On Craigslist

This isn’t an argument for or against Craigslist itself, just a note on Craig Newmark’s interview on “The Daily Show” tonight (Monday Feb 26, video here). He mentioned the idea of “leaderless organizations” but didn’t cite his reference – a book of which he was a major subject (him personally, as well as Craigslist itself) and which elaborates on this idea. I read it in the context of Wikipedia (and founder Jimmy Wales) but it also covers Apache warrior cells and peer-to-peer networking, and highly recommend it:

Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Portfolio, 2006).

And apparently it has its own website, mostly designed for CEOs looking to implement its ideas.

Basically, the argument is thus: while they look similar, the starfish is a “decentralized” organism (metaphorically speaking), while a spider is a “centralized” organism. If the “head” is cut off, the starfish can regenerate (i.e. make new starfish) while the spider just dies. Another analogy is the success of independently-operating Apache warrior cells vs. the Spanish army. While the hierarchical organization can be stopped when its leader is killed/incapacitated, groups with a common goal but with no center can be regenerated. The book itself goes on to explore this metaphor in Wikipedia (why I read it in the first place), Craigslist, peer-to-peer networking, etc. The authors seem really interested in the power of charisma in the organization’s original leaders/founders, but argue that it is the lack of actual unified control of these leaders which drive the projects forward – they don’t rely on a “personality cult” but on decentralized production, decision-making, etc.

Anyway, just wanted to throw this out there on the off chance someone is interested in the concept Newmark threw out there but didn’t really follow up on in the interview. He also mentioned that the US military is interested in studying this concept further for its potential application to Al Qaeda’s cell structure (like the Apache warriors analogy) and how to fight a “group” which you can’t stop by simply isolating a central leader. It should be pointed out to them, however, that this is the basic big army vs. insurgency/guerrilla/rebel faction set-up. Not sure if there’s really any answer to how to defeat an “army” which won’t follow the formal rules of battle. Whatever those might be.

In conclusion, check out the book, and if possible read past some of the apparent hero-worship about the “leaders” of starfish themselves.


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