Does collaboration trump centralization? Can loosely-joined groups of people working without heirarchical direction accomplish things large, structured organizations cannot? The answer is clearly, sometimes, yes.
But how? A new Northwestern University study is illuminating how information flows in social networks actually function:
A month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, 70,000 people gathered in the streets of Leipzig, East Germany, on Oct. 9, 1989, to demonstrate against the communist regime and demand democratic reforms. Clearly, no central authority planned this event; so how did all of these people decide to come together on that particular day? ...
"How did a consensus come about? Our computer model shows how social networks can substitute for central mechanisms in decision making," said Luís A. N. Amaral, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and an author on the PNAS paper. "Surprisingly, information can be aggregated more efficiently if local information transmission is not perfectly reliable but is subject to error or random noise, due to lack of trust, indecision or unreliable information technologies."
For the citizens of Leipzig, the "noise" was the presence of the Stasi, the state secret police. "The need of individuals to avoid certain forms of communication, due to fear of the Stasi, might actually have contributed to the more efficient spread of information about a generalized dissatisfaction with the regime and the willingness to take a stand against it," said Amaral.
This field of research is becoming more and more exciting, since it promises the possibility of more and more effective networks of activists, and perhaps the real emergence of the Second Superpower.
What remains little studied, though, is the behavior of leaders within activist social networks. They clearly exist, but they don't act in the same way as military, political or corporate leaders do today. I'd love to see some good work done on what makes networked activists effective as leaders.
Market favoring people call this the invisible hand. Evidently it actually exists.