Twitter’s Power to the People

October 27, 2009 2 Comments

I just finished reading “Mob Rule! How Users Took Over Twitter” by Steven Levy on this month’s Wired. This is the stuff movements dream of!  How many times have you been a part of the “leadership” conversation? Or the eternal question on the problematic role of the charismatic leader?  Who should really be in charge?  What is organic or truly democratic?  Who has the power?  What type of power?  And how is power distributed?

We often say that one of the key attributes of networks is that you have to give up control.  And little by little we are learning that this giving up of control is a new discipline of leadership, something we are having to learn after being socially trained into the command and control fantasy.  From this perspective, by creating a space that organizes and runs itself, the people of Twitter have accomplished something that we movement builders can only dream of – so I think it’s worth taking a closer look.

Levy identifies three key decisions that allow for the Twitter phenomenon:

  • Making a commitment to simplicity – the system has been distilled to its essence, you can send a message, receive a message or forward a message
  • Creating asymmetry – anyone can read any writer’s updates, regardless of who is more “important,” all can connect to all
  • Opening up Twitter’s software to developers – any developer can reshape it according to their preferences and what they think is important

Levy provocatively sums it up by saying that: “Essentially, Twitter left a ball and a stick in a field and then lurked on the sidelines as its users invented baseball.”  This is some radical stuff!  Plus it has interactive communication and the generous sharing of information right at its center.

As too often happens with my posts, there is so much more to be said that can possibly by said in a single blog post.  I am interested in distilling this further, in drawing key lessons and seeking applicability.  Maybe you can help me! I would love to know what are the parallels that you see?  How can we apply these lessons to movement building in a networked world?  What are the conditions for self-organization and emergence?


  • Jodie Tonita says:

    Here are some thoughts on new models for innovation and emergence…

  • Curtis says:

    Wow, Gibran, my head is splitting thinking about the applications. Having just come off of an amazing Bioneers Conference, I am thinking about ways of leveraging the grassroots intelligence and commitment on display there, which fundamentally shares a commitment to ensuring that humanity has a place on this planet in years to come. And I’m thinking about the comment that was made to me by an individual in a well-respected organization that is striving to come up with practical solutions that went something like this – “I have little faith in federal/bureaucratic mechanisms to make change. Hope only resides in local movements and innovative technologies.” When we consider that unfettered movement and innovation are linked to more “open” spaces and improvisation, this really speaks to the importance of tapping collective intelligence in ways that often get overlooked. Of course, there is an interesting question about that “ball and stick” and what that represents in any given instance. Clearly there is a place for putting forth tools that can be adapted to different situations. Again, technicians and movements of grassroots people.

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