Once upon a time, power was held in the hands of a small elite. This elite occupied the commanding heights of society and controlled big, top-down organizations. It dropped products and messages from on high, and the rest of us passively consumed them.
Then along came the internet. Suddenly, information was dispersed across self-organizing, open-source networks of citizens who had the ability to collaborate, share and shape their world. Hierarchies were smashed, the wisdom of crowd was applied and transparency reigned.
OK. That didn’t really happen. The first dreams of the tech revolution didn’t come true. Sometimes it seems power was just redistributed from one set of massive organizations to others – Amazon, Facebook, Spotify.
But something has changed. We have seen an explosion of new social organisms that don’t look like the old ones: Airbnb, Etsy, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Blockchain. If power in the Greatest Generation looked like Organization Men running big institutions, and power for the boomers looked like mass movements organized by charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, power these days looks like decentralized networks in which everyone is a leader and there’s no dominating idol.
Power structures are in serious flux. The best window I’ve seen into this new world is a book called “New Power,” by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms.
Heimans is the CEO of Purpose, which supports social movements around the world. Timms is executive director at New York’s 92nd Street Y, a 144-year-old institution; he also helped create Giving Tuesday, a classic new power movement.
Timms thought that after the consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, there should be a day to give back. The normal thing would have been to put the 92nd Street Y logo on the effort and organize charities and other organizations around a consortium. Instead, he and his team established the meme Giving Tuesday, created a webpage and some tools for people who wanted to organize, and they let the crowd take over.
There are now Giving Tuesday or Giving something organizations in more than 100 countries. Local organizers talk directly to one another and reshape the movement as they wish.
Even more than technology, what’s changed is people’s attitudes toward authority. They don’t trust it. They want to see people who look like them running things. Any movement that earns legitimacy has to spread ownership around. The Ikea effect applies: People value what they helped build.
Many organizations profiled in “New Power” are decentralized but have wrestled with the challenges of decentralization, like: How do you establish unity of purpose amid the cacophony of voices? How do you maintain standards of excellence amid the democratization of control? How do you get loosely affiliated people to commit long term, so your movement won’t fizzle out, the way the Ice Bucket Challenge did?
Heimans and Timms emphasize that the best organizations try to blend old and new power structures.
These organizations are often founded by what you might call disappearing organizers. Somebody comes up with a compelling concept, like TED or Black Lives Matter. The concept gives people a sticky group identity; many people think of themselves as Tedsters. The core idea is spreadable, actionable and connected – it allows participants to subcreate in local and flexible ways. Tedsters organize and attend more than 20,000 local TEDx events. The founder doesn’t dominate the network so much as manage the community.
Successful movements create what Marilynn Brewer calls “optimal distinctiveness” – as Heimans and Timms put it, “making people feel like they are part of it and that they can stand out in it.”
The concepts binding these movements are clear, emotional and concrete and have an implied communal narrative (MeToo). But the successful organizations also feature some structural innovation. They tend to have very low barriers to entry – no dues, no loyalty pledge up front. But they have ways to incentivize members up the participation ladder, offering premiums for superparticipants who adapt, organize and share. The Lego company sets up special events and an ambassador network for its highly dedicated AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego).
At the Dutch news organization De Correspondent, journalists share story ideas with subscribers before they write them, so they can harvest community knowledge. Heimans and Timms point out that Donald Trump also blends old and new power. He may talk like an authoritarian – only I can fix this – but his actual campaign structure was a loose network of self-organizing activists. Trump is what they call a “platform strongman” – someone who marshals dispersed participants on behalf of centralizing ends.
The last few decades have been a social trust apocalypse. The only remaining bonds of trust are local and particular. But people are ingenious. They are figuring out how to build on those ties to weave and redeem the broader social fabric.
I realize my column these days is bipolar, wildly optimistic or pessimistic. But I guess that’s appropriate, since the forces tearing society apart are powerful and the people bringing it together are, too.