When the Rich Don’t Get Richer

This article appeared in Leonardo, Vol. 44-3. The full article can be retrieved from MIT Press. It was co-authored by Jon Ippolito

When the Rich Don’t Get Richer: Equalizing Tendencies of Creative Networks (excerpt)

Is an elite inevitable?

It’s a cliche that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the coexistence of top-down and bottom-up processes on the Internet still catches many of us off guard. We’ve long ignored or tolerated the contradiction implied by leaders like Gandhi and Guevara champion- ing the common peasant. Nonetheless, it seems to get further under our skin when we suspect that Linus Torvalds has too much in influence over Linux, or Eli Pariser over MoveOn, or Jimmy Wales over Wikipedia.

Some examples clearly cross an ethical line, as when a WHOIS search on the anti net-neutrality domain HandsOffTheInternet.com revealed this “nationwide coalition of Internet users” to be a sock puppet of AT&T. Such attempts by entrenched interests to feign a grassroots upswell, commonly called “astroturfing,” unmask more than corporate executives posing as the common man. They also expose the envy that top-heavy dinosaurs feel for the agile flocks of new species that emerge from grass-roots. To be sure, even some members of the agile new species claim that a certain degree of hierarchy is necessary to the smooth functioning of a network. As new media artist Michael Mandiberg argued on the New Media Curating mailing list in June 2008, “as much as they pretend pure openness, successful OS [open source] projects all have hierarchy.”

But is hierarchy really the natural endpoint of collaborative networks? While leaders often emerge from collective efforts, not all of them mature into Napoleons, and indeed not all inequalities worsen with time. Sometimes the rich actually get poorer, as demonstrated by examples from natural and human networks, as well as The Pool, a social network designed specifically to foster peer-to-peer collaboration.