Participative Oligarchies

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Participative Oligarchies in Web 2.0

David de Ugarte:

“One of the more frustrating phenomena in the Web 2.0 experience is the clash between new users attracted to its participative discourse and the power networks constituted by other users. In 2006 and 2007 there were frequent outcries against the latter kind of groups in Wikipedia (the so-called bureaucrats or librarians) and digg, where influential members of the community even offered their decision power to marketing agencies in order to spread pieces of news and promote websites.

This phenomenon has been intensely discussed in the blogosphere, giving rise to endless debates and equally endless moral convolutions.

However, the formation of participative oligarchies is an inevitable and necessary result of the conjunction of network effects and 2.0 logic.

The typical example of a network effect is the telephone or the fax machine. It has almost become a cliché that, for the third user of the telephone line, gaining access to the network meant being able to speak to two other people. But for the fourth, it meant being able to speak to three other people, and so on. By the network effect, the more members a network has, the more valuable it will be for a non-member to join it, and the less value will he or she add to the network by joining it.

In communication networks such as the telephone or fax, this will not affect, in principle, my way of joining the network: the fact that there are more fax users will not make me decide to only receive faxes and feel lazy about sending them. This is the case with all networks generated by one-to-one communication technologies.

Let us now add 2.0 logic to the network effect. One way of understanding Wikipedia and digg is that they are attempts to collectively build a finite repository common to all users. How do network effects affect incentives for individuals?

Let us take as an example 11870, a common repository of Spanish restaurants and small businesses. I have been using it for some time now, but I haven't signed up as a user yet. Its main usefulness for me is being able to send the phone numbers and location maps for the restaurants where we will be meeting to my friends and customers.

Users like me will only be motivated to add content if our usual or favourite restaurants are not included in the repository. But as members of the active community include their own favourites, it’s more likely that any restaurant where I wish to have lunch with my friends will have already been included. Thus, the more contents are already included in the repository, the less incentive I will have to join the ranks of content creators.

Put more broadly: network effects tend to increase at a higher than proportional rate the percentage of passive users as the value of the community and its service rises. Or, put differently, the logic of incentives in Web 2.0 inevitably leads to the formation of relatively stable participative oligarchies.

The bias that this may generate in a restaurant repository need not be too dramatic. Maybe the participative oligarchy in 11870 have a taste for nouvelle cuisine or prefer menus including sushi, but this won't be relevant for me or for most users, who are really just looking for a geolocated address and telephone book. But what happens when the service is an essentially ideological one, when we are talking about the hierarchisation of values and narratives – as in an encyclopaedia – or about selecting the most important daily news?

That’s where Web 2.0 utterly founders. Not only are the public encouraged to accept a supposedly democratic filter regardless of their own preferences, but what’s more that filter will necessarily reflect the biases reflecting the identity of the most influential small group of users, the participative oligarchy that will irremediably appear as a consequence of the logic inherent to the service. And sooner or later, new users who try to include new contents in the common repository will realise that they are de facto being imposed an editorial line, and therefore a form of ideological control.” (

More Information

  1. Protocollary Power