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‘Sharing, Long Tails, and Organisations that Look Like Social Movements’

Friday, July 13th, 2012

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.

Cheers,

Liam

…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.

Here’s why.

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!

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Technology, self-organisation & some dreams for the #Occupy movement…

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

On my first day hanging around Finsbury Square, the 2nd London manifestation of the #Occupy movement, I met a young guy named James. James handed me a couple folded pieces of paper and asked me to write down why I was there and put it in his carboard box. So I did, having been intending to describe some of my thoughts on the #Occupy movement for the better part of a month. Below is a slightly extended version of the story I gave him…

Guy Fawkes in a suit

Day 2 @ #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I’m here for the possibility of something different. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel like something is emerging – though still a long way from being realised – that has the potential to bring us to a better global situation than the one we’ve been stuck with.

I’m sure its lineage could be traced back through countless forms of social change and human organisation throughout history, but I can see a clear link between #Occupy and the anti-globalisation movement ten years ago, where I first ‘learned’ to be an activist.

In Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, we were getting to know each other; discovering that not only was there a significant group of us who saw the systemic problems in the world, but that we could be in touch with more-and-more of them via the still relatively crude version of the internet we had going back then.

For a decade, a massively distributed (if still niche) global network has kept a conversation going, percolating in a range of more issue-specific campaigns, but drawing the links between the vast array of social problems we are collectively facing.

…Then social media happened and the scale and quality of the conversation began to shift in ways few of us could have imagined possible. A few things happened in the following years that I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • The discovery, via MoveOn.org, Avaaz.org and a range of other ‘clicktivist’ websites, showed us that not only could we connect with each other on the issues we believe in, we could also demonstrate our shared belief (and crowd-fund that belief!), in only a few seconds, with literally millions of others around the world. But most of it stayed online.
  • The emergence of the environmental direct action movement, captured most effectively (but by no means exclusively) by Climate Camp, began to bring together relatively small, but still big enough to be viable, groups of people to put their bodies on the line (in the tradition of Trident Ploughshares and many others), but also to model the Ghandian notion of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’. Small temporary villages were erected on the sites of some of the UK’s worst climate crimes, and began to model what it might look like for a few hundred people to live more sustainably than we tend to in the West. But they remained a very niche and short-term presence.
  • Then in November 2010, Britain saw unprecedented student protests – over 10,000 in London alone – but remarkably, without the NUS or any other traditional student organisations to back it. Facebook events and Twitter hashtags took the devastating implications of the proposed education cuts, and spread them like wildfire, connecting with a massive section of the student body, without any of the infrastructure that tend to keep these protests within certain (non-threatening) parameters. Like many protests before it, it raised the level of debate on the issues far above where it would have been without them, but it didn’t actually get in the way of the Government’s plans to make education unattainable for the vast majority of young people in Britain.
  • This spring, UKuncut emerged. The direct action of Climate Camp, with the distributed leadership of the student protests coming together, keeping tax dodging corporations from doing business until they paid their fair share of taxes. What took UKuncut a step further, was its ability to practically ‘get in the way’, at a lot of different times, in a lot of different places, essentially regulating (albeit on a small scale) the offending companies that Government has refused to regulate themselves. But it didn’t offer a positive longer-term alternative to corporate tax evasion, beyond better Government regulation.
  • Many won’t like this next piece, but I see this summer’s UK riots as part of the same continuum of ‘leaderless’ events; if as a warning of the destructive potential of mass self-organisation, but also as an expression that those with the least to lose in our society are still involved in the same networked world of the (broadly) middle class activists. Ugly as much of what happened those days was, there was a clear expression of power that came out of a place many least expected it would or could. And the spread and breadth of that was new, spread through handheld technologies, person-to-person, as much as through the media. However, it stayed mostly isolated from ‘the mainstream’ (an issue which needs a lot of unpicking in its own right).
We are the 99%

Day 1 @ St Pauls. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

(To be clear, this is a UK-centric perspective, though you can tie very clear links and inspiration with and from recent liberation movements in the Middle East and workers occupations in Latin America.  As these are not areas I feel especially qualified to write on, I’ve focussed on my local examples.)

All of these stages are still critical at every emerging moment of change; different people are ready to be involved in different ways, and Avaaz, Climate Camp and Facebook-initiated protests are all providing in-roads to newly-aware members of ‘the 99%’. What makes the #Occupy movement feel different to me is how much we are beginning to bring all of them together. And then some.

What we’re starting to see now:

  • Drawing together of these themes – a harder core of activists at forefront (a la Climate Camp), massive informal ‘infrastructure’ of donors, supporters, messengers (a la Avaaz), a direct disruption of the system (a la UKuncut) and a large scale self-organisation via web platforms (captured during the student protests, the summer riots and elsewhere around the world).
  • The beginnings of a more inclusive space, even if it is fraught with tension and is bringing broadly-middle class activists’ relative privilege to the uncomfortable surface. Some of the difficult conversations about difference and discrimination are beginning to be had, as they invariably rear their ugly heads when a bunch of people are living in close quarters together. It will likely be messy, but it’s important that it is happening. I get the impression there has been greater inclusivity amongst particular American occupations thus far, particularly on Wall Street, where people who really never would otherwise cross paths are starting to do so, and are starting to make sense of difference within the group, rather than ignore, or actively dismiss it.

What we haven’t seen yet:

  • The inclusion of or connection with a wider range of communities. I’ve heard several examples from a range of #Occupy cities, of non-white/straight/male/middle-class activists being told they are ‘being divisive’ for highlighting the range of inequalities they have faced, that make their positions very different from those of much of the rest of the 99%. This is something we need to address, and need to have addressed for us by those who are very much more likely to be the victims of police violence, job discrimination, street harassment and a range of other kinds of oppression as this movement grows, if we want to have a movement that truly begins to represent the 99%.
  • The resilience of the movement to sustain and expand itself as a viable ‘alternative to Government’. There are better and worse examples of groups operating independently of an official government, within an existing state. Hizbollah, for example, have at many times been the de facto government in a range of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, offering essential services to those in need. In the 1970s the Black Panther Party began to operate on a similar basis in primarily Black neighbourhoods in California and elsewhere in the US. Hizbollah and the Panthers both represent some of the better and worse elements of the ‘state-within-a-state’ paradigm, but both managed to forge a space outside of that controlled by Government, which could address a range of basic human needs in the process. What excites me about #Occupy, is the potential to create something functionally parallel to Government, without the rigid hierarchy and likelihood of violence associated with the above examples. Perhaps this is the next challenge for the movement?
St Pauls. At Night. With #Occupy.

St Pauls. At Night. With #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I think #Occupy is the first baby steps of a true alternative to the broken system we currently share, emerging with each new occupation and each new practical answer to a basic human need; from toilets, to democratic processes; recycling, to education;  food provision, to communications channels.

I feel that the ‘alternative’ to capitalism that the media keeps patronisingly asking us for, will not be able to be summarised into a single ‘ism’ or sound-bite, but will grow differently in an infinite number of places around the world, connecting with the successes of other ‘occupations’, while remaining independent and distinct from what they have achieved. We really are becoming the change we want to see in the world… so for better and worse, the only thing we can guarantee is that it won’t happen without us.

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