I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the eCampaigning Forum in Oxford on April 11, 2014, describing how social media can act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the constructive subversion of organisational bureaucracy. Here’s the video to prove it.
…If you’re not yet convinced that you want to commit 28 minutes of your life to watching me talk, here are a couple of teasers:
I describe ‘three stages of organisational social media embrace’: ‘the new fax machine,’ ‘the social engineering project,’ and ‘the more like people organisation.’ Most organisations are stuck at the second stage, but the real magic happens at the third stage.
You’ll get to see silly image macros that involve the Hulk, the boss from Office Space and a bunch of wanky pics that come up when you search ‘professional’ in Google Images.
I explain constructive subversion, as a way of changing your organisation, without expecting the turkeys (senior management) to vote for Christmas (flatter, more democratic, transparent and trusting organisations).
I’m especially keen to hear peoples’ thoughts on this one, and if they have been able to put any of the ideas into practice in their own workplaces.
May your subversions be constructive!
EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who really don’t have time for the video, here is the ‘3 stages of social media embrace’ I recently described on the ECF list. They are admittedly crude and no org will fall 100% into one of them, but I think they provide a bit of a sense of a trajectory for getting the fullest potential from online campaigning tools.
1. The new fax machine – it’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One Tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of orgs were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Jonses, cause others are doing it. Nothing more.
2. The social engineering project – highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more=better. (This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures).
3. The more like people organisation – everyone who wants to, tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more trad orgs. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.
This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our orgs have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.
I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.
Below is the first published snippet of ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ The crowd-funding campaign for the book will launch this Friday on StartSomeGood.com. Join the email list for updates.
'Does anyone have the authority to sign-off on this?' (Collin David Anderson, used under Creative Commons)
Imagine the first strategy meeting amongst an imaginary coalition of NGOs involved in ‘strategising’ for the delivery of the ‘Arab Spring 2011’ program. Probably in about April 2002:
“Our vision is: ‘A series of mostly peaceful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, overthrowing longstanding dictatorships and kicking-off a process of bottom-up democratisation throughout the region.’”
“Great. What are our targets gonna be? Have we identified strategic partners in each of the countries? What will we accept as a ‘democratic’ victory? Do we have a system of risk management? How will we measure the impact?…”
If they had somehow managed what we now know was achieved by less strategic or coordinated means, think for a minute how the follow-up meetings might have gone:
“Do we have a figure on ‘total persons liberated’ yet?”
“What if that figure goes up after the funding period is over? Think we could fudge it a bit to boost the numbers?”
“We’re probably gonna want to avoid mentioning too much about Syria in the final report… Bahrain too.”
“We’ll have to talk about Libya, but is there a way we can avoid giving NATO too much credit on that one? If we make it look like they were the critical success factor, they’ll get all the funding in the next round.”
“Can we reshape the vision statement to reflect Tunisia and Egypt more strongly? If we were aiming to liberate the whole region and only two dictators were ousted, it’ll be easy to say the programme was a failure. What if we said it was something about ‘supporting peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt’? Then we can credit the other stuff as unexpected fringe benefits of our interventions… maybe we can build the next funding app around some of the other countries that have been ‘prepared’ for future peaceful revolutions?…”
There were of course many organisations that played roles within the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, but there was no organisation that could effectively or meaningfully take credit for what took place in any single country, let alone the entire region.
Organisations (clearly structured institutions) have, throughout history played important roles in countless social movements (looser, larger, emergent and wholly autonomous masses of people), yet have repeatedly failed to understand the differences between the two forms.
The organising principles which underpin organisations and movements are almost diametrically opposed to one another, even if from the outside (and generally through the condensed lens of history) their aims and beliefs appear perfectly aligned.
An organisation in a movement is too often like the friend-of-a-friend at a high school house party who hasn’t grasped the etiquette of the group they’ve stumbled into. They do inappropriate things, hit on people they should know not to hit on, say things they shouldn’t say… and ultimately end up too drunk for their own good, being looked after by some sympathetic stranger who wants to keep them from getting beat-up or seriously damaging the furniture.
…Maybe that last bit pushed the metaphor a bit, but anyone who has participated in a movement without their organisational hat on knows the tension that emerges when an institution tries to impose hierarchy on something for which there are simultaneously no leaders and an ever-changing plethora of leaders coming-and-going, depending on the specifics of the situation.
This tension might be sparked by unannounced organisational recruitment drives at broader movement events or actions. It might be in the domination of organising meetings with particular agendas and aims. It could be the prevalence of a particular organisational face in media coverage or publicity, taking disproportionate credit for something which has in fact been a much broader effort.
This is not to say that people who work for organisations cannot bring just as much value, resource and experience to a movement as any of the rest of us, but that too often this requires their aims as individual activists to trump their aims as employees of an institution.
The desires to build brand recognition, to secure funding, to promote awareness of a particular agenda or individual name are practically speaking at odds with actually working towards a better world. They distract from the tasks at hand. We began by explaining them to ourselves as ‘necessary evils’ in the world of organising, until they gradually assumed a considerable bulk of our work. The tail is wagging the dog.
We have put the ‘cart before the horse’ when the structures created to help achieve change, become the institution’s primary reasons for being. Over time, almost without fail those ‘helpful’ structures end up practically at odds with the change they were meant to support – often at the point of engagement between the organisation itself, and the bigger movement that it is a part of.
Our organisations need to be more sensitive to their environments, and accept that we are guests in broader movements for change, rather than the stars of the show, as so much organisational campaigning, publicity and fundraising efforts have pushed us to try to be over the years.
Becoming aware of the ways our organisational hats might be at odds with the aims of a movement, is a critical step towards making a positive difference in this emergent world. If we want to be meaningful and constructive contributors, we need to understand the principles that help movements to thrive, even if they seem immediately at odds with the principles that have driven our organisations for so long.
As you read this, there are countless emergent social movements that could benefit from the people, experience and resources that our organisations have within their walls. Finding ways to work constructively – rather than antagonistically – with these looser networks will be a defining distinction of established organisations that remain important in the movements of the not-so-distant future.
But doing so means learning to take on some of the qualities of these looser networks…
This was taken from Chapter 3: ‘The myth of hierarchical necessity and what we can do for ourselves.’ To read more, this book will need to be crowd-funded. Join the email list, ‘like’ the Facebook page, or sign-up to the Facebook crowd-funding event, to make sure you get the updates when the campaign goes live on Friday! Big advance thank you hugs for helping to make this possible! 🙂
Today I did a webinar for the London Campaigns Forum. The theme is ‘sharing’… but more accurately, the theme is ‘how can our organisations learn to operate more like the social movements we have seen springing up all around us?’
The talk is about 20 minutes, a bit long by internet standards, but would be keen to continue the debate on here, if people are interested.
…And the (much longer-seeming) text of it, for those who prefer to read 🙂
Sharing vs Distributing
Let’s talk about sharing… you know, that thing you do on the internet? With pictures of kittens and videos of kittens and stories about… kittens?
Oh, and actions to change the world! Those ones that other campaigners work very hard to ensure pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds at least a few times a day?
In which case, is this still sharing, or have we moved into the realms of distribution?
To distribute, as a verb, is a centralised, concerted effort to push something specific out to the masses, from a particular source, for a particular reason. Much as a distribution centre supplies many individual stores with a product to sell… Or as those stores go on to sell their customers those same products, within their locale.
Sharing, on the other hand, is a characteristic of networks – any number of people, acting independently, to connect any number of different things they value, with people they know who might also value them, no strings attached. Like you would lend a friend a book you’ve read, or tell them about an event you’re going to, because you think they’ll also enjoy it.
While often similar in effect at a certain scale, in that lots of people receive something – the ideas and motivations that underpin each of these actions are very different from one another. If our organisations want to share, there are a few more fundamental shifts they might have to make first.
When people share things, we derive some kind of immeasurable value from doing so. Knowing we’ve filled a gap, giving others the chance to experience something we’ve appreciated, or offered someone something new feels good. Others appreciate the effort we’ve made in doing so, everybody wins.
But is this what our organisations tend to do?
Maybe, maybe not.
‘Agendas’ and trust
Because organisations have ‘an agenda’ beyond ‘the share’.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At some level the agenda is as simple as ‘create good in the world’, but as all of us who’ve spent any time in organisations know, there are a lot of secondary aims that we often end of placing before the ‘change the world’ stuff. Build the mailing list, converting donors in to activists, demonstrating value to funders, etc.
We have lots of reasons why we do these things, but that’s not really the point.
Hate speech, porn and credit card scams aside, the internet is built on trust.
Trust is built in a number of ways.
In an organisational sense, we associate it with terms like ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘credibility’, which are important in certain contexts, but the kind of trust that the internet is built on is something else.
It’s more like the trust that exists between friends that says: “I know you wouldn’t intentionally suggest I click a link to something you didn’t really believe that I, personally, should click.”
It’s the kind of trust that comes from believing the person offering you something has nothing to gain except the satisfaction of knowing that whatever they’re offering you has improved your life in some small way, even if that’s a matter of giving you an opportunity to do something good. There is definitely flexibility within this, in that those you call your friends can push this definition from time-to-time, without it ruining your friendship, but it’s definitely a fine balance to be struck.
And it is also a point where our organisations often run afoul of the internet, in the same way so many corporations do: people sense the bigger agenda, whatever it may be. It is not the ‘gifting culture’ that has been prevalent in most of our major religions and countless indigenous communities for millennia, and which has made a public resurgence via the social web in recent years.
For better or worse, our organisations have agendas; the strategies upon which we expect change will occur. So when we say we’re sharing, it doesn’t always feel that way to those on the receiving end.
But this isn’t an inevitability working for social change. In fact, we’re living at a time when the alternatives are all around us.
Organisations and movements
Lately I’ve been writing about the differences between organisations and movements, and why the things that help one thrive, are as likely to be anathema to the other. Two kinds of groups, working towards the same ultimate goals, but organised to do so in almost diametrically different ways.
Movements are self-directed – people joining-up around something that is immediately relevant to them, with of a feeling of shared purpose and the freedom to pursue that purpose in whatever ways they feel inspired to do so.
Alternatively, organisations are hierarchical – people following steps set out by a relative few, to achieve something that is (hopefully) in all of their best interests, on the time scales that the organisation decides.
And the types of environments that nurture each of these forms are rarely the same. At the most core level, organisations have always liked to be in control, whereas movements thrive on individual autonomy. These differences can be challenging ones to reconcile.
What can we be offering the broader movement?
And when it comes to a cause that you really care about, would you prefer to be told how you can contribute to it, or have only the limits of your own imagination to determine how you will be a part of something bigger than yourself?
While we can often offer a few cookie-cutter volunteer or ‘take action’ opportunities, we don’t currently have the organisational will to allow everyone access to everything they would need, to be completely free in how their support our issues.
…So if we can’t open our structures up enough to let people come to us, take what they need, and make something happen with it, we’re left with distributing an opportunity. ‘Here’s your opportunity, take it or… take it – it’s all we’ve got on offer!’
Whereas people can show up at an Occupy camp and run a workshop, cook some food, paint a banner or organise a march, if we shared that much control with the people surrounding our organisations, we’d probably fall apart. While it might be uncomfortable to think about it this way, the organisation is the membrane that keeps resources away from the movement and world beyond it.
How do our organisations currently compare?
Meanwhile, movements are increasingly providing both stronger democracy and accountability than our own social change organisations, and also remaining flexible enough to allow people to be a part of them, in whatever ways they chose to be.
Are we at risk of our organisations becoming the homes of those who ‘kinda, sorta care about the issues’, while the more active activists are primarily making their voices heard elsewhere?
…UK tax justice and cuts activists moving with the latest UKuncut action?
…Canadian civil liberties activists starting or joining a local Casserole (pots-and-pans) protest?
…Mexican students organising massive #YoSoy132 actions without student organisations or political parties involved, much like their British counterparts did over the EMA cuts in 2010?
While there have always been ultra-committed activists who’ve organised themselves outside of the big organisations related to their causes, more-and-more of us are able to be a part of something meaningful and collective, outside of organisations and without having to start something new from scratch. The barriers to entry for wide-ranging, independent activism have never been so low.
The activism long tail
Nearly a decade ago, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson identified the ‘long tail phenomenon’; a concept at play in more-and-more successful businesses in the age of the social web, which describes the shift from generic to niche production and consumption.
Anderson looked at this phenomenon in relation to business models, with companies increasingly selling relatively small amounts of many different products, rather than massive amounts of a few, more generic ones.
Shirky applied the notion to activity in the blogosphere, noting that the vast majority of blog links were distributed across a vast array of blogs, as compared to the proportion that linked to the very most popular ones. Basically, while some blogs will always stand out above the others, the vast majority of blogging activity is actually taking place amongst niche communities, read by a relative few, but collectively comprising the vast majority of blogging action.
Occupy and countless other self-organising movements are creating an activism Long Tail as we speak.
While the relatively few campaigning actions we offer still have greater individual uptake than the self-organised campaign opportunities within non-hierarchical movements, the cumulative involvement of those self-created opportunities seem poised to account for the lion’s share of ‘stuff done for social and environmental causes.’
In other words, our handful of engagement options are the peak, while the infinite involvement possibilities of the grassroots movements are increasingly the long tail, where more-and-more is going on.
So where do we focus our organisational energies?
…If our organisations did become more focused on the less-active activists (at least, as they related to our particular cause), I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I know I’m peripherally active with far more causes, than those I am very active on. I’ll sign a petition, occasionally write an email, very rarely go to an event or action…. But I’m still glad to be a part of them, even if I’m not currently willing to put huge amounts of effort into each of them at the moment.
Those voices – which would otherwise remain quietly isolated – can and should be amplified and respected as a part of our broader push for social change. The cumulative value of sheer numbers is still a political force to be reckoned with on almost any issue.
This route would allow us to essentially keep doing more of what we’re doing; to tweak, to amend, but to broadly stick with the approaches we developed when media was a one-way broadcast channel.
But it’s not our only possible path.
As best I can tell, our organisations have a few combinations of three main paths they can choose to walk, when it comes to campaigning in the 21st Century:
1) ‘Clicktivism’ and its offline variants – enabling and consolidating the voices of those who ‘kinda care’ about what we do and would be unlikely to engage with the issue proactively without these kinds of specific in-roads.
2) Network support for the stuff that people are doing on their own; linking and connecting wherever relevant activism is taking place, and offering specific, relevant organisational resources, contacts and information to help people organise themselves, even if they are doing so in ways we can’t quite get away with.
3) Opening-up shop for people to do whatever they choose for ‘the cause’. Confronting our fear of loss of control, what if we swung open the gates and made our primary work welcoming committed activists through our literal and online doors, helping them make themselves at home, and giving them the run of the yard to make change happen, but with our resources?
The last choice is clearly the most radical and would involve the most fundamental changes; charity status, boards of directors, staffing, would all need to be re-imagined. But to put it into context, it’s not that different to some of the reimagining that has been and is being required of newspapers, record labels, and ad firms as of late, as the internet increasingly cuts out the need for a middleman.
An organisation without walls…
…So humour me for a minute and imagine that the metaphorical walls of your organisations were torn to the ground. You can keep your jobs, but they’re about to get pretty different.
For one, there might be a whole lot of new people there. They might be using desks, holding meetings, building campaign props, working on unrelated projects which have a loose connection to your organisation’s campaigns. But they are as welcome there as you are – from the scruffy hippies, to the business people, they are all parts of the movement that your organisation is lucky enough to call home. There will still need to be collective efforts made to reach out to those who wouldn’t naturally walk in through an open door, but an open door would be a positive step to widening the demographics of those involved in our work.
For two, those people might be able to make proposals on how money is spent. Perhaps there’s a democratic forum where a range of activists make these kinds of decisions? Participatory budgeting is working for local governments around the world, why not for us? The resources are for the cause, and ‘movements’ don’t have strategic direction to worry about, in the same way our organisation used to. They pay attention to what’s going on around them and continually respond, based on the circumstances.
For three, the organisational logo, brand, and name might become open-source, available to anyone who cares enough about the cause to want to use them. ‘X’ org might start popping-up in all kinds of places it never used to, but you can always just defer to whoever was responsible for what was put out there, if people’s actions for your cause should come back to haunt you… Plus, activists usually do things for the right reasons; if we don’t have this much trust in how people would use our brand, we might have deeper problems to address. But that’s the stuff for another talk altogether…
Now these are just a few random examples of what might change. If we open-up what we’ve got and trust people who care enough about our issues to get constructively involved, I suspect they will do the kinds of amazing things we’ve seen them doing with the social movements beyond our walls.
This is sharing: opening our doors and saying ‘we trust you enough to take what you need’.
If that was that a bit much…
The second option is considerably less out-there, but would still involve a fair bit of re-thinking and re-prioritising. While some of our organisations have tried to position ourselves as ‘hubs’ – i.e. – right in the middle of networked activism – we might be better-off if we went for the more realistic role of ‘cross-pollinators’. What if we re-envisaged ourselves as the people who helped connect activists and moved resources, information, and maybe even funding around a network, as it was needed at a particular moment?
We would stop issuing press releases, stop speaking to the media, stop building the capacity of activists, and start buzzing around our movements, sharing a bit of value from A) and a bit of value from B), with C), or putting out a call whenever a request came our way, to allow others to step up and have their voices heard. We would make every effort to slip into the background and help ensure other people were front and centre, other actions amplified and other campaigners connected directly with one-another. We wouldn’t feel responsible for every little thing that happened in the organisation’s name, any more than we would feel responsible for everything that happens in the name of our cause, more widely, today.
Outsourcing radicalism: Is this a possible stepping stone?
Now, as I’ve been preparing this talk, an interesting action appeared on my radar from London – you might have seen it.
Move Your Money – a campaign encouraging customers to close their accounts with the high street banks and transfer their funds to somewhere more ethical – shut down a Westminster Barclays, as Bob Diamond, the bank’s disgraced and recently ex-CEO was speaking to a Treasury Select Committee about his banks interest rate fixing practices.
Now in a period of occupations and encampments around London, this isn’t that noteworthy… except when you look at the people – or more notably – the organisations, that back Move Your Money.
…The Co-operative Bank, NUS, the New Economics Foundation, among others. All good, established organisations, but not the kind you’d expect to associate with non-violent direct action!
Knowing people personally within each of those organisations, at one level, I’m not totally surprised. But knowing a bit more about each of the organisations themselves, I’m stunned to find their names even hidden in the background of this MYM action.
But maybe they are opening up another possibility? An in-between step from the top-down organisations of the past, to the looser networks of the future?
By part-funding a separate company, are they relieving some of the fears of their own funders or stakeholders, freeing them up to use organisational resources for something they couldn’t do on their own, or with their logos plastered all over?
I’m not sure, but it seems to me that there is an experiment going on to see how these organisations can adopt both some of the radicalism and more of the networked self-organisation that have been a part of the kinds of campaign successes that are coming from outside of our organisations more-and-more regularly.
Getting past the risks
I’m sure we could talk all day about the risks associated with these new approaches; all the potential media faux pas, the attempts to explain things to funders, the very real possibility that we couldn’t control how our cause was advanced… but my feeling is we could spend even longer addressing that which is at risk if we don’t start to shift how we work in some pretty major ways. Namely, the risks of stagnation, and even potentially irrelevance.
Sharing is one sign of the ways our world is changing, but broadly speaking, our organisations are not.
What can you open-up to offer the widest range of opportunities possible for campaigners to take action for your cause? In geek-speak, what is the ‘source-code’ of your campaign, and what would happen if you made it public, like so much of the open and free software communities have been doing since the 80s, and which offers some very different models of how we relate to our work?
If we want to keep distributing things, I’m sure there will continue to be a role there, but if we want to really share what we do, let’s start to find the parts of our respective organisations we can open-up to make it possible.
Thank you for all your time – for putting up with me talking this much, and for the conversation that I’m sure we’re about to have.
Also big thanks to a few people who helped me out a lot while I was preparing this talk – Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista, David Pinto and Adam Ramsay.
If we don’t all get a chance to say hello now, I hope we can connect on the internet later!
As of this past Tuesday, I am living in Oaxaca, Mexico with my wife, Jen. As much as anything, I’m here to write a book. As it happens though, the ‘here’ is at least as important as the book itself.
For those who’ve followed the blog over the last couple years, the themes I am writing about will be of no surprise. Anarchists in the Boardroom is about how the combination of social media and grassroots social movements are modelling networked, de-centralised forms of self-organisation, that NGO/voluntary/non-profit organisations could (must?) be learning from, if they want to stay relevant and play an active role in making the world a better place in the months and years ahead.
The shortcomings of so many of our organisational systems and structures – across all sectors – have become so glaring as to be farcical, were they not still the accepted standard for getting things done.
My time in London has introduced me to some of the most recent alternatives; the Occupy movement, massive student protests, UKuncut, and the scary-but-all-too-predictable experiences of the London riots… but there is stuff that pre-dates each of the examples of what can happen when we start to organise without organisations.
In recent memory, there is a lineage I have written about before amongst Western protest movements, that links most directly back to the anti-globalisation movement in the early 2000s. Before that are a series of more detached and smaller-scale anarchistic efforts, build on similar principles and values, that go back decades and centuries around countless environmental and social justice causes.
But in parallel to the largely Northern/Western protests that have shadowed our world leaders as they have attempted to sell-off our present and our futures to multinational corporations, there have been sustained movements throughout the Global South demonstrating these alternative ways of organising. Sometimes they have been focused around more localised phenomena, sometimes around the same corporate hegemony that has been at the crux of the more publicised movements in Seattle, Genoa, Quebec City and elsewhere. Regardless, their stories are ones that I knew I needed to better understand.
So my landing in Oaxaca is not entirely coincidental… though I hadn’t fully understood this state’s importance to the things I am writing about, before arriving here.
To pull a brief excerpt from Diana Denham’s introduction to ‘Teaching Rebellion’, a series of reflections from the people’s uprising that took place in Oaxaca in 2006:
“…the movement that surfaced in Oaxaca took over and ran an entire city for six months in June 2006. Government officials fled, police weren’t present to maintain even the semblance of responding to social harm, and many of the government institutions and services that we depend on daily were shut down. Without relying on centralized organisation, neighbourhoods managed everything from public safety (crime rates actually went down dramatically during the course of the six months) to food distribution and transportation. People across the state began to question the established line of western thinking that says communities cannot survive, much less thrive, without the intervention of a separate hierarchy caring for its needs. Oaxaca sent a compelling message to the world in June 2006: The power we need is in our hands.” (p.30)
And beyond this:
“While the APPO [people’s assembly] represented a new and original approach to political organizing in Oaxaca, it also drew from forms of indigenous self-governance, known as usos y costumbres. The APPO, an assembly by name, emphasizes the input of a diverse body of people who discuss issues and make decisions collectively; similarly, in many indigenous communities in Oaxaca, the assembly is the basis for communal governance… It was thousands of individual citizens, centred in the tradition of giving even in times of scarcity, who brought food to the planton [encampment] night after night for so many months, who set up first aid stands at marches, who gave away their blankets to people at the barricades. No political party could have even imagined the collective resources and labor that went into sustaining a social movement of such magnitude.” (p. 77)
Oaxaca from the hills
So while I might not have fully appreciated it at the time, I have made a home of a place with a very recent (but also very longstanding) history of modelling some of the ideas that this book is hoping to bring to light as viable alternatives to the command-and-control corporate structures that the non-profit world has actively embraced in the joint causes of ‘professionalism’ and ‘efficiency’ in recent decades.
While I am very aware that references to these kinds of anarchic social movements will not be popular with everyone holding down a comfortable NGO management position, I am also confident that the crisis facing the old way of organising is significant enough to push people who would otherwise dismiss these movements, to look a bit further afield for potential guidance to help adapt to a world that will no longer accept the attempts to control it, that have been at the core of our institutions for so long.
I’m currently trying to strike the balance between improving my Spanish, getting to know the activists that have helped forge this state’s radical history, and actually writing about how this history fits into these bigger picture trends that this book is all about. It’s a lot to do in the next six or so months!
But I couldn’t be in a better place to develop these ideas, and hope that many of you will be a part of the process along the way!
This is a slightly adapted post I made to the (ever-awesome!) eCampaigning Forum email list today, in reply to an email about tools for measuring social media metrics… and why I think it’s about as useful as counting the number of kisses you share with your partner in a given week.
Hey there –
...now evaluate them!
(warning: bit of a rant to follow…)
This may not be exactly the kind of suggestion you’re looking for, but the greatest benefits of social media are rarely the ones you plan for (and thus which can be objectively evaluated against your plans). They may be:
A crucial new volunteer emerging from the Twitter woodwork, to make a significant difference for the organisation,
Developing a new relationship with someone who might later be able to support the organisation in the future,
Receiving pro bono support from an expensive professional who replies to a call for help on your Facebook page,
Opening someone in your network up to an aspect of your organisation’s issues they were previously unaware of,
An interaction between two people in your network who have never had a chance to engage in dialogue before, around something you shared…
The list could be endless, which is exactly the point – measuring social media primarily by generic metrics will only tell you a minuscule fraction of the value it has provided, in all kinds of unexpected ways.
The judgment on if it is providing ‘value for money’ needs to be made subjectively – do we think this range of anecdotes – often seemingly of minimal significance, when seen on their own, but cumulatively massive and often with a stand-out story or two along the way – are important enough to keep doing it?
I know that some senior managers and funders who don’t understand social media will focus on the numbers, but we are doing them a disservice to not challenge the logic that underpins these demands.
One of the strongest arguments I’ve used with organisations on this front, is asking a senior manager to provide metrics to justify their face-to-face networking activities;
How many networking/schmoozing events have you attended this quarter?
How many people have you met at these events?
How many people that you have met at these various functions have become ongoing organisational contacts?
How many have led to future additional contacts/meetings?
How much has the time you spent at these events cost the organisation?
There is an acceptance of the value of networking, even though it is often random, serendipitous and not about specific preconceived outcomes. Social networking needs to be seen in a similar light, if an organisation is going to use it to its potential.
Imagine if a small fraction of everyone in the organisation’s time (not just senior managers) was regularly engaged in the kind of activity that produces the benefits that senior managers know comes from attending a Parliamentary reception, or the launch of a new report?
Some will only worry about what this means for both job titles/descriptions and/or the value of senior management, but others will be excited by the infinite possibilities it offers…
It’s just a thought. I get quite tired of being asked to provide numbers for questions that numbers can’t really answer. Another approach might be to ask whoever wants the data, to evaluate their intimate relationship based on the number of kisses they receive each week… though by the time the figure tells them anything useful, it’ll probably be too late to do anything about it…
Are our organisations hearing the lessons of the Occupy movement? If we want to be more human, there’s definitely a thing or two they could be teaching us… [ADDITION: if you’re looking for my book that I ended up re-using this title for, you can find it here.]
But it is also misses something. (Every book does – no subject can ever be addressed in its entirety in a single publication.)
The book starts from the radical premise that our rigid, hierarchical organisational structures are unequipped to face the challenges of an increasingly networked world, across all sectors and types of organisations, and that social media is beginning to model alternative, more human ways of getting things done. Ace.
But here’s another step beyond: what if the ways of organising that traditional organisations are learning from social media have been practiced in some circles for many decades before? And what if those who have been practicing them have done so in a world so foreign to management theorists, as to almost not exist?
I would argue (maybe unsurprisingly, as I’m writing a book on the theme) that the systems of social media are simply the ‘systems’ of anarchism (or perhaps more succinctly, grassroots activism), scaled-up. Decentralised, non-hierarchical, autonomous, processes of making decisions and getting things done, have been at the core of the current Occupy movement, but also its predecessors in the climate justice and anti-globalisation movements (and many movements before them, too).
This is why these movements have been able to take social media in stride and run with it, while most traditional organisations have superficially embraced new technologies, but actively fought tooth-and-nail against them in most of their practical manifestations.
While some of the initial shock may have worn off, think, from a traditional organisational perspective, how ludicrous the idea that nearly 1000 cities around the world would feature activists encampments in their economic centres, diametrically opposed to the predominant activities taking place in those same places?
Yet, somehow, it has happened.
Tens of thousands of people are being communally fed and sheltered, while carving-out the early etchings of a political alternative to an unsustainable status quo, without any of the management systems we might have thought essential to such an operation… Surely, there’s something managers could take away from this?
Why activists ‘get’ social media
Occupy, like several movements before it in the last decade, are ahead of the curve when it comes to social media, because it comes so naturally to people who have never believed in hierarchy, silos, traditional notions of expertise, or strategic planning. Anarchists skipped that couple century-blip we seem to be at the tail-end of, of ‘humans thinking they can turn a bunch of other humans into a well-oiled machine’.
One of the key messages I’ve taken from my time with these movements has been the value of ‘undefined engagement’ – giving people the chance to get involved in something they truly believe in, in whatever ways they choose to (social media has clear parallels). This is likely to be a massive challenge for traditional organisations – particularly those that exist primarily to make money. But perhaps one of the truly revolutionary lessons that Occupy can bring to the world of business, is that if we want to harness the potential of people, making money will not (on its own) be the way to do it. Purpose is critical, as is an increasing level of autonomy…
So while I absolutely commend Jamie and Maddie’s work on Humanize, I also challenge it to go a step further: learn from the hippies, learn from the anarchists, learn from the folks out on the streets of New York, London, Oakland and so many other cities, who are ‘doing’ Humanize, and have been since before there was social media to put it into the spotlight.
Flipping our notions of ‘expertise’
The world of management has for decades looked down its nose at activists, even when they have achieved massive change in the world, whether ending wars or apartheid, or winning voting or civil rights for all. In doing so, a lot of important learning has been largely ignored.
Maybe it’s time that view was turned around and the organisations that are increasingly struggling to maintain themselves on yesterday’s systems, swallowed their pride and asked a scruffy anarchist what they should be doing differently in the boardroom?
This is a work-in-progress promotional piece that I thought I’d post for feedback as much as anything. Thinking of making PDF brochures out of an illustrated version, but would love to hear how your less-Twitter-friendly colleagues respond, should you feel inclined to print a copy and share it around your office? Does it just piss people off, or does it start a useful conversation? Thanks! Liam
1. Tweets should always be written in a cold, sterile and impersonal manner.
Liam will tell you how NOT to Tweet for a good cause! Sketch by Dave Schokking.
Think of them as 140 character press releases, or a text from a doctor’s surgery reminding you of a colonoscopy appointment. This avoids any notion by followers that there are real people with personalities operating your account (which could be disastrous for your reputation!). Better still, add applications that will ‘auto-Tweet’ generic updates about everything else you do online; this helps avoid any temptation by staff or followers to converse via Twitter, violating the organisation’s professional mystique.
Your ranking out of 10? /10
2. Don’t follow anyone!*
This tells the world that you are important and thus not interested in anyone else’s opinions or experiences. If you do choose to follow any other accounts, make sure it is only a few and that they are all a) newspapers, b) other organisations, and c) selectively chosen celebrities. This reinforces the appropriate power dynamic, telling ‘regular people’ who follow you that you are unconcerned with them or their interests (beyond you).
*If your organisation’s name or profile bio includes terms like ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘inclusion’, it is especially crucial that you follow this rule to the letter, so people don’t falsely assume you’re interested in talking with them.
Your ranking out of 10? /10
3. ‘Auto-DM’ all your new followers.
When someone follows you, don’t follow them back (as above), but add an application to your account that will send them automatic, impersonal Direct Messages (DMs or private messages) feigning thanks, which they will be unable to reply to (because you don’t follow them). Again, this establishes the clear power dynamic you’re looking for; they are listening, you are not.
Your ranking out of 10? /10
4. Only ever Tweet your own materials and information.
Other info or links related to your subject matter must be ignored, and if possible, actively discredited, as they represent competition in the never-ending battle for potential supporters’ mind space, time and attention.
Your ranking out of 10? /10
5. You must maintain an image of absolute perfection!
Never Tweet anything that might give your followers the impression your organisation is anything less-than-perfect. Asking questions is an absolute ‘no’, unless they are rhetorical and you provide the answer within the Tweet, or the link it contains (to your own website only, obviously). Questions declare a less-than-complete knowledge of the world and such an admission will destroy your followers’ faith in your expertise and support for your work and your cause.
Related to this, you should also never send a Tweet without carrying-out a thorough the cost-benefit analysis of doing so. This helps to ensure you do not say something inappropriate, which you might later feel demonstrates an incomplete knowledge of the subject. It is advisable to stay quiet about major events in the world, until an in-depth policy has been written and published. Several days after the fact you will be able to Tweet the most expert opinion on the matter at hand.
Your ranking out of 10? /10
6. Twitter is for junior staff to do and senior managers to sign-off.
Put your organisation’s sole Twitter account into the hands of a single, low-ranking staff member, with minimal decision making power in the organisation, and tell them exactly what they can and can’t Tweet.
You may want to develop an appropriate sign-off policy that can precede the sending of all organisational Tweets. At the same time, it is critical that you ban all other staff from Tweeting, as multiple accounts will be harder for you to control. If you cannot manage a complete ban on usage, tell staff they must separate themselves from the organisation via a disclaimer (such as ‘these are my views and my organisation does not tolerate them, but still keeps me around’) and install a web-page blocker preventing unauthorised staff from accessing the Twitter website on work time.
Your ranking out of 10? /10
7. Never reply or make conversation with followers, unless they are celebrities or senior politicians.
Some Twitter users think they are ‘having a massive conversation’. They are wrong. In the interests of your professional integrity (as your comms assistant might say inappropriate things, if not given a script), it is imperative that you do not engage with the Twitter population in anything resembling off-the-cuff banter. In the event of attempting to lobby a famous actor or Cabinet minister on your cause, Tweets should be written in advance by the most senior member of staff available, with potential follow-up Tweets for all possible responses. This said, they may still treat you as ‘regular people’(i.e. – those not worthy of their time) and as such, ignore you…
Your ranking out of 10? /10
How do you stack up? If you received more than 1 on any of the measures above, you should probably give Liam at more like people a ring (07775732383), an email (email@example.com), or even a Tweet (@hackofalltrades).
I did a presentation at the eCampaigners Forum in Oxford last week called “’human’ is the new ‘professional'”. Despite being the 1st victim of a clown-style horn telling me my 7 minute slot was up, the core notion that ‘professionalism’ prevents our organisations from connecting with the people involved in our causes, seemed to go down pretty well. Yet when we got to discussing the ideas in practice, there was a major push back to the more traditional approach…
Meeting agendas at the pub
I started with this: “imagine you’re at the pub and a mate pulls out agendas for everyone and says ‘we’ve got 10 minutes to debate yesterday’s footie, 20 minutes for Jim to complain about his family, and 15 minutes to talk about the recession… by the way, who’s going to be minuting this?’”
This was my metaphor for most voluntary organisations’ use of social media; applying the conventions of one space, to the structures of another. Like calling someone and reading them a press release over the phone, it just doesn’t make sense to treat social media as a formal broadcast channel and doing so undermines the impact we can get from it for our respective causes.
I recently decided that social media is (should be?) like the ‘smoke breaks’ of organisational communications. It’s informal, it has a power-levelling impact on those involved, regardless of job title, it is where critical ideas are often exchanged, but is rarely recognised for the important role it plays in decision-making processes or in information distribution/collection.
That one got a solid laugh.
After the talk…
But when we moved from the formal presentations, to an Open Space session on ‘Organisational social media policy’, it felt like my ideas, while good for a laugh, had been quickly thrown away. A few bad experiences, a lot of self-censorship, some fundamental mistrust of staff and a few very legitimate arguments (I felt) around safety of individuals being Tweeted/blogged about, took the conversation back towards the traditionally slow-moving, autocratic, top-down means of communicating that organisations have always used for older media channels.
The natural extension, in my opinion, would be another 30 page document that would take months to produce, get properly read by no one, and create a ‘chill’ amongst staff who choose to err on the side of caution to avoid saying or doing anything online that might not fall within the policy they haven’t read. Ultimately, it is the ‘safe’ approach to social media that looks most ‘unprofessional’, as it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the format in which it has engaged.
Having been discussing these issues with people in organisation’s for a little while now, it was not totally surprising to hear many of the concerns people raised at the ECF last week. But I wanted to provide a bit of an alternative story, some of which people brought up in the discussion, others which weren’t really touched on.
“We don’t want people’s personal lives to be confused with their organisational lives.”
My response: When it comes to a cause, whether cancer research, climate justice, human rights or animal welfare, almost everyone thinks of that cause as something personal to them. It’s only this tiny percentage of us who actually get paid to be active, that think of campaigns as ‘professional’ activities. And even amongst those of us ‘professional’ campaigners, we hopefully do our jobs in large part because we are passionate about our issues. If we are, but are not able to share that passion (as it might mean calling a cabinet minister a bastard from their Twitter account, for example) our organisations are losing a huge part of why they hired us, and what we have to offer the cause. And further, if our organisations want to take advantage of that passion, it can’t be boxed in with ‘acceptable types and levels of public passion’ guidelines – because that’s not how passion works. There is a level of risk acceptance needed here on the part of organisations. My inclination is that allowing your staff the freedom to be as expressive as they want to be online, will lead to much greater gains for your cause, than some occasional moments of public embarrassment will cost it.
“If we can’t control it, how can we make sure it is on-message’?”
My response: In short, you can’t. But even if you did control social media messaging from the top, people would still make mistakes and contradictory statements would still sometimes get published. So instead of asking ‘how can we control it’, why not shift the frame to ‘how can we get the most from it?’ and encourage anyone with the desire to take on Tweeting, blogging, video making, if they have the inclination to do so? After all, we are hired for a reason, and if we are worth the pay, surely we should be trusted to speak out about things we care about? I think it was Jamie Wooley from Greenpeace that brought up the big underlying tension here, by asking the group what they want a social media policy to achieve; is it a matter of controlling messages (and as a result, staff and volunteers), or is it about harnessing the potential power of all stakeholders to increase the impact of your campaigns and awareness of your issues? I have heard many a geeky rumour that Google’s staff social media policy is simply ‘be smart’, which seems to capture the essential balance of freedom and responsibility that is key to any public platform. I see little need to make it more complicated than that, as long as your staff are aware of the specific public information risks related to your work (say, revealing a dissident journalist’s location in a hostile country).
“But what if [insert hypothetical PR disaster here]”
My response: Then handle it as you would any other PR disaster; apologise, explain, move focus back to your cause, etc… I’d argue that the news story of an erroneous Tweet from a household-name NGO is probably not a story that will hold the spotlight for long. The much bigger PR disasters (the ones that lead to cancelled Direct Debits and angry blogs from former supporters, etc) are the ones where the organisation has undermined its own values. An open social media policy, in which more people are empowered to act for the issues they care about, is not remotely in the same league as say, undermining employees’ rights, paying private sector-scale wages to top brass, or being sponsored by companies that sell guns or tobacco. Just to put the hypothetical situation into perspective for a moment…
Some questions to follow-up with…
When the horn pushed me through my final slides a little faster than planned, I had a few questions I’ve been using as a ‘guiding principles’ in the process of ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ that got rushed through.
How human is your organisation?
1. Practices two-way, conversational communications, inside and outside its walls?
2. Supports autonomous leadership to emerge from all levels?
3. Encourages broad, open, equal involvement in organisational decisions?
4. Trust staff to take risks and try new ways of campaigning (without fear of reprisal)?
So what do you think? Is this a bunch of hippie faff, or are these questions our organisations need to be asking more seriously when we engage in the online world?
Imagine if, as Clay Shirky has suggested, a fraction of the time we spent collectively pissing around on the web, could be channelled into constructive, positive and relatively easy actions for social change…
Ed Whyman and I have been bumping into each other at events and on the street for at least six months. The first time we met – in the company of David Pinto – we mulled over the idea of a piece of social technology that could match-up small tasks related to good causes, with people a) interested in that particular good cause, and b) with the skill set required to easily do that small task.
On Wednesday afternoon, after a couple of hours at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, conversationally moving between abstract ideas and practical ways of applying them, Ed and I (with the valuable technical input of Andy Broomfield) revisited the idea we had tossed around several months before.
A few months ago I saw Clay Shirky speak at the RSA on his new book, Cognitive Surplus. His thesis is basically that more and more of us have loads more leisure time than we used to and that the internet is gradually enabling our collective free time to connect with others to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise, whether sharing YouTube videos of cats doing cute stuff, or giving away stuff we’d otherwise throw away.
I didn’t immediately put the pieces together, but yesterday, Ed and I’s conversation made me think about how this concept might apply to our idea of a still-to-be-built social wotsit…
The social wotsit we were thinking of
Imagine if you were a campaign group or a charity, working around:
And you needed:
A database cleaned
A legal letter written
A venue for a meeting
A speaker for an event
A CSS edit to a website
Now imagine if you were a person (difficult, I know), who had a particular interest in [insert cause from above], and had [insert relevant skill or asset associated with listed need] and had a particular amount of time on your hands, whether five minutes, or five days… and said charity or campaigning organisations was able to easily get hold of you and let you know (with no obligation) that they could use your help… Is there a chance you might do it?
Crowd-sourcing a Twitter app?
So we (Andy Broomfield’s technical knowledge was of great help here) started thinking about this as a Twitter app… we’re continuing the conversation on a Google Doc… and are wondering if anyone with some of the relevant skills or further ideas would be interested in helping make this happen? Or if something just like this already exists and we don’t have to bother?
We are working on an ‘everyone does something that we can all feel good about’ kind of basis, so no money will change hands, but credit will be appropriately shared around… Check out the Google Doc if you’re interested in taking part!
*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? _____________
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…