deficit reduction, tax policy, or any other issue extending beyond the current election or financial reporting cycle.

    If “democracy” is to have any value, it must avoid mimicking the US two-party system, which is severely broken. Study alternatives in depth — and build constitutions, voting initiatives, and legal systems that provide regular review to assure broadly proportional representation. The United States is NOT a model for democracy of any kind…

    I sincerely hope that “revolutionaries” in other countries can avoid the mess Americans have made as we pretend to pursue “self-determination.” Listen and learn:

  13. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » On the relationship between leaderless peer networking and hierarchical structures: the case of Egypt

  14. P Fay

    Very well written, but persuasive – not so much. Seems that there is ample evidence that a huge, if not the most important part of the uprisings have been from outside social media – those who have no access due to poverty, etc., but nonetheless were critical in the uprisings. They got their communications from fliers, AlJazeera, mosques, etc., and all did during the internet blackout. Here’s how it got started:

    “The plotters say they knew that the demonstrations’ success would depend on the participation of ordinary Egyptians in working-class districts like this one, where the Internet and Facebook aren’t as widely used. They distributed fliers around the city in the days leading up to the demonstration, concentrating efforts on Bulaq al-Dakrour. […] The Bulaq al-Dakrour marchers, the only group to reach their objective, occupied Tahrir Square for several hours until after midnight, when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets.
    “It was the first time Egyptians had seen such a demonstration in their streets, and it provided a spark credited with emboldening tens of thousands of people to come out to protest the following Friday.”

    So much for the social media launching the uprising…

    And the final blow to cause the military to push out Mubarak were the strikes – by, well, “hierarchical” unions.

    The analysis seems somewhat detached from the reality on the ground. And somewhat utopian in thinking that “non-hierarchical, horizontal and participatory” structures are somehow superior per se. That may be true for generic social interaction, but less so for business structure, even less so for high-intensity production or say, a fire department, absolutely less so for a revolutionary or military structure. If one wanted to win a revolution, please count me out of non-hierarchical, horizontal, participatory structures. If that were used in Algiers in the 1950s, then the FLN would have been dead and Algeria would still be part of France. And the “revolution” in Egypt is not yet a revolution, and hasn’t yet won, obviously.

    Also the graph – well, interesting, but not sure it’s more meaningful or conclusive than the corollary on Google trends:,+elbaradei,+sandmonkey&ctab=0&geo=all&date=2011-2&sort=0

    1. P Fay

      One more addendum on Ghonim and the leaders of the ‘horizontal structure’:
      “Three Facebook pages devoted to trashing Mr. Ghonim have gone online in the past few days. They have titles such as ‘Ghonim Traitor,’ and already have over 40,000 members.

      “Labor activists accused the Revolutionary Youth of selling out the workers after they endorsed the military’s call for striking workers to return to their jobs…’They’re not real revolutionaries,’ said Gigi Ibrahim, a youth activist with the Revolutionary Socialists.”

      More at:

    2. david

      P Fay – I think you are clearly right that the majority of the forces and organisational structures at play were familiar street level and hierarchical social structures.

      However, the small but significant role that social media played, and has been perceived to have played by the protestors themselves, remains remarkable. I’d include mobile phones in general and SMS especially in this mix, not just the Twitter and FaceBook.

      You also don;t give enough credence I believe to modern military organisation, which is far less hierarchical in the traditional sense, than you allude to. Both conventional military forces, and in particluar terrorist networks utilise the sort of scale-free network organizational structures that Zeynep describes. They also use similar communications strategies. The sort of hierarchical structures that were the norm last centuary are tried and proven, and still very much with us, but lets see where we are in 50 years time.

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  18. Ron Horn

    I found this article challenging, but so right on the crucial questions about constructing alternative political structures. The writer is an academic who uses some very specialized concepts, but uses them in an attempt to shed light on the crucial questions for our time. The questions, of course, have immediate relevance for the evolving social-political situation in Egypt.

    I think it is imperative for the human race and its survival that this species must quickly learn how to construct inclusive democratic systems of governance. We have lost a valuable insight since we left the small hunting and gathering societies: our survival depends on the contributions of everyone and upon our natural setting, the planet, for our survival. We must show respect to all human beings and live in harmony with the environment if we are not to self-destruct through wars, famine, climate change, and resource exhaustion.

    The main barrier, as I see it, is all the cultural baggage we’ve inherited since the beginning of the agrarian era that bestowed to us hierarchical systems to organize our societies. It has now become almost second nature for us to move toward such systems.

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    1. zeynep Post author

      I used Twitter followership as a proxy to demonstrate a mechanism, preferential-attachment which operates in flat networks, creating a paradoxical-seeming result: stark hierarchy.

      So, this is not about Twitter following (or best influence metrics for Twitter) but rather about mechanisms.

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  21. Toby

    To me the expression ‘leaderless revolution’ is valid to the extent that what is erected by the revolution enables maximum possible fluidity in the hierarchies that subsequently arise. Obviously the mechanics of organization require leadership and hierarchical roles. Obviously people are differently skilled and motivated. But in the right conditions, in a rich and wise enough environment hierarchies need not ossify. And that must be the explicit goal of a ‘leaderless revolution.’

    The flat-based set up which leads quickly to hierarchical shapes per the graphs here probably also experiences quick subsequent dissolution of those shapes, as long as openness of information is maintained (ease of entry and exit is virtually assured in a moneyless environment such as the Internet). (I can point to no research on this, this is just intuition and common sense speaking.) So ‘leaderless’ means low, post-revolution dependency on those leaders temporarily necessary to midwife the new into some structure or other. Critical is freedom of access to all public information as well as a total commitment to revolutionizing the education system such that all citizens are capable of ‘independent’ analysis and know how the system works to a powerful degree.

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  31. Micah Sifry

    Do you think the Occupy Wall Street movement will fall into this same pattern? or is it possible that the evolution of the general assembly-working group structure that we’re seeing in NYC and some other occupations will in effect limit or prevent the emergence of the “Matthew effect”? It would be great to see an updated post from you on these questions.

  32. Pingback: Local Impact of Global Twitter Networks »

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  34. Pingback: Local Impact of Global Twitter Networks | the engine room

  35. TDB

    What if twitter allowed us to tag the people we follow, put in some semantic content beyond “I want to see their tweets”? Follow/support, follow/oppose, follow/neutral seems like a simple scheme, yet perhaps sufficient.

    I haven’t looked into it, but I suspect that there are shady characters on the Internet somewhere who will sell you an army of zombie twitter followers for the right price. Of course, if someone was discovered to be padding their twitter numbers in this way, the backlash might be serious. That suggests a further dirty trick, where one hires a zombie army for one’s opponents, then outs them for fraud. If such cheats do not yet exist, they would magically pop into existence the second one’s twitter follower count began counting as a proxy for power. On the other hand, would it be so different from some of the self-promotion we’ve seen?

    Maybe I am just griping, I’ve had maybe two successful experiences with twitter, ever. For sending messages, notes in a bottle seem nearly as good. For receiving info, it reminds me of listening to a radio with the “seek” function on.

  36. Pingback: The Organizational Needs of 21st Century Movements | Meta-Activism Blog

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