Smart Mobs vs. Amway

A chill went through a lot of Democratic voters last week when they read Matt Bai's article in the New York Times Magazine on "The Multilevel Marketing of the President."

Bai details the ground-level Republican strategy for winning in Ohio, and other swing states, through a command structure that naturally compares to the pyramid marketing schemes of companies like Amway and Tupperware. Each layer of the pyramid is responsible for recruiting new entrepreneurs underneath them (their "downline"), and takes orders from and reports to the layer that recruited them (their "upline").

Karl Rove sits at the top of the pyramid, of course. Rove, who started out in direct marketing before becoming Bush's Brain, has adapted the approach into a sort of pyramid politics, as a way to get lots of door-knockers on the ground who can be vacuums for demographic data in the early stages, and in the later stages can be told what to say and do from back at HQ on really short notice.

Many Democratic readers wondered how the Democrats -- who are nowhere near as organized -- could compete with such a machine.

The answer, probably, is that the Dems won't. Instead, it will be the massive ad-hoc network of networks working feverishly to re-defeat Bush outside of the traditional Democratic machine, networks (self-)organized in a completely different way.

If Kerry wins, it won't be primarily because the Democrats made it happen; he will simply be the lucky beneficiary of numerous and diverse groups (MoveOn, True Majority, Americans Coming Together, Votewatch, NOW, the unions, most of Hollywood, numerous voter registration efforts, environmental groups, etc.) whose organizational model is as different from the Republicans as the Minutemen were from the Redcoats.

Or, in the open-source metaphor, as the Cathedral is from the Bazaar. The Republican worldview is the old paradigm: centralized, hierarchical, top-down, military command-and-control, the organizational model that has held sway since the Industrial Revolution. And they're masters at it, as far as that goes.

But this is the Information Age. The old paradigm can be expected to fight kicking and screaming (and who knows how far that will go, but that's another subject), but that won't change the fact that the organizational model for an information age is completely different: de-centralized, overlapping, emergent, self-organizing, adaptive, diverse, bottom-out social networks. Biology is a better metaphor than warfare; these are organisms, not organizations, and chaos is as important as order in making them function.

And they're using new tools. It wasn't command-and-control that got millions out in the streets before the war. It was e-mail. It wasn't a "machine" that launched Howard Dean to front-runner status. It was Meetups and the self-organizing website Deanspace. It wasn't traditional journalism that brought down Trent Lott. It was the bloggers.

As Howard Rheingold, who literally wrote the book, Smart Mobs, says: "Civilizations jump in complexity whenever a threshold for collective action is lowered. It's not just street protestors. It's science, democracy, markets, the way people meet and mate, the way people use cities and the way motor vehicles use roadways that are affected ... when mobile communication and pervasive computing enable new forms of collective action."

Flash Mobs Become Smart Mobs

Flash Mobs got a lot of press a while back as a wacky but pointless exercise in "swarming" enabled by text messaging. But the recent election in Madrid (and Korea and the Phillipines) changed literally overnight largely because of massive demonstrations that just "emerged" through text-messaging among participants, essentially political flash mobs. WhyWar has an in-depth analysis on "Swarming and the Future of Protest."

"Wikis" have become the participatory writing tool of choice, and have revolutionized online collaboration. The Disinfopedia, from John Stauber and the folks at PRWatch, is an encyclopedia of disinformation that anyone can add their two-cents to, using the "Edit this Page" button on every page. The Canadian Green Party has even opened up the process of drafting its platform, by putting it on a wiki. (Moderators organize things and correct inaccuracies, or outright hacking, which wikis are generally immune to because they keep unlimited revision history.)

"Meetups," of course, were a crucial element to Dean's success, making it easy for people with common interests to find each other and self-organize face-to-face. To quote Rheingold again: "The Internet didn't take Dean anywhere. People did...The kingmakers were surprised because the elites have always had the exclusive power to anoint... and now millions of people were using a new tool to appropriate that power."

The Citizen Democracy Project is an "experiment in massively-parallel activism," taking ballot measures out of the hands of the big money necessary to pay signature gatherers, by facilitating the coordination of large numbers of signature-gathering volunteers using the internet.

In an interesting "arms race," to counter the threat of hacked voting machines, Votewatch is self-organizing a sophisticated grass-roots monitoring system to catch and contest abuses of electronic voting machines before their results can be certified.

There are some legal elements to the shift too, perhaps coincidental, perhaps co-symptomatic. The recent campaign finance changes have unintentionally reinforced the power of self-organization, because they favor the new 527 organizations (MoveOn, True Majority, MediaFund, etc.), which are legally bound not to be working with the parties. Additionally, the Web doesn't have the same regulations as TV ("I'm George Bush and I approved this ad"), so that's where the outrageous ones will be.

And what about the international community? There's a lot of talk about this being the first "global election" because of how much it will affect the rest of the world. Don't expect them to silently wait for the outcome. Look for lots of interesting ways that international voices will be heard weighing in, such as The World Votes, E-Parliament and others.

Who Benefits?

Clearly, such tools are "value neutral," i.e. they don't necessarily favor one side or the other, and you can bet if they're working for one side, the other will figure that out. Rove is famous for being a Blackberry addict (using it to issue commands from atop the pyramid, no doubt).

But if a paradigm shift from industrial- to information-age and from hierarchies to networks is happening, it will naturally favor those who want that shift to happen. In that sense, it threatens the two-party system in general, Republicans and Democrats alike, because they can't control the game rules as they have in the past, and the "barrier to entry" just went from "establishing a third party" to "self-organizing a movement." The Dean campaign could be seen as the natural maturation of the Greens from the 3 percent that Ralph Nader got to the 20 percent for Dean, self-organizing and free-riding on the two-party system instead of trying to create a third.

With all the focus on getting rid of Bush, self-organizing citizen networks have some real motivation to flex their muscles with all these new techniques. Regime change in the US is just step one in "emergent democracy."

References and links:




Brad deGraf is founder of Media Venture Collective and a proponent of disruptive media technologies for social change.

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