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.
…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!