I just read this fascinating blog post by Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore county. She states that through the democratic nature of the recent revolution in Egypt a hierarchy emerged. A fundamentally leaderless situation gave rise to popular leadership. According to the author this can be explained by the “rich get richer” effect, and she illustrates this with how People on Twitter using the hashtag ‘Jan25’ shows a scale-free power law. Apparently, those people tweeting about the revolution that have alot of followers will end up getting ever more followers. They have become the (digital) leaders of a headless revolutionary event. I find it interesting how this hierarchy and its immediate effects must have been the result of a critical mass of influence reaching a turning point, leading to revolutionary events.
Obviously Twitter is only one medium through which ideas can be spread, and in no way does the “rich get richer” effect explain WHY the revolution happened. What were the individual motivations that led to this large-scale event? What the scale-free model does imply, however, is that the event could not have taken place without these individuals and their actions, their decisions to follow increasingly popular charismatic (albeit digital) figures.
Could this perspective help us understand past revolutions?
Obviously ideas spread much slower in the past than in the present. But that does not mean that revolutions happened any slower or less spontaneous. How could we explore past revolutions through the material remains that we examine as archaeologists? I would be very interested in seeing how changes in material culture attest of a scale-free pattern. A perfect example is Bentley and Shennan’s work on Linear Bandkeramik in Germany. They showed that the patterns on these vessel evolved according to a scale-free power law, where popular motifs were expected to become ever more popular and more influential in future motif design. What fascinates me about this kind of research is that it does not incorporate any measure of originality in innovation. Motifs or ideas might not have been all that revolutionary, for example, but for some reason they became popular and widely adopted. Through them revolutions emerged, more as a result of their relation to other things/people/ideas than their inherent qualities. Still, the question of why this scale-free structure emerges and shapes revolutions remains unanswered. And what about truly revolutionary ideas? Does their adoption show a scale-free structure? And if not, is that really the reason why they did not catch on?
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