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Why People-Powered Projects Are Ruled by Tyrants

Any of this sound familiar?

…the paradox is that they’re often more authoritarian, even autocratic, than the most tightly controlled for-profit firms. The volunteer model makes them almost feudal in structure: an enormous mass of unpaid serfs, kept in line by a small group of paid manager-nobles, in turn serving at the pleasure of the kingly founder, whose authority is more or less absolute. After all, when you create a dominant website but eschew the vast wealth that could come with it, conventional checks on your power no longer apply. You have no shareholders or paying customers to mollify. Competitors don’t bother challenging you, since how can they beat a market leader when that leader is unbound by market forces?

…Assange, similarly, has said that he alone makes the final call about what WikiLeaks will post. To this list of digital sovereigns we might someday add two young barons: CouchSurfing’s Casey Fenton and 4chan’s Christopher Poole.

4 Responses to “Why People-Powered Projects Are Ruled by Tyrants”

  • Consider this as the other side of the coin:

    It’s extremely naive to think that because you believe in democracy and consensus and want to apply it to a PPP you maintain, everyone that joins you will play along – and from a certain number of members, it’s a statistical given that someone will try and knock you off your perch, hijack the project you initiated, or sabotage your project out of jealousy and resentment at the fact that they didn’t have the idea first. Or just because they just plain don’t like you.

    That’s besides the barrage of “helpful ideas” you have to contend with – maybe well-meant, but ideas that have (believe it or not) been discussed or even tried before and failed the test of reality, or ideas that might be good but sorry, we don’t have the resources or capacity to implement them… ouch, reality bites… again. Funny how so many of these “ideas” people think that having an idea gives them the privilege of not having to do the work to implement it, or carry the risk of failure… or even bother to try to think their precious ideas through. These are the people that are the fastest to cry “Tyrant!” when their ideas go ignored.

    Sooner or later, any people-powered project will be faced with power struggles. It’s not about what’s better for the project, it’s about who comes out the winner – the tyrant – and who backs down as the (sore) loser.

    I’d love to know how it could be done differently, but until the entire human race is zenned out in an aura of peaceful karma and cool rationality, I don’t think there is another way. Not without the luxury of hierarchies, established democratic procedure, independent tribunals or whatever else keeps the peace, luxuries that are impracticable or contrary to the nature of a PPP that aims to be a loose, homogeneous structure where everyone may start out equal, but some inevitably turn out to be more equal than others – it’s fantasy to pretend otherwise.

    So that’s why people-powered projects are ruled by tyrants, at least from their challengers’ POV. I’d like to say it’s not personal, but that’s ultimately exactly what it is – it’s a people-powered project, it says so on the label.

    • Yes and no. As a leader and or initiator of a project you can have inclusive and exclusive strategies, and many ways you can pull the strings. I think Casey is simply unexperienced in the field of mutual empowerment and he is simply unaware how he can do it in a more inclusive way, and therefore responds in this way that he build up a pyramid structure to support him, to safeguard his position. While at the same time there are so many ways he could have made this a community-project.

      In my limited view-point, he pulled out – abusing people’s efforts along the way – because of fear he would not have control anymore, not knowing how he could have it done otherwise. If Casey would have been brought up in a culture of social movements for example (including the free software movement) he would have made very different decisions in the past.

      • blusterbuster

        Robino, that was very well-put!

        If it wasn’t already obvious, I have a very low (threshold of) tolerance for anyone who hoards any kind of power, to the detriment of those who support them. Let alone anyone who uses charm and pure deceit to do so.

        I will either refuse to cooperate in the most absolute ways, or do that AND, start throwing wrenches into the gears, in my belief that I am actually aiding those who can’t see the corruption and exploitation for themselves.

  • I don’t know Casey so I cannot say whether you are right or wrong about him, so I’d rather keep to more general terms. I know this isn’t the Casey Fenton fan club, so I hope you’ll forgive me for not taking criticism against him too seriously.

    I also thought of the free software movement, and how it just seems to work. I know of other initiatives where this form of power struggle just doesn’t seem to occur.

    From what I’ve seen, the type of project does make a major difference – a project with a discrete, palpable goal (such as organizing an event of some type, or releasing some kind of product) without the community part is less dependent on “soft” skills, as contributors to a fixed-goal project mostly have clearly defined, heterogeneous tasks towards reaching this goal, their own spheres of expertise, responsibility and empowerment within the project. Personal differences stay at a personal level and don’t affect the project, as there are two clearly separate levels of interaction.

    That’s not the case with PPPs; PPPs tend to be homogeneous (apart from certain functions that keep the project going but aren’t the core of the project, such as maintaining the website, accounting and similar) with little or no division of labor between the protagonists. This homogeneity raises a competitive situation that is absent in the clear-cut role demarcation in fixed-goal projects. Personal differences will affect the project, as a PPP is based on interaction at a far more personal level, and involves ideals that are indefinable and emotional.

    I agree that project maintainers – especially where they have more-or-less single-handedly raised the project from scratch – will eventually have problems in control management; apart from probable financial and time investment, there’s also a lot of emotional investment involved. They have to deal with this when the project gets too large for them to handle alone, or the project will die. Since CS was long past this point when Casey withdrew, I would first assume that Casey did learn to deal with this.

    I don’t theoretical awareness of inclusive and exclusive strategies helps that much; first, afaik they apply more to leadership technique as in the classroom rather than with peers, and second, they are rather theoretical, but the success or failure in leadership depends more on personality than technique – not only the personality of the maintainer, but everyone else involved in the project – especially potential rivals.

    Afaik, all of the hospitality communities have formed pyramid structures of some type. I don’t think there’s any realistic way around that.

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