The Starfish and the Spider: The Spider, the Starfish, and the President of the Internet

[Editor’s Note: If you’re just joining us, we are in the middle of reading through “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Each Monday and Thursday I’ll summarize a few important principles from a chapter in the book. Each Tuesday and Friday, I’ll apply those principles to the starfish-shaped church I believe the Lord is building in the Earth.]

The second chapter of the Starfish and the Spider introduces us to the book’s two main analogies: The spider and the starfish. These two animals will represent throughout the book to vary different approaches to organization. The spider represents a very centralized, controlled network. The starfish will represent a decentralized organization. This chapter will serve to highlight how you determine the difference.

Before we jump into spiders and starfish, there’s an amusing story at the beginning of the chapter worth highlighting: The President of the Internet. Dave Garrison was a newly hired CEO of an internet service provider (think AOL) named Netcom. Dave’s job as CEO was to pitch his company and recruit new investors. Remember in 1995 the internet was barely known about, let alone understood.

In one particular visit, Dave was in France explaining the concept of the Internet to a group of French investors. The conversation stalled when a question was posed: “Who is the President of the Internet?” This wasn’t an illegitimate question at the time. It was troublesome to invest money into an entity that had no system of accountability. We all know now that there is no president of the Internet, but at the time, the Internet was a risky gamble.  Who would make decisions? Who would be held accountable? The investors assumed that the question kept getting lost in translation. Dave, on the other hand, knew better. After going around and around on the question, he finally gave up: “I am the president of the Internet.”

The story highlights a difficult problem when talking about Starfish and Spiders. Often it feels like we are living in a world full of centralized organizations. The world runs on a system of accountability and hierarchy, so much so that it can be difficult to spot a decentralized organization when you see it. The French investors mistook a starfish organization for a spider.

Within the book, Spiders represent centralized organizations. They may look like starfish in that there are legs that extend from a body, but that’s where the similarities end. The big difference between the spider and the starfish is the spider has a head. Cut off or crush the spider’s head and the spider dies, end of story.

Starfish on the other hand have what’s called a “distributed neural network.” There is literally no head nor is there a brain. You can’t behead a starfish. In fact, quite the opposite. Many types of starfish can be cut into pieces and the pieces can completely regrow into their own separate starfish.

The rest of the chapter spends time exploring the difference between these two types of organizations and there’s plenty that could be included. But for today, I want to sum up with a list of questions that Brafman and Beckstrom give us to understand whether we’re dealing with a starfish or spider organization:

Is there a person in charge? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Are there headquarters? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

If you thump it on the head, will it die? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Is there a clear division of roles? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? (Concentrate = Spider, Distributed =Starfish)

Is the organization flexible or rigid? (Rigid = Spider, Flexible = Starfish)

Can you count the employees or participants? (Yes = Spider, No = Starfish)

Are working groups funded by the organization or are they self-funding? (Funded = Spider, Self Funding = Starfish)

Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries? (Intermediaries = Spider, Directly = Starfish)

The important thing to remember is that no organization will typically answer all of these questions with the corresponding starfish or spider answer. There is a continuum where organizations fall. They do tend to be “more like a starfish” or “more like a spider” but it’s rare to be all spider or all starfish.

What does this mean for the church? We’ll look at that tomorrow…

Other Entries in this Series Include:

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction

The Starfish and the Spider: Introduction II

The Starfish and the Spider: On Napster and Apache Leadership

The Starfish and the Spider: P2P Networks and Spiritual Nant’ans


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About traviskolder

Travis Kolder is a follower of Jesus, a husband, a father of five, an organic church planter, and a writer. He lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he serves as part of the Cedar Rapids House Church Network.

4 responses to “The Starfish and the Spider: The Spider, the Starfish, and the President of the Internet”

  1. Dan says :

    Great illustration of church vs ekklesia!

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