Concentric Groups, Knowledge Bridges and Epistemic Communities

vs Elitism, Celebrity and Oligarchy

This article is part of a series: ‘Stigmergy: Systems of Mass Collaboration’.

Note: Concentric circles relate to sound amplification – the voices or ideas in the centre are amplified more greatly. They are not hierarchical as they have no direct control over the actions of anyone.

While most action based systems can be completely open to participation by anyone, there are situations where an elite level of knowledge and accreditation of some sort is necessary prior to participation. Complicated surgery or engineering are examples of this type of work. While accreditation can and should come from the user group and be completely transparent and permeable, ability in many cases can only be reviewed by those who have attained an above average level of specialized knowledge. In these cases, there must be peer acknowledged levels of expertise attached to specific people, a situation not compatible with pure stigmergy or horizontal action.

Idea based systems such as some scientific research, which should be open to all contributions, require extensive feedback and peer review of ideas, both to identify signal from noise and to provide knowledge bridges between elite levels of knowledge and casual users. In many specialized systems such as the pharmaceutical industry, the entire user group has an urgent interest in ensuring that ideas are properly audited but few have the interest or ability to inform themselves to the level necessary to be able to audit. No one has the time to inform themselves to an expert level of knowledge in every system which affects them, even if that information is completely transparent and available to all. In these systems, ideas need to be promoted by those users qualified to understand them.

In these cases, it is necessary to define a form of elitism, of ideas or people, that will take advantage of expertise but not remove control of a system from the end users. Ignoring elite knowledge in favour of a pretense at completely horizontal governance will not eliminate elitism, it will only create hidden oligarchies dominated by those without the expertise required, usually celebrity personalities.

In allowing this form of elitism, ultimate choice must always be left with the entire user group. An epistemic community is a knowledge resource only. Superior knowledge can only be forced to work for the wellbeing of the entire user group if authority remains with the entire user group and the epistemic community is forced to remain completely transparent and permeable. Science may dream of brilliant innovations, but the user group controls whether those are implemented or created. This authority also provides the incentive for transparency and knowledge bridges to explain reasoning to the entire group.

As in stigmergy, votes in a concentric group are frequently replaced by actions, as expert review will show the options most likely to bring the best results. This information is then available to all and those options will, barring outside factors, be accepted as best practices by most of the user group. The celebrated hive mind behind recent actions has never actually existed in practice. The hive takes actions but ideas originate with individuals. On every occasion depicted as a mass hive action there has been epistemic community or solitary planning creating a butterfly effect. Even when these planning groups are theoretically open to all, they are in actuality only open to those with knowledge of them. Acknowledging epistemic communities does not create them, it simply brings them into the open and allows any member of the user group to participate.

An epistemic community can be people or ideas, depending on the situation. While credit for ideas must always be given, idea based systems should promote ideas instead of people, a body of laws instead of a judiciary. While action in a specialized action based system can only be taken by those qualified, meaningful input can come from a broad section of the user group and be evaluated and promoted by those qualified. Promoting ideas also allows auditing of an idea without all the unrelated distraction of attached personalities.

In such a system it is absolutely essential that global communication be recognized as a first basic right of all people, as communication is power to obtain all the rights which follow and the method to claim membership in society.

Knowledge Bridges

In a concentric user group, people or ideas promoted to the center by their peer group receive greatest amplification and their findings will be audited, amplified and explained to the general public by outer circles. While transparency will ensure that conversations at the centre are heard by all, it is unlikely that they will be understood by those with no knowledge of the system. It is not reasonable to expect those in the epistemic community to explain their reasoning to every member of the user group and attempt to educate every member to an elite level of understanding, but those of the user group with an interest have a right to education and understanding of that which effects them.

Communication should not be the full responsibility of the experts in the centre, but should be carried over expertise bridges by full transparency and user participation. It is the responsibility of each user in an open system to educate themselves to their own level of comfort using the data and user population at each level to inform themselves. Their input and decision making impact would then be commensurate with the expertise they acquire. The epistemic community in the centre should not need to protect themselves from attacks from completely uninformed users. The circles of expertise which promoted them to the centre should also verify and explain their findings to the outer circles.

Ideas can never be furthered if discussion is always at the level of the novice and the ideas of an expert can only be tested by other experts with equal understanding of the topic; in a concentric user group, the receptive field is stronger near the centre, so informed opinions will be heard more clearly by experts in the centre, but full transparency will allow anyone from any part of the system to be as informed as they wish to be by any other part.

Knowledge bridges allow discussion to be held at every level of expertise and corrected by those with greater knowledge. Knowledge bridges also allow input from casual users to be instantly promoted to be heard by the epistemic community if the user group finds the points valid. Knowledge bridges need to ensure that the best ideas are promoted and disseminated, regardless of the attractiveness or popularity of the person with the expertise.

Acceptance must be controlled by the entire user group, and the user group must always have the power to shun, thereby removing power from, any peer promoted expert. This is necessary to avoid a closed oligarchy; but it must be approached warily so that the amplified voices in the center are the true experts, not the most populist and attractive choices. It is incumbent on the user group to protect the center from celebrity grabbing manipulation if they are not to recreate the populist systems of representative democracy. This can only be done by promoting actions and ideas divorced from their source, and ensuring that idea credit stealing is a shameful action. This is essential to ensure innovation and radically different, not easily understood ideas are properly heard and tested. It is also essential to ensure that new ideas from unpopular sources are promoted.

In representative democracy we have learned that people in general prefer to place their faith in leaders who are like them instead of leaders who are so expert they do not understand them. In order to avail ourselves of the greatest expertise on each topic, we must place our most knowledgeable experts in a position of transparent authority while also providing a knowledge bridge leading from their ideas to the casually interested observer. According to Leta Hollingworth’s research, to be a leader of their contemporaries a child must be more intelligent but not too much more intelligent than them. A discrepancy of more than about 30 points of IQ does not allow for leadership, or even respect or effective communication. The same principle appears to hold for levels of knowledge on a given topic.

Hollingworth notes: A lesson which many gifted persons never learn as long as they live is that human beings in general are inherently very different from themselves in thought, in action, in general intention, and in interests. Many a reformer has died at the hands of a mob which he was trying to improve in the belief that other human beings can and should enjoy what he enjoys. This is one of the most painful and difficult lessons that each gifted child must learn, if personal development is to proceed successfully. It is more necessary that this be learned than that any school subject be mastered. Failure to learn how to tolerate in a reasonable fashion the foolishness of others leads to bitterness, disillusionment, and misanthropy (Hollingworth, 1942, p. 259).

This loss of expertise is a tragedy for both the experts and society. There needs to be a method of organization that will use all expertise at the level it will be most effective and avoid communication barriers. Those with elite knowledge need to be able to have relatively quiet conversations with those that can expand and audit the knowledge base while still providing complete transparency, permeability and control for the rest of the user group.


As mentioned in The Problems with Democracy, oligarchies have formed in every type of governance we have attempted so far. The difference brought to oligarchies in communism and democracy is simply that they are far less transparent, to the point that their very existence is denied. Oligarchies appear to be inevitable for many reasons; the reasons related to control of the work of others for achieving goals we can overcome by using stigmergy, consensus and other tools, but there is a place in society for an elite system of knowledge, and that knowledge will always be a source of power. If power from property ownership and hierarchical organizations are removed, knowledge and celebrity will be the dominant sources of power and the places to watch for a new oligarchy.

Most manifestations of attempts at horizontal governance also attempt to deny all elitism, by discouraging or forbidding it in any form and denying its necessity. Whether or not oligarchy exists, elitism most certainly does, in every field that requires expertise beyond that of a novice. To not allow elitism would be to not allow expertise, which would cripple any society. Knowledge at an elite level is where most of our innovation takes place.

Where elite knowledge exists, there will always be elite conversations. If there are not clubs which require membership, then parties such as that which started Martha Stewart’s troubles, or just conversations that are held above the level of novice understanding. The keys to allowing elite expertise but not allowing for elite conspiracies such as insider trading are transparency and knowledge bridges. If Martha had instantly tweeted her conversation and people had rapidly spread its meaning to a novice level, there would have been no unfair advantage in her conversation.

Once there were exclusive clubs and organizations where people could go to isolate themselves and rule the world in elite company. Now we need transparent, helpful epistemic communities as part of the community. The Communist Party of China, the Vatican, the Davos group, are all examples of oligarchies which no longer have any legitimate reason to conduct their activities in secrecy and with no input from their user groups.

Elite levels of knowledge exist today for many reasons, exclusion of the majority of the population from power being the biggest. As an ideal in an open transparent society, anyone would be capable of attempting to contribute to elite knowledge resources, but limitations of interest or ability will still exclude all but a few. This is not an evil if it is properly controlled and it is in fact the best way to ensure decisions based on real expertise instead of connections and other sources of power.

The key to preventing elite knowledge from becoming a tyrannical oligarchy is to maintain control by the user group over action and decisions and treat epistemic communities always as a knowledge resource, not a governing power. Shunning can be used to instantly remove power in an open system, keeping the real power within the user group, not the epistemic community. No system of elite knowledge must ever become unassailable. When combined with stigmergy the work produced in systems with transparent, permeable epistemic communities may finally be of the highest standard we can attain and the work environments will allow autonomous participation for all.

Shunning, trolling and photoshopping

In concentric circles, experts are peer promoted based on reputation instead of certification by an external authority. Each user of a system can review the work of the active members both directly and through the expert review of the active member’s peers instead of placing their faith in a third party certification. Additionally, experts can be created by the system itself as users develop knowledge, expertise and reputation and move towards the centre. Third party authorities such as universities are no longer necessary. It is essential that peer review of expertise is done fairly and without personality based bias.

In an inclusive society, shunning is the most effective punishment for violation of the social contract. Shunning removes the offending person from all of the benefits of belonging to a society. As the prison systems can attest, particularly those that practise the torture of solitary confinement, the effects of shunning are terrible to humans, an inherently highly social species.

In an otherwise non-coercive society, shunning is also the most effective way of removing power from a member of an epistemic community. Ideas which no one follows will wither and die, they only become powerful when used. Conversations which engage no one will fall silent. Shunning is a very powerful tool and should be recognized as such, and not used lightly or maliciously to block access to power.

In a permeable system open to input by all, trolling is used to assess expertise where it is not immediately apparent and allow or block participation in conversations of elite knowledge. The jargon employed in most fields is used to facilitate this trolling, as well as inside jokes, conversations that allow quick assessment of knowledge levels and traps to make the less knowledgeable participant appear foolish. Trolling frequently becomes ad hominem attack to drive a participant from a conversation if they have been found to not have the appropriate level of knowledge. While the first form is an expedient way to keep conversations at an elite level and allow input only from those qualified, as well as to exclude sock puppets and astroturfing online, trolling is a form of shunning and should never be used to drive away people who are qualified or those who are honestly trying to learn.

Frequently, trolling and shunning are used to keep some from positions of power. Sexual and other harassment to prevent people from speaking, meetings in places or conducted in a manner to make them uncomfortable for some, or harsher standards and far more trolling of those who are automatically assumed to be inferior are used as gatekeeping by circles of power. Epistemic communities are the new private clubs. Users should not need to beg acceptance and the same standards of admittance should be applied to all. Internet anonymity for many was akin to emerging from Plato’s cave with the sudden ability to join all conversations and be treated as an equal as long as anonymity was unbroken. That ability needs to be defended for all, even in a system where people are known.

Photoshopping is another way of ensuring that credit is given to only a few. Almost all actions and bodies of knowledge involve several people; it is simple to exclude some as being peripheral and highlight others as central without much notice being taken. Rosalind Franklin’s work could be called peripheral to Watson and Crick’s, perhaps not as important, and the choice of the two over the one downplayed. But when you begin to see everyone but western men drastically underrepresented in every list of important people, it raises the possibility that perhaps everyone else is being photoshopped out of the stories with inferior titles, inferior media attention, inferior idea crediting.

Women historically come with built in anonymity, everything they say has been proxy routed through the nearest man and given no credence until it was. The work of introverts is claimed by extroverts, the work of voices discredited is claimed by accepted personalities. Blogs reference each other as the corporate media refuses to name them; western men own media empires which hire western men which interview western men. The misogynist labeled reddit ensures those articles featuring men are widely read. Wikipedia’s over 95% male editors have been accused constantly of a gender bias in editing, as well as being an amplification and glorification of western male dominated corporate media. They produce a reference populated largely with western men in positions of influence. This is used to determine online measures of influence such as Klout scores which, instead of documenting influence, fall victim to the Hawthorne Effect and create it. All of this data is used to determine who sits on panels and boards, who are given awards, who is hired for positions of influence and the image we all carry in our heads of what an expert looks like.

Women especially, are defined in relation to men, as assistant, secretary, aide, wife,etc. In this way, they can perform the same or more work, but credit for their work and ideas is preemptively assigned to the person they are defined in relation to and they are locked out of receiving influence. Non western voices are put into sub-categories, they are not ‘thought leaders’, they are ‘African thought leaders’. Like ‘women’s issues’, these sub-categories become ghettos where no one ever looks except for tokenism. Those refused recognition leave in frustration, as they must produce many times the content to receive any recognition and must not complain or they will be further marginalized. Young students are left with no mentors in a system where those similar to them are erased.

The exclusion is so pervasive the US media even overwhelmingly go to men for opinions on ‘women’s issues’ as seen in the chart below. For general issues such as politics, the conversation has revolved around men with guns and money for so long, with the rare article on victimized women, it is as if no one even realizes there are alternative stories, such as all the people building society instead of destroying it. Without these alternative stories, people are left with the choice of supporting one group of men with guns and money or another, choosing one as ‘good guys’ and the other as ‘bad guys’, despite the similarity of actions. The story of creators is considered not as newsworthy as the story of destroyers, killing people is both newsworthy and a respected career while giving birth is neither. These limited views dictate the structure of our society.


In many or most cases, this exclusion is not deliberate, those doing the excluding are not even aware they are doing it. When you are standing in the spotlight you can’t see the shadows; many times it seems those in the spotlight are unaware of the existence of others on the stage. It is essential to maintain transparent, idea and action driven systems with vigilant user groups to keep epistemic communities inclusive and open.

Epistemic communities in action based systems

In open source software, the code for each project is available for all to see. Even if the end user cannot understand the code, they can go to discussion groups and read or listen to programmers who have read and audited the code, hear their discussions, and watch them find bugs and discuss alternative solutions. The people with the greater knowledge of the system will provide knowledge bridges for people at a more novice level. Good ideas from these discussions can be read, discussed and possibly implemented by the developers as well. Open source software with forums open to all are a perfect working example of fully transparent and audited systems of elite knowledge. While the decisions are made by the developers, review and acceptance or rejection of the software is the right of the user group. If the developers refuse to listen to the user group and another development team is willing to work on the project, the original code can be forked and modified to meet the user requirements.

Traditional systems primarily use a supposedly representative sample of the user group to provide periodic feedback. This feedback is delivered as percentages of the population which ignores the importance of the individual. From an individual perspective, the chance of dying of a side effect from a pharmaceutical is either 0% or 100%, group statistics have no effect on individual experience. Transparent user groups allow feedback and ideas from the entire user group, an automatic testing and validation system in place continually throughout development and operation. Risks which are ‘statistically insignificant’ become extremely important when they happen to an active participant in the user group community and more accurately reflect a real society vs a system of dissociation.

The github model of replaceable lords of a fiefdom may be improved on in a system where the entire epistemic community operates by consensus, but as long as there is transparency and the ability for anyone to fork the code and start anew, oligarchies can still be avoided. Coursera-like online courses where students teach each other and have direction from an epistemic community of instructors with knowledge bridges of graduates and fellow students is another example of a concentric circle in the cases where the course material is released as creative commons. CryptoParties are another.

Celebrity and thought leaders

As we ponder how to create action and idea based systems, the internet, and so the world, is becoming more personality based than ever before in history. The Internet is rapidly transforming from being page centric to people centric. The hive mind has become me, the people. As liquid democracy type representation becomes more accepted, personal branding for power becomes even more entrenched. Anonymity and group work are being pushed aside in favour of personal celebrity for all.

Along with celebrity have come tools to measure celebrity. The first such tool was Wikipedia, a glorification and amplification of corporate media. Now Klout and similar are taking influence measurement further and not just creating celebrity oligarchies but also dictating the terms of engagement between the oligarchies and the user group by their algorithms. These tools do not just measure influence, they create it, and unchecked, their algorithms will dictate the terms of our new society. If Klout scores people higher for engagement, celebrity thought leaders will engage. If Klout scores higher for engaging with higher ranked celebrities, the powerful will become more powerful and even unassailable. If Klout celebrities score higher for only interacting with and following each other, we will have a closed oligarchy.

Klout is one example, but there are many powerful tools doing the same; the Google search controversy over whether Google should show people what they already like instead of presenting a more realistic, broader view is another. Even a search engine presenting the most commonly sought result instead of a random selection helps entrench already entrenched ideas. Sponsored ‘who to follow’ groups or Twitter’s event pages with only certain tweeters shown are others. A short time ago, if you wished for real influence, as opposed to influence created to sell to marketers, cheating by gaming the influence measurement systems wouldn’t help, because the tricks brought no real influence. Now real influence follows the appearance of influence. In addition to gaming scams, it is openly possible to buy influence by, for instance, paying Facebook to promote your page or Twitter to promote a tweet.

While Twitter was a data driven breakthrough for online society, where no one needed acceptance to begin speaking, this is becoming less true all the time. Anyone can speak, but voices are amplified as favours given and received and the rules change as accounts grow more powerful. Pure data driven systems are unfortunately nearly impossible technologically in a time of spam and astroturfing software; with the vast amounts of data in our world, celebrity amplification of good ideas is needed. The first reaction to this realization by those wishing for a horizontal community was to create group hubs, but these have largely and correctly been felled by the problems with group affiliation.

An idea popularized by celebrity personality endorsement without knowledgeable input can subsequently be exposed as simplistic, factually incorrect or otherwise flawed by those with deeper knowledge, but the celebrity endorsement can drown the expert knowledge (see the Kony 2012 campaign for an example of celebrity endorsement drowning local knowledge). The influence of celebrities from entertainment and sports industries over unrelated topics is illogical but widespread, and they are more than ever expected to use that influence in areas completely outside their knowledge sphere. When actors Yao Chen and Chen Kui Kun posted support to Southern Weekend newspaper on Sina Weibo, it appeared more newsworthy than a statement from the United Nations would be.

Even within the entertainment industry, which may be thought to be within the sphere of celebrity expertise, most had hoped for grass roots driven promotion to replace corporate promotion. Instead we find corporate sponsorship replaced by a tweet from Justin Bieber, which launched stars such as Carly Rae Jepsen and Psy far more immediately and effectively than a label ever dreamed of doing.

All of the above sounds very discouraging, but it really isn’t. The first step in any cleaning and organizing is to drag everything out to the open to be sorted and that is really what has happened with celebrity. None of this influence is new, it is in fact a far more toned down, accessible and transparent version of the celebrity and influence peddling we have had for years. It is palatable for an individual you choose whether or not to follow to recommend an artist that you can choose to watch or not without diluting your supply of alternative choices; compared to the control once exerted by music labels this does not seem evil. Citing papers in academia or votes in Hollywood’s Academy Awards are no less subject to influence peddling.

Much of the undue influence is inherently repulsive to most people, and they have already begun to combat it. The Kony 2012 campaign suffered an immediate if largely unheard backlash from the people actually in the region. Today those rebuttals would be even more immediate and well amplified. Even the traditional pundits from old corporate media hardly dare write any more about regions they are not resident of; soon all such foreign punditry will be replaced by local voices and news will be reported by those it is happening to as audiences will demand that level of informed opinion.

A cultural shift is required around celebrity. Celebrity was created to distract attention from issues the true oligarchies did not want scrutinized. The public’s ‘right to know’ was transferred from the business of the government to the hair style of an entertainer. This type of celebrity is no longer needed and it is becoming rapidly diluted as the general population Occupy celebrity by being Tumblr famous, Twitter famous, etc. Expertise is already largely separate from celebrity, voice amplification will soon be merely a job and a fairly boring one at that.

Until this cultural shift is complete, it is dangerous to concentrate even knowledge based celebrity in one individual or group of individuals, and there must be continuous intelligent auditing by the user groups. Open epistemic communities generally are plagued with members who may or may not be qualified to be there but they play the outer circles against the inner and create a human interest story of themselves. Their fame and popular support makes them impossible to challenge or shun. This is distracting and detracts from the work of the community. User groups must ensure that while they watch their communities for inclusiveness, they do not allow this type of manipulation.

The tools to moderate a celebrity or expertise oligarchy are now in the hands of the people. Hopefully the user groups will moderate, exercise their ability to shun for bad behaviour and refuse to allow control to leave the entire user group. There is no reason why a person with a learning disability should be less happy or satisfied than a brilliant mind, or why gardening should not be as rewarding a life work choice as participating in an epistemic community or acquiring internet celebrity. As discussed in The Financial System, it is an artificially controlled environment of privilege that makes one seem better than the other and it is easily overcome in a population not controlled by their financial system.


Hollingworth, L. S. (1942). Children above 180 IQ (Stanford-Binet): Origin and development. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company.