2012-01-09 A proposal for governance: Stigmergy, beyond competition and collaboration

This article is a continuation of the ideas begun in A proposal for governance in the post 2011 world

ImageStigmergy is a mechanism of indirect coordination between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. - Wikipedia

Competition, collaboration and stigmergy

The internet has, in a few short years, become celebrated for the incredible success of its mass collaborative efforts, most of which were actually not produced by collaboration but by stigmergy. Stigmergy, a far more effective means of handling large group efforts, is also the best hope for success in a new governing system. This proposal has already suggested that new governance be based on systems, not land mass, and that governance be by user groups, not elected officials. Stigmergy is the most effective way for those user groups to govern systems.

Systems are currently primarily run by competitive organizations. Competition creates redundancy, is slow and wastes resources on idea protection, advertisement, and more. Competition also requires secrecy which blocks progress and causes lost opportunities and ideas. Patents and copyrights further limit speed and the potential for mass input of ideas. Collaboration between the people with the greatest expertise does not happen unless they are hired by the same project.

The alternative to competition has traditionally been collaboration. This is most effective only in groups of two to eight people. For groups larger than 25, collaboration is agonizingly slow, an exercise in personality management which quickly degenerates into endless discussion and soothing of ruffled feathers, is extremely vulnerable to agent provocateurs, and very seldom accomplishes anything of value. Collaboration traditionally operates on the democratic principle that all voices are equal, so it does not allow for leaders, or users with greater expertise, energy or understanding to have greater influence than those on the periphery.

Stigmergy is neither competitive nor traditionally collaborative.

In a competitive environment, a new idea is jealously guarded, legally protected and shrouded in secrecy. Great effort is expended in finding supporters for the idea while also ensuring that the idea remains covered by legal protections such as non-disclosure agreements. The idea remains inextricably bound to the creator until it is legally transferred to another owner and all contributors work for the owner, not the idea. Contributors must then be rewarded by the owner which further limits the potential for development and wastes more resources in legal agreements, lawsuits, etc. Contributors have no interest in whether the project succeeds or fails and no motivation to contribute more than they are rewarded for.

If the idea is instead developed collaboratively, it must first be pitched by the originator, who will attempt to persuade a group to adopt the idea. The group must be in agreement with the idea itself and with every stage of its development. The majority of energy and resources are spent on communication, persuasion, and personality management, and the working environment is fraught with arguments and power struggles. Because the project is driven by a group, albeit a collaborative one, the group is still competitive with other similar outside projects, and still wastes resources and energy on secrecy, competitive evangelizing, etc. Both competitive and collaborative projects will die if the group that runs the project leaves and both will attract or repel contributors based on the personalities of the existing group. Both are hierarchical systems where individuals need to seek permission to contribute.

With stigmergy, an initial idea is freely given, and the project is driven by the idea, not by a personality or group of personalities. No individual needs permission (competitive) or consensus (collaborative) to propose an idea or initiate a project. There is no need to discuss or vote on the idea, if an idea is exciting or necessary it will attract interest. The interest attracted will be from people actively involved in the system and willing to put effort into carrying the project further, not empty votes from people with little interest or involvement. Since the project is supported or rejected based on contributed effort, not empty votes, input from people with more commitment to the idea will have greater weight. Stigmergy also puts individuals in control over their own work, they do not need group permission to tell them what system to work on or what part to contribute.

The person with the initial idea may or may not carry the task further. Evangelizing the idea is voluntary, by a group that is excited by the idea; they may or may not be the ones to carry it out. It is unnecessary to seek start up funding and supporters; if an idea is good it will receive the support required. (In practise, that is not true yet, as few people have the free time to put into volunteer projects because most are tied to compulsory work under the existing financial system.) Secrecy and competition is unnecessary because once an idea is given, it and all new development belongs to anyone who chooses to work on it. Anyone can submit work for approval, the idea cannot die or be put on hold by personalities; acceptance or rejection is for the work contributed, not the person contributing it. All ideas are accepted or rejected based on the needs of the system.

Responsibility and rights for the system rest with the entire user group, not just the creators. There is no need for people to leave the system based on personality conflicts as there is no need for communication outside of task completion and there are usually plenty of jobs with complete autonomy. As no one owns the system, there is no need for a competing group to be started to change ownership to a different group.

Stigmergy provides little scope for agent provocateurs as only the needs of the system are considered and anyone working against the system’s functionality is much easier to see and prevent than someone blocking progress with endless discussion and creation of personality conflicts. Because the system is owned by all, there is no one personality to target.


As work progresses and core team and members grow, more interested and dedicated personalities emerge which begin to steer direction. Specialties are formed around the core team’s interests as the core team produces the most work and the work most valued by the rest of the user group. Systems beyond a certain level of complexity begin to lack coherence as the group’s energy and focus moves from broad to narrow, following the interests of the core team and the availability of resources; parts of the original system will be left undone.

As more members are added, more will experience frustration at limited usefulness or autonomy. Some of these members will have an interest in the work left undone and they will create a new node of like minded members and new people to take care of the undone work. Alternatively, casual users and observers of the system, who lack the desire or expertise to be a more active part of the original system, will see the need created and create a new node. Rather than the traditional corporate model of endless acquisition and expansion, stigmergy encourages splintering into different nodes. Because each individual is responsible only for their own work, and no one can direct a group of workers, expansion means more work for the individual, a self limiting prospect. As a system grows, the additional work requires either additional resources or splintering; as communication is easier and there is more autonomy in smaller groups, splintering is the more likely outcome of growth.

Communication between nodes of a system is on an as needed basis. Transparency allows information to travel freely between the various nodes, but a formal relationship or communication method is neither necessary nor desirable. Information sharing is driven by the information, not personal relationships. If data is relevant to several nodes it will be immediately transmitted to all, no formal meetings between official personalities are necessary.

Any node can disappear without affecting the network, and the remaining necessary functionality of that node can be taken up by other nodes. Nodes which find they are performing the same tasks will likely join, or one will be rendered obsolete by lack of use. New nodes are only created to fulfill a new need or provide greater functionality; it is inefficient to have the same task performed twice, and that only occurs if a second group discovers an alternative method that the first group is unwilling to adopt. In that case, the best system will win the most support from the user group, the other will die or remain as a valued alternative. Any user can contribute to the node which best matches their interests and abilities, or contribute to multiple nodes.

In practice: the Wikileaks system

Stigmergy is already a working system in many parts of the internet. For an example close to home, we can look at Wikileaks, from the point it began splintering. When Wikileaks reached critical mass, when it was releasing a huge volume of data and its resources were stretched far too thinly to cope with all of the extra tasks, other groups began to pick up pieces of the original group’s mandate.

First were the bloggers, tweeters (and occasionally journalists) who took over the media relations for the organization. These were almost entirely individuals, and the task quickly became one of countering misinformation. Direct communication was unnecessary, information flowed through the Twitter hashtag #Wikileaks and was occasionally filtered by the official Wikileaks Twitter account. When the Swedish newspaper Expressen announced the legal case against Assange, the Swedish forum Flashback began an investigative thread within 25 minutes of the first tweet from Expressen. That thread was responsible for almost all of the initial investigation into the case, and was mined for updates by journalists worldwide. English speakers were kept updated by RixstepNews which provided instant Twitter and blog updates to any new developments on the forum.

When it became apparent that a more organized setting was going to be necessary for disseminating facts and dispelling fiction, three people had the idea for a website, a number which quickly morphed to ten people from five continents. The website WL Central was created in 72 hours. Of the initial three, one left within days as their original site was more in line with the contributions they wished to make, and another left within weeks due to other life commitments. Of the original ten, extremely few contributed much or for long to WL Central, but most remain supporters of both WL Central and Wikileaks and most have contributed a great deal since in individual efforts and continue to evangelize for both WL Central and Wikileaks. Many early members who wandered out have occasionally wandered back in again as there is no official commitment to be kept.

As the website grew and became more specialized, a great deal of the functionality was taken up by other sites. WL Press took over the collation of media coverage, SwedenVsAssange provided detailed coverage of the case against Julian Assange, CablegateSearch and CableDrummer discovered new projects that were helpful to all. Other supporters set up a Facebook page, a forum, and many other projects, while WL Central became the place for related news, in depth cable investigation, and revolution coverage. Many bloggers provided additional perspective from their blogs. Anonymous provided broad support of many other kinds, and organizations such as EFF, ACLU, Amnesty, and other human rights, and anti censorship organizations, while not part of the Wikileaks system, were still nodes that were connected by many shared values.

Besides the sites that supported Wikileaks, many sites sprang up which offered the same functionality but in a specialized area, either by region or by topic. Sites such as the extremely successful BalkanLeaks could bring focus to a certain region and combine their leaks with analysis of Wikileaks releases and in depth journalism to get attention to local issues. The least successful of these sites attempted to replicate Wikileaks, changing only the ownership. The most significant and most successful was a simple little site called Tunileaks.

Tunileaks became a node in the Wikileaks system when it created a site to pull all cables related to Tunisia and publicize them in Tunisia, where they had been censored. Because of the Wikileaks and censorship connections, the site was evangelized on WL Central and on Twitter by WLC writers. Anonymous were also early followers, giving assistance in mirroring the site and evangelizing on Twitter. On December 17, 2010, when a fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the injustice of the Ben Ali regime, his death was ignored for a month and a half by the mainstream media, but not by the Wikileaks system. Because there was already an active hashtag for Tunisia, followed by a global audience, because WL Central, Anonymous and others had been made aware of the situation in Tunisia, and because censorship everywhere had received much greater coverage than was usual, Bouazizi’s immolation and subsequent death on January 4th did not fall into a vacuum. The outpouring of support from all nodes of the system was enough to cause the Tunisian uprising to be named both the Twitter Revolution and the Wikileaks Revolution and the support helped encourage people around the world to follow in Tunisia’s footsteps.

None of the sites in this system are competitive, but neither are they particularly collaborative. While communication is possible at any time, each is aware of anything important happening in another node, and some people contribute to more than one node, there are no official communication lines. There is no time and no resources wasted on unnecessary communication, but if a node needs support it is possible for support to be instantly given by every node in the system. The establishment of wlfriends.org will hopefully give rise to many other nodes, each performing a different support function or one tailored to a new region.

The future

A new system of governance that does not follow a competitive hierarchical model will need to employ stigmergy in most of its working systems. It is neither reasonable nor desirable for individual thought and action to be subjugated to group consensus in matters which do not affect the group, and it is frankly impossible to accomplish complex tasks if every decision must be presented for approval; that is in fact the biggest weakness of the hierarchical model. The incredible success of so many internet projects are the result of stigmergy, not collaboration, and it is stigmergy that will help us build quickly, efficiently and produce results far better than any of us can foresee at the outset.