Leadership in Distributed Social Networks

Let us understand "social networks," to mean networks of people interacting in a common group or substrate rather than the phenomena that exists on a certain class of websites (like Facebook): we can think of this as the "conventional sense" of the term.

As I watch Anonymous, the 'hacktivist" group, to say nothing of the movements in Egypt and Tunisia, I'm fascinated by the way that such an ad hoc group can appear to be organized and coherent on the outside without appearing to have real leadership. External appearance and reality is different, of course, and I'm not drawing a direct parallel between what Anonymous is doing and what happened in Egypt, but there is a parallel. I think we're living in a very interesting moment. New modes of political and social organizing do not manifest themselves often.

We still have a lot to learn about what's happened recently in Egypt/Tunisia/Libya and just as much to learn about Anonymous. In a matter of months or years, we could very easily look back on this post and laugh at its naivete. Nevertheless, at least for the moment, there are a couple of big things that I think are interesting and important to think about:

  • We have movements that are lead, effectively, by groups rather than individuals, and if individuals are actually doing leadership work, they are not taking credit for that work. So movements that are not lead by egos.
  • These are movements that are obviously technologically very aware, but not in a mainstream sort of way. Anonymous uses (small?) IRC networks and other collaborative tools that aren't quite mainstream yet. The Egyptian protesters in the very beginning had UStream feeds of Tahrir Square, and I'd love to know how they were handling for internal coordination and communication.
  • I think the way that these movements "do ideology," is a bit unique and non conventional. I usually think of ideology as being a guiding strategy from which practice springs. I'm not sure that's what's happening here.
  • The member activists, who are doing the work in these movements are not professional politicians or political workers.

The more I ponder this, the more I realize how improbable these organizations are and the more I am impressed by the ability of these groups to be so effective. In addition to all of my other questions, I'm left wondering: how will this kind of leadership (or non-leadership) method and style influence other kinds of movements and projects.

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