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Rethinking social movements

This page was created on May 16, 2010 and was last updated on May, 2013 

In this article we are focusing on one particular issue, the self-management and stabilization of a massive social movement. Even more importantly, we describe a powerful tool for self-awareness and self-management. 


Our short working definition of a social movement.
A social movement is the alignment of individuals' actions according to a new system of beliefs, to the point where a distinctive pattern of social behavior becomes observable at large scale [by t!b!].

The goal of this article is not to present a comparative analysis of social movements before and after the Internet technology, although if you want to propose a reference to such study we are more than happy to post it here.

Management tools in pre-Internet social movements

In a not so distant past, social movements were lead and managed. Communication is crucial in a social movement. Systems of coordination and collaboration are built on communication. 

A period of education or awakening precedes the formation of a movement. In order to move the masses, everyone involved needs to believe in something. This is the latent phase of the movement. Information must reach a critical number of individuals in an effective time. Proximity or population density helps, for information can be passed during popular assemblies, meetings, etc. In the modern era, the printing press has worked miracles and rendered social movements more dynamic. Information has been passed through newspapers, leaflets, posters, graffiti, etc.. Social movements could now spread to the country side, or places with low population density

The written information channel was not only used to form the population, but also as a coordination tool. It brought down spatial barriers. Time barriers were shattered too with the advent of the radio and the television, allowing information to travel not only further, but faster, in almost real time. 

The formed mass of people also needs a direction, which was provided by leaders during the pre-internet era. One important role of leaders was to render the actions of the masses coherent and in accordance with some focused goals. The direction often took the form of a manifesto, which defines, among other things, the rules of engagement, the rules of conduct, goals, steps to be taken, etc., but can also be viewed as a document containing key principles from which one can judge if an action is within the scope of the movement or if it is unacceptable. A well-written manifesto becomes a tool for self regulation. It becomes a powerful passive management tool. This role is very important for very large movements in a context of poor means of real time and peer-to-peer communication and coordination. 

The manifesto alone doesn't shield the movement from deliberate action against it. Hostile individuals and organizations can infiltrate the movement and damage its image by acting against its principles or distorting/exaggerating aspects of it. This tactic is actually widely used by governments around the world, for example when police provocateurs infiltrate peaceful demonstrations and act violently in front of the media to discredit the movement. 

Moreover, in absence of effective tools to provide real-time information about the state of the movement, to every participant, stability could be maintained only within the command-and-control paradigm. Pre-Internet mass movements had taken hierarchical structures, with an inner core where the ideology is crafted, strategies are designed, and decisions are made. From this core, orders are passed down to other sub-organizations which also have their local bosses and centralized decision making mechanisms. Feedback from the lower levels is also communicated upwards to the central command to be analyzed. 

Management tools in post-Internet social movements

It is becoming increasingly clear that decentralized social movements can be successful: the 9/11 Truth movement, precursor of Tea Party movement, and the Occupy Wall Street movement have become iconic examples. (It doesn't matter if you agree or not with these particular movements, the fact of the matter is that they have been massive, decentralized, self-organizing social movements). In fact, this type of movements are becoming the norm as communication, collaboration, coordination and logistical tools become ubiquitous. The question is not whether these movements can form and grow to massive proportions to have a real impact on society, but why and how they do so?

As opposed to classical social movements, the core values are not crafted and dictated by a small number of individuals. They usually emerge from a broad dialog. Ideas and values which resonate more with the people are reproduced and refined. Gradually, resonant ideas impose their hegemony over the less interesting ones. Some individuals are recognized as authorities in thoughts or in action. Their role is reduced compared to the previous role of leader, but nevertheless it remains essential to help refine the information processed within the movement and to focus attention. 

There is no need for powerful leaders anymore! Somehow, decision making works too, as it is demonstrated by the effective actions carried out by the above mentioned movements in the recent past. These large decentralized networks are capable of undertaking very complex logistical tasks. Despite their lack of a central "nervous system", these organizations act as one. Not having a center of command and control it doesn't mean that these organizations are lacking decision making and coordination mechanisms. These mechanisms are distributed throughout the organization and are based on very different principles. They are actually stable patterns emerging from a very large number of interactions between rational agents (irrationality can be kept low, by providing access to data, by using efficient content management systems, by using transparent and participatory tools for analysis and decision making, ...), instead of being the product of a conscious rational process of one or a very few individuals. The new type of social movements is a self-regulating headless creature. Group decisions become continuous emergent properties of the group rather than the will of a few individuals. The information base on which these decisions are made is socially processed, filtered. The most powerful memes gradually cluster and form structures which influence individual decisions, which interact with each others and aggregate into consensus. This process becomes very deterministic as the number of agents increases. 

The new social movements self-structure and self-stabilize. They are living systems. They exhibit strong internal coupling and well-established feedback loops connected to the environment. They are mostly focused inward. The main drive is their own subsistence. They do that by adapting to environmental feedback and, if possible, by modifying the environment. Classic movements have extrinsic goals (to change something), and their existence is ephemeral, inseparable for the goals.  

The new social movements are swarms (see Tim's paper).   

Another fundamental difference between classical and new social movements is that the former were identity-based movements and the later are issue- or cause-based (see Tim's paper).   

In the case of the classical movement special agents were assigned the role of keeping the movement clean of "noise". Today we need something better, automated and scalable. What are the most important features of this mechanism?  

Self-awareness: tools for increased stability and management of modern social movements

Because information if processed across the network, and because the decision making process is a diffused one, information about the movement itself must be gathered, processed, and distributed widely throughout the movement. This increases the awareness about the movement itself, which will act as feedback to improve the health and to adapt the behavior of the entire organization.   

Here's one solution

Creative Commons License
First proposed by Tiberius Brastaviceanu.

Build a smart widget to play the role of banner for the social movement. N
owadays, every individual or small organization that associates with a movement has a presence on the Internet. In the past, members and organizations part of a movement wore a banner to identify themselves and to communicate to others that they belong to that particular movement. In our case this banner becomes a smart banner, a widget, which marks individuals and organizations in the virtual space, which is "wore" on people's blogs, webpages, Facebook accounts, etc. 

An open data acquisition, analysis, and display system 
All widgets are connected to a central system (can this be decentralized?). Every time they are viewed online they send data to the central system. Every widget/banner has it's own serial number, is unique. The central system is in fact an open system. It gathers data from all banners/widgets in circulation, processes it, and publicly displays information about the entire social movement in real time. The way the information is analyzed and displayed is open, and can be modified/improved by an open community. 

Access to information
Everyone can access the information produced by the central system by going directly to it, a website. This website is also accessible by clicking on any widget out there on the Internet. Every widget is associated with an individual/organization part of the movement, so by clicking on a widget the internet surfer is redirected to the central system where information related to the virtual environment of this particular widget is presented. 

Spreading mechanism
Anyone can grab a banner/widget from any other widget out there, just by clicking on a link which brings you to a place where the code is provided. It is not necessary to associate information about the owner of a widget, but the location of the "parent" widget (the site or blog where it is installed) will be known. Thus, the spread of banner/widgets becomes viral (spreads from member to member), a dynamic map of the movement can be built, relations between members can also be extracted... Adepts of the movement become ambassadors of the movement with full rights. BUT, if someone in the community finds out that some "owner" of a widget is acting against the movement his widget/banner can be terminated from the central system through an open and democratic decision making process. Reputation parameters can also be added. 

Genuine vs counterfeit widget/banner
A genuine widget/banner is one which is connected to the central system. A counterfeit widget must necessarily be a dummy widget, a static picture, one which doesn't communicate information to the central system. To avoid counterfeit of widgets, every widget contains an image (the multitude logo for example) with a universal dynamic code on it. This code changes according to an algorithm, which can be reset by anybody out there in some manner. At any given moment, an image search can be performed to find all active widgets, and through a image scanning process counterfeits can be automatically detected. A counterfeit is the widget containing a picture which has a "dead" code, or has no code at all. Because the code is alive and changes according to a totally random process (perhaps based on a number that any individual across the planet can input into the central system at any given time) any counterfeit widget will not contain the proper universal code. 

What kind of information is gathered by widgets/banners? 
Some preliminary thoughts are: The widget's location, number of views, perhaps something about the content on the page the widget appears, or a more detailed analysis of the environment of this page. Widgets must be also linked together within the central system according to their real relations. For example, if a widget was acquired by an individual or a group by clicking on another widget, that information is stored and can be used to map the movement's network of relations, and to identify important nodes within this network (the ones with high involvement in spreading the movement). 

This is a decentralized management tool. It helps the movement to spread from the edges. It operates on the edges of the movement, spreading from one member to another, during their interactions with the environment.  

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