The Mob

Sadly I can’t find where I read that some 20th century sociologist divided the world into three parts: the elites, the mob, and the masses. The elites are those who transparently have great power: kings, monopolists, olograrchs, leaders of powerful political parties, mayors, senators, etc. etc – e.g. the top of this or that power curve. The masses are typically unwashed, undifferentiated, and come in great numbers – e.g. the tail of the power curve.

The mob is the interesting one. The mob are the artists, the disaffected intelectuals, the revolutionaries, the entrepeneurs. I suspect these are the upper-middleclass connectors in the power-law graph.

As a subplot of my musing about what gives a standard momenteum I’ve got to thinking that the mob is a third group you need to get on board. If the mob are the folks that enjoy reengineering how the connections in the power-law graph are made, then these are folks you need on your side if your attempting to engineer a new standard.

In some sense this is convential wisdom. Even the marvelously vapid Crossing the Chasm points out that an emerging company begins by working with the innovators who’s have both the vision and the foolhardiness to take the insane risk implicit in being the first to get on a new bandwagon.

But even much smarter folks have noticed how critical to innovation members of this class are.

Reading Paul Graham amusing rant about Java’s ‘cover’ is a wonderful example of just how cranky and substanative this class of players is. Paul is a perfect example of a member of the mob; a very wise somewhat bitter refugee from a great now nearly dead subculture of the software industry[1]. Paul’s essay, written circa 2001, argues that much about Java sets off his inner-radar in a manner that suggests he should run away.

His radar is made suspicious, for example, by the DOD’s enthusiasm for Java. DOD’s track record with language enthusiasm’s has been pretty lousy. I think that the mob is always a little suspicious of emerging standards who’s claim to fame is the enthusiasm of the either of the other two groups. The mob is suspicious of the masses, who tend to hysteria. They don’t trust the elites for two reasons. The elites often need a stern talking too and the mob loves to volunteer to do that; the so called ‘speak truth to power. But also, the mob is trying to restructure the connections in the web that creates the power-law and in doing that they fully intend to threaten the existing elites, aka the vested interests.

In anycase, if your attempting to get an emerging standard to take hold you do seem to need to tackle all three of these audiences. The skills approprate for each audience are amazingly distinctive. I have a first order theory about were the skills to do that becoming industrialized.

[1]  One can dis one’s own kind.

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