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Networks and Hierarchies: A Typology of Digital Activism Today

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, December 14 2010

We're pleased to publish this guest post by Mary Joyce, the founder of the Meta-Activism Project, which is studying the many permutations of digital activism today. The editors.

A few weeks ago, powerful corporations like Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal weren't very concerned with the hacktivists and pranksters on 4chan. Now, thanks to the tactical success of Operation Payback's DDoS attacks, they are. The U.S. government also has its own problems with networked activists. After massive leaks of documents on the Iraq and Afghan wars and diplomatic cables from around the world, Wikileaks has demonstrated that it is a formidable threat to American legitimacy and power.

These are but two recent examples of how decentralized digital networks can have dramatic effects on centralized hierarchies. However, these two alternative structures of human organization can interact in a variety of ways, both mutually beneficial and destructive. Below is a typology of how networks affect hierarchies in the digital world. In their interactions with hierarchies, members of networks can act in the following roles.


1) Deputies: Hierarchy sets agenda, network follows (maximum hierarchical control)
Examples: Guardian crowdsources audit of MP expenses, Obama campaign coordinates supporter house parties through

2) Amplifiers: Network helps hierarchy's content go viral or network remixes hierarchy's content, which goes viral
Examples: Old Spice Guy videos, Beyonce "Put a Ring on it" fan videos, "tell a friend" buttons

3) Autonomous Allies: Network self-organizing advances hierarchy's goals, though hierarchy does not direct network's actions
Examples: Obama supporters self-organize through listservs, Daily Kos community supports Ned Lamont, It Gets Better campaign


4) Competitors: Network spreads content that competes for attention and authority with hierarchy's content (both original and maliciously remixed content)
Examples: Wikipedia, lolcats, "Obama's a Muslim" viral emails, Hillary Clinton 1984 parody video

5) Pirates: Content created by hierarchy, taken by network
Examples: Napster, Pirate Bay, BitTorrent, online news scrapers, Wikileaks

6) Attackers: Direct attack on hierarchy by network (mostly through DDoS)
Examples: Operation Payback, criminal DDoS "hold-ups", Pro-Zapatista FloodNet

7) Gatekeepers: Hierarchy no longer the default, network refuses hierarchy access to institutions (maximum network control)
Examples: Wikipedia blocks out Scientology

Networks and hierarchies are currently locked in a struggle for power over a range of human endeavors, from politics to business to the arts. However, there are a range of possible outcomes, from continued hierarchical dominance to a new network dominance, and from cooperation to vicious competition. The outcome of this struggle will be determined by the members of both institutions. The only outcome that now seems unlikely is for the power of networks to disappear.

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Mary Joyce is the founder of The Meta-Activism Project.