Aristocracy, leaders and communities

Ewan started something of a ding dong with his post on why bottom up alone doesn’t work in communities. The comments (building on my previous post) are worth reading here, so take a look. I appreciate Ewan’s thinking out in the open approach, my instinct is for bottom-up approaches, but I’ve had a mild rethink after reading this piece.

Firstly, let’s get the A word out of the way. Ewan talked of an aristocracy, using Jimmy Wales’ term. Stephen Downes took umbrage with this. I accept that Ewan wasn’t defending the ‘real’ aristocracy, but rather arguing that communities require a degree of top-down input to form. Nevertheless, I still think aristocracy is the wrong term, since as a metaphor it fails. Successful online communities (whether they have a top down element or are purely bottom up) are nearly always highly democratic in nature. Anyone can gain status and recognition in them by virtue of the contribution they give to the community. This is exactly what doesn‘t happen in an aristocracy – no matter how hard you work, you can never join an aristocracy.

Now on to the question of leaders and authority. In the comments I argued that it was ‘natural’ for people with more authority to emerge in a community. I am using the term authority in the technorati sense here, not the police officer sense. So there are people whose opinion is generally given credence, and respected, because of the value they have given to the community. They have authority in that respect. But they do not have authority in a ‘go an do this’ sense.

The example I used was the edublogosphere (okay I didn’t look very far). Stephen and Ewan (again, not looking far) both have authority in this sense, because they are well respected, have a good readership, etc. If you asked members of the edublogging community to suggest some blogs, their names would come up regularly. So, (and Stephen would probably hate the idea), they are ‘leaders’ in the sense that they are representative examples of edubloggers. But they are definitely not leaders in the sense that they can control the community, or that the community relies on them. The blogosphere is interesting because it is also very personal – although overall Stephen and Ewan (and others) have status, for any individual those who might be termed leaders will be different. For instance, for bloggers at the Open University, Tony Hirst probably has equal or higher status than these two, because his blog is directly relevant to them.

So, while leaders, or let us call them ‘more prototypical members of the community’ may emerge, that does not mean they are the founders of the community, or that they are necessary for the community to exist. This is true however for some communities. Open source software projects comes to mind – the Linux community couldn’t have existed without Linus Torvalds, since he started the project and his input was necessary to get the community established. It could probably exist without him now, but even so it would require some top-down element since there is a definite project, or output that has to be determined (the code).

And maybe that is the key difference – when the community exists for the production of an artifact, then it requires some top down structure, when it is a group of like minded individuals who have some common interest, then it has to be bottom up.

One Comment

  • Ewan McIntosh

    A bit of an a-ha moment here, in that both answers are right in different circumstances. The Linux example is, I guess, what the eduBuzz community resembles in a much smaller sense. It had a definite small group kicking things off, but the community quickly became an entity bigger than any one person (makes me think of Glasgow Rangers’ ethic: that no one player is bigger than the team).
    Thanks for adding to the thought process on this. I’m still struggling to bring examples out from an edubloggy perspective without it seeming irrelevant to an education / learning community.

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