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eCampaigning in a Leaderless World

Friday, September 24th, 2010

*I originally wrote this piece for FairSay.com in March 2010*

Though people have managed to self-organise throughout human history, we are at a moment where the fusion of this self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to… So what does this mean for traditional campaigning organisations?
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Protesters

Image courtesy of Steve Lawson

Do we live in a leaderless world? Obviously not – we don’t have to look far to see how the decisions of bosses and politicians shape much of our everyday lives. Are there places in our world that exist outside of a top-down form of leadership? Yes – people collectively-organise, often to great effect, in many realms of life. And though this has been the case for all of human history – whether in church groups or terror networks – we are at a moment where the fusion of this kind of self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to.

For those of you already immersed in this world, the modern-legend that is Trafigura – the story of the PR firm that won an injunction against the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings involving its client, and then had it over-turned by a leak and a spontaneous, 12-hour online uprising in the ‘Twittersphere’ – is likely a familiar one by now. What the Trafigura ‘campaign’ represents though, is more than a ‘good over evil’, or ‘David and Goliath’ kind of victory – it represents a fundamentally different way of achieving social change, than that which most of our organisations will have had any previous experience being a part of.

What’s different about Trafigura?

What’s different about Trafigura, is the absence of a ‘head’; a lead body – usually an organisation, but at least a charismatic individual – who can determine, broadly, the direction through which a likeminded group can move to achieve its aims. The only ‘leader’ of this campaign, was the idea that people have a right to know what happens in Parliament, regardless of the reputational effects that may have on the people or groups involved. And that was it – this idea exploded and very quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, feeding into a range of major blogs, mainstream news stories and, within half-a-day, the repeal of the gag order itself – a campaign victory by any traditional measure. But no single person or group could honestly claim the victory, because what happened was bigger than any of the individual parts.

What does this mean for us?

So what does all this mean for traditional campaigning organisations? Potentially, a lot, though it is still ‘early days’. We can no longer assume that our knowledge, history of voice, or positioning will place us at the centre of mass collective sentiment around our issues or areas of work. On some level, the ‘need’ for a central organising body in a campaign seems – at least superficially – to be less relevant that it has ever been. As so many people can achieve critical mass, without being told to attend a particular event, or sign up to an organisation’s platform, the potential for self-organisation is vast, and can, at times, outweigh the benefits of subscribing to an organisation’s campaign actions. As institutions, it is impossible for us to move as quickly as individuals can, in response to an event or a piece of news. With the connecting power of social media, vast numbers of individual people are able to move very quickly, in roughly the same direction, without a helmsperson to steer the ship.

So are we, as campaigning organisations, on the verge of forced redundancy, in light of this shift towards decentralisation? No… or at least not necessarily.

If, in the coming months and years we are able to adapt to this changing terrain, and accept, that we won’t always be able to ‘lead’ every campaign we want to take on, I think we will find our roles to be ever-more important, as e-campaigning becomes part of more and more peoples’ social media routine. Alternatively, if we cling to the more traditional, command-and-control mechanisms of brand consistency and uniform messaging, people may very well find other ways of getting themselves heard on the issues they care about, that are less-restricting to their personal schedules or ideas of activism.

Practically speaking though, what would campaigning look like in this new environment? The ever-allusive answer is that it could look like a lot of different things, which is another reason it may be harder for some organisations to adapt effectively. It’s much harder to plan for a campaign when you:

  • don’t know when it might happen
  • don’t know exactly what it’s going to be about, and
  • don’t know what contribution you might be making to it.

What to do about it

But luckily we’re not flying totally blind here and there are still things we can do to prepare! The key is in flexibility; if a Trafigura-esque (spontaneous, leaderless) ‘campaign’ emerges within your area of expertise:

Make sure you’ve already got the relevant information available online – reports, stories, interviews – so you can start to link to it and share it around, as soon as the topic appears to be taking off. If people are linking to your information repeatedly, it builds a collective sense of trust that your messages carry some authority in the given area. Trust will make your next steps that much easier.

Figure out who the others are who seem to have some authority on the issues. This may cut against some organisations’ instincts, but promote what they are saying and doing as well, whether via Twitter, a blog, your website, or a Facebook page. Reciprocity is an important tenet of social media culture, and will inevitably benefit your both work and your cause, if you can demonstrate that you’re involvement is bigger than just your organisation.

Lastly, (and maybe most importantly) be prepared to offer whatever makes sense to those in the ‘campaign’ who are most active and vocal. Maybe this means providing a meeting space for activists looking to move their online actions into ‘real world’; maybe this means making an introduction to a relevant politician whom you’ve already built a relationship with; maybe this means setting-up a one-off campaign action for supporters to engage with… your potential types of contributions in such a situation could be endless, but your potential returns could be greater than those of many of our most successful traditional campaigns.

The potential for unprecedented numbers of people to come together to affect change has never been greater; let’s make sure that, though we might not be in the middle of it all, at least we can find ourselves a place where it counts…

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