Review of Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes
Books on the sociocultural and political impacts of the Internet have typically focused on the advances online communication makes possible or the good things in modern culture that the Internet is pushing aside. Proponents of Internet culture highlight the failings in traditional systems of power and cultural production that online communities can overcome; critics emphasize the good things in those systems that the Internet is undermining. In Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes, Mathieu O'Neil instead explores the ways online communities recreate the failures of offline culture.
O'Neil, a researcher who works in Australia and earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from a French university, approaches online social systems from the perspective of critical theory. Other scholars have used critical theory to explore the Internet in terms of communication and knowledge production—in the case of Wikipedia, for example, "Wikipedia, Critical Social Theory, and the Possibility of Rational Discourse" argues that Wikipedia is a close approximation of Jürgen Habermas's ideal of rational discourse—but O'Neil focuses instead on the twin concepts of autonomy and authority.
The first half of Cyberchiefs develops a conceptual basis for understanding online authority. In the second half, O'Neil presents four case studies on individual "tribes" with very different authority structures: the anarcho-primitivism website primitivism.com, the political blog community dailykos.com, the free software community of debian.org, and our own free encyclopedia project wikipedia.org (specifically English Wikipedia).
The prevailing ideology of the Internet, O'Neil observes, is closely aligned to the philosophical and political outlook of the earlier hackers who built it:
Since utopian political solutions are no longer considered likely to occur offline, the Internet has come to embody the spirit of Utopia. In such a charmed universe everyone can have a say, from 'cyberlibertarians' who decry the influence of governments to 'cybercommunists' who believe that peer production will revolutionise both the market economy and traditional hierarchy. The primary tenet of the ideology of the Internet is that online networks are privileged sites for the flowering of freedom.
The flowering of freedom is indeed an important part of the Internet's impact, but this emphasis on freedom obscures the ways that traditional forms of power, privilege and domination carry over to the online world. Early students of online sociology described the web as inherently anti-authoritarian (primarily because of its technical structure, an open network). O'Neil shows that concepts of authority and power developed by social theorists can apply to both the web in general and to specific online tribes—a term he uses to indicate that the social and political structures of online communities are largely independent of nation-states. Adapting Max Weber's tripartite classification of authority, O'Neil identifies three forms of authority that structure the social environment of online tribes:
is deference given to leaders
who put their extraordinary talents to work for the communities they lead.
comes from having many connections and being well-known.
consists of rules and laws; individuals may wield sovereign authority, but ultimately authority of this type inheres in the community-accepted rules themselves.
- Hacker-charisma authority – a form of charismatic authority rooted in respect for broadly-construed "hacking" ability—the special talents and skills that are relevant to the goals of a particular tribe. The canonical example of this type of authority is project leadership in free software development communities, where those with acknowledged coding ability and an intimate understanding of a particular software system are deferred to by other programmers. In Wikipedia, hacker-charisma authority is the un-codified respect given to editors who are good at what they do (whether article writing, copy-editing, identifying sockpuppets, scripting, or some other task).
- Index-charisma authority – another form of charismatic authority, based on concepts from network theory such as centrality and preferential attachment. In a social network, having links to many others and/or very important others is itself a type of authority, in the form of a large audience; just as highly linked sites are the top results in search engines and thus attract more links, well-connected members of online tribes (especially early adopters) have index-charisma authority from being well-known. This is most obvious in Wikipedia in terms of the rising standards of adminship (which means it was much easier for early editors to become administrators), but it works in subtler ways as well—as when, upon joining large discussions, we look first to familiar and respected users.
- Sovereign authority – the analog of Weber's rational authority, which is based on norms, rules and laws (including, in the online context, laws programmed into the system). On Wikipedia, sovereign authority is invoked whenever editors use guidelines and policy to justify their actions or point out violations. The various classes of privileged editors—rollbackers, administrators, bureaucrats, etc.—embody sovereign authority, and are expected to act as enforcers of the community-created rules rather than powers unto themselves.
In addition to these forms of potentially legitimate authority, O'Neil shows that vestiges of power, privilege and symbolic violence from the broader culture, what he terms archaic force, have a dramatic impact on the web's social landscape. For example, in principle blogging is a way for anyone—no matter how qualified or unqualified, powerful or marginal—to reach a wide audience and make him or herself heard. But in practice the "A-list" bloggers that do reach large audiences are overwhelmingly social elites; "they are not only white, male and middle-class," writes O'Neil, "they are also highly educated, placing them effectively higher on the social ladder than the 'elite' mainstream journalists whose power they are supposed to be contesting."
This type of pattern—those with the training and free time afforded by social privilege rise to the top—is also apparent in free software communities and on Wikipedia and other seemingly egalitarian online knowledge projects. O'Neil sees at work here "the heart of social domination [which is] making the socially constructed appear natural."
Archaic force also manifests itself in received netiquette conventions and patterns of online discourse that encourage symbolic violence. Flaming and trolling are the purest expressions of archaic force; the flaming and trolling of newcomers and others who do not conform to community norms is a way of asserting power. O'Neil writes that "In general women have a deep aversion towards the kinds of adversarial exchange that men thrive on", and argues that early netiquette specifically encouraged male styles of adversarial discussion, even flaming, about intellectual and ideological matters but discouraged discussion of personal matters. (We see the legacy of such netiquette on Wikipedia, where aggressive discussion is acceptable but personalizing disputes is forbidden; whether O'Neil would consider this an archaic residue of sexism is unclear, but at least one scholar of wiki communities has argued that Wikipedia-like projects have an inherent gender bias.)
The four online communities explored in Cyberchiefs sit at different points on what O'Neil terms the space of online authority. Online primitivists—whose philosophy is fundamentally opposed to the internet and who have no interest in organizing a participatory online community—eschew both charismatic authority and sovereign authority online; primitivism.com acts as a venue for presenting the views of a small number of primitivist "anti-authorities" and extending offline debates among published primitivist thinkers through the fisking of rival essays.
The liberal American political blog Dailykos.com, like other blog communities and the blogosphere as a whole, is structured mainly by charismatic authority, with the hacker-charisma and index-charisma types both playing important roles. The initial popularity and broad political influence (i.e., index authority) of Daily Kos derived, in part, from founder Markos 'Kos' Moulitsas's talent for predicting election outcomes (a form of hacker-charisma), and in terms of community governance, what Kos says goes. In the rest of the Daily Kos community, the two forms of charismatic authority intertwined; members with trusted judgment and blogging ability are given access to the front page and select diaries (blog posts) of others to highlight, and the most popular posts are also linked automatically on the front page. However, autonomy is limited for those who would challenge the charismatic authority of Kos and his deputies, as O'Neil documents in the case of Hillary Clinton supporters during the 2008 Democratic primary; Kos and much of the community supported Barack Obama, and strident Clinton supporters were systematically marginalized and ostracized, without recourse to much in the way of codified rights or community laws to protect them.
The debian.org development community features strong elements of both popular sovereign authority and charisma authority. O'Neil considers Debian "by far the most revealing of what tribal distributed leadership would entail for the management of complex infrastructural systems", in part because "the stakes are much higher when participants can cause significant harm to the project." Debian stands out among open source communities because of its well-developed governance system. Final authority rests with the development community itself, with leaders elected by the developers and major decisions decided by vote; strict merit-based gatekeeping limits entrance into the community to those with demonstrated software skills. The community structure is highly modular (paralleling the software itself), which allows a degree of autonomy for each developer even while the output of the project as a whole must be tightly coordinated. Although there are elements of index-charisma authority—long-term influence from early leaders—by-and-large, Debian is governed according to the collective will of its community, successful anarchy in action. Conflict in the Debian community often centers on the defense of honor, either against outside threats or intra-community insults; when there is a perceived affront to a developer's honor, communications can break down into flame wars, to the detriment of the community.
In the book's final case study, O'Neil examines how authority works on Wikipedia. Wikipedia governance relies primarily on charismatic authority—users deferred to because of their reputations, as talented contributors (hacker-charisma) and/or long-standing and dedicated active community members (index-charisma)—and popular sovereign authority—community-created rules and norms.
Is the surveillance-centered social and technical structure of Wikipedia like the street culture of a close-knit neighborhood or the discipline-minded watchmen of the Panopticon
"Can people pull rank in a rankless universe", he asks? The answer, of course, is yes; things like rollback rights, adminship, checkuser, and even—perhaps especially—edit count can serve as markers of authority in a social system based on constant surveillance of everyone's actions by everyone else. (In The Wikipedia Revolution, Andrew Lih compared Wikipedia to the benign street culture praised by urbanist Jane Jacobs: cities are safe when they are always under the watchful eye of residents. Others invoke a more sinister metaphor, likening Wikipedia to the Panopticon prison in which inmates never know whether they are being watched and so must behave as if they are.)
It is when surveillance breaks down that authority becomes a problem in the Wikipedia community. The Essjay controversy is the best known example of this; while claiming (falsely) to be a professor of theology, editor Essjay at times touted his supposed credentials in content disputes. But the most significant section focuses on what O'Neil terms "the Durova dust-up", the incident in which User:Durova briefly blocked User:!! as a sockpuppet based on an investigation that was not transparent to community surveillance (which led to Durova resigning her adminship). Here the dangers of both too much and too little surveillance were at work. O'Neil explains that "the incident resonated deeply with many editors, because it commingled authority and secrecy." The affront to the project's core value of openness and transparency was matched by "an equally powerful, and opposite, feeling: that some admins had been the victim of harassment and stalking because of their work for the project; that these experiences were frightening and painful; and that most of the victims were female." [Clarification: O'Neil does not discuss specific instances of harassment, but refers in the preceding quote to the broader context of harassment as part of the spectrum of disruptive action, which efforts like "sock hunting" are employed to prevent.]
Charismatic and sovereign authority predominate, but archaic force is not altogether absent from Wikipedia. O'Neil singles out a Jimmy Wales quote from a 2006 New Yorker article (the one at the center of the Essjay controversy) to show how offline injustice and inequality is reinscribed in Wikipedia: "If it isn't on Google, it doesn't exist", said Wales. (O'Neil offers a wider discussion of Wikipedia in his recent essay from Le Monde diplomatique, "Wikipedia: experts are us".)
Historical factors and offline injustices—sexism, economic inequality, political geography—can clearly tilt the scales in online tribes. There are (at least so far) no online Utopias. The question for Wikipedia is, how deep is the shadow of history? How set in stone is Wikipedia's community culture, crafted as it has been by the earliest members with their peculiar outlooks and inclinations? Through the mechanism of preferential attachment in article creation and expansion and the propagation of charismatic authority, will Wikipedia always retain the mark of the early community's interests and prejudices?
O'Neil's particular analysis of Wikipedia includes some worthwhile points (and some errors and misinterpretations), but the case study only breaks the surface of the authority issue. The concepts of archaic force and the three modes of online authority are useful concepts for thinking about the community; Wikipedia authority is heterogeneous, sometimes with charismatic authority most important, sometimes with sovereign authority, and in our worst moments with archaic force deciding things.
- ^ p. 18, O'Neil's emphasis
- ^ p. 61
- ^ p. 61, O'Neil's emphasis
- ^ p. 68
- ^ p. 146
- ^ p. 154
- ^ p. 167, O'Neil's emphasis
What do you think of The Signpost
? Share your feedback.