|Critical Mass Bicycle Riders promote clean air on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, during Kyoto Climate Change Summit, November 1997. Photo by Matthew Whitaker|
I propose the most effective way to organise people is with a non-hierarchic power structure where no one has the power to command or limit the enthusiasm of another.
Before the internet, organisations required hierarchy to streamline communication if they wanted to grow bigger than a small group. With email and the web, communication has become cheap and efficient and large non-hierarchical organisations can thrive, often outperforming their hierarchical equivalents.
Understanding this essay should allow activists to maximise their potential. For others I hope it will prove informative and entertaining.
[Bid], Steve Biddulph, a family therapist, wrote the following about adults' need for recognition.
A three-year-old says it straight: "Hey, look at me."
I am sometimes reduced to stitches by the realisation that most of the adult world is made up of three-year-olds running about shouting, "Look at me, Daddy", "Watch me, you guys". Not me of course - I give lectures and write books out of mature adult concern.
Consequently, to keep volunteers it is important to regularly notice achievements and publicly praise them.
In an activist movement, participants feel a responsibility to ensure the movement's success. This responsibility is stronger in old timers who have invested more effort into the movement and inversely proportional to the number of people in the organisation. It is like a farming community defending its crops or a tribe defending its water holes. This is another explanation as to why the people in the previous section responded to a personal phone call, but not a collective invitation. When I rang these people I pointed out that no one else had volunteered for the task, that they were the best person for the task and if they did not take on the task then it would not be done.
Invoking a little sense of responsibility in activists can be effective, but it cannot be overplayed. Being overwhelmed by responsibility is not fun. It is called guilt and is the quickest way to loose volunteers.
Homesteading the Noosphere [Noos] as a Gift Culture.
Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.
In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.
For examined in this way, it is quite clear that the society of open-source hackers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, there is no serious shortage of the `survival necessities' -- disk space, network bandwidth, computing power. Software is freely shared. This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one's peers.
The reputation-game analysis has some implications that may not be immediately obvious. Many of these derive from the fact that one gains more prestige from founding a successful project than from co-operating in an existing one. One also gains more from projects which are strikingly innovative, as opposed to being `me, too' incremental improvements on software that already exists. On the other hand, software that nobody but the author understands or has a need for is a non-starter in the reputation game and it's often easier to attract good notice by contributing to an existing project than it is to get people to notice a new one. Finally, it's much harder to compete with an already successful project than it is to fill an empty niche.
Continued devotion to hard, boring work (like debugging, or writing documentation) is more praiseworthy than cherry-picking the fun and easy hacks.
In 1970 Jo Freeman wrote about the myth of structureless in the women's movement in The Tyrannyof Structurelessness [Free].
The basic problems didn't appear until individual rap groups exhausted the virtues of consciousness raising and decided they wanted to do something more specific. At this point they usually floundered because most groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed their task. Women had thoroughly accepted the idea of structurelessness without realizing the limitations of its uses.
Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible, it may vary over time, it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities and intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals with different talents, predispositions and backgrounds makes this inevitable.
If the movement continues deliberately not to select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it. If the movement continues to keep power as diffuse as possible because it knows it cannot demand responsibility from those who have it, it does prevent any group or person from totally dominating. But it simultaneously ensures that the movement is as ineffective as possible.
In fact (and in contradiction to the anyone-can-hack-anything consensus theory) the open-source culture has an elaborate but largely unadmitted set of ownership customs. These customs regulate who can modify software, the circumstances under which it can be modified and (especially) who has the right to redistribute modified versions back to the community.
The usual means of transfer in settled areas is transfer of title, that is receiving the deed from the previous owner. In this theory, the concept of `chain of title' is important. The ideal proof of ownership is a chain of deeds and transfers extending back to when the land was originally homesteaded.
Finally, the common-law theory recognises that land title may be lost or abandoned (for example, if the owner dies without heirs, or the records needed to establish chain of title to vacant land are gone). A piece of land that has become derelict in this way may be claimed by adverse possession -- one moves in, improves it and defends title as if homesteading.
This theory, like hacker customs, evolved organically in a context where central authority was weak or nonexistent. It developed over a period of a thousand years from Norse and Germanic tribal law. Because it was systematized and rationalized in the early modern era by the English political philosopher John Locke, it is sometimes referred to as the `Lockean' theory of property.
- Hackers acknowledge rather than fight the natural power structure.
- Anyone can take the initiative and start a project or make a decision, with or without the groups blessing. This ensures creativity is not stifled while waiting for group consensus.
- Hackers have exploited the effective communication channels of the internet.
However, the standard hierarchical model limits the potential of its members.
- Often, there are not enough positions for the volunteers, hence many volunteers are left without the prestige of a position and will leave, or will not perform to their potential.
- Volunteer energy is wasted fighting for elected positions.
- Volunteers have varying and random amounts of time and motivation. Consequently, volunteers often don't apply for a position, don't do all the duties for the position, or are not used to their full potential.
- Volunteers drift in and out of organisations. It is important ensure the volunteer is useful as soon as they join rather than wait for the next election.
- Volunteers who do not feel useful will leave.
- Managing people takes time. It is better if volunteers are given the opportunity to manage themselves.
- Hierarchical models tend to come with excessive house keeping. Tracking membership, keeping minutes, drawing up constitutions and so on. This reduces efectiveness.
hackers[Jar], activists suffer from some physical limitations which are less common in traditional organisations.
- Groups of hackers/activists rarely work in the same building and face to face meetings involve wasting significant time in transit.
- The hacking/activism is done in spare time after finishing a real job and domestic duties. This means that keeping abreast with issues takes a higher percentage of a person's time than someone working full time. Also, it is difficult to co-ordinate a time when a group of hackers/activists can meet.
- A listserver can be like a newsletter, only there is no folding and posting, no buying stamps, envelopes and paper, no maintaining lists of addresses, no formatting and editing. Listservers are cheap so no volunteer time wasted collecting money from members. Basically list servers are less work.
- Listservers don't have to wait for a newsletter deadline, so you can send news out as often as you want. Consequently, the listserver is an excellent way to mobilise lots of people fast. When Tollaust tried to discourage cyclists from using the M2 motorway by charging them as much as cars, 130 cyclists organised a protest in a week using email as the main form of communication.
- A listserver can be like an on-line meeting, with many advantages. A meeting with fifteen or more people often turns into a rabble, with only the loud, domineering people getting heard over the rest. A listserver provides everyone with equal opportunity to partake in discussions. This has moulded well with the leaderless structure of critical mass. If you do get a rambler, you can skim their email and delete it, a bit like fast forward someone in a meeting. Because people write more precisely than they talk, more people can fit in a listserver discussion. No time is wasted travelling to the meeting and people can partake at a time convenient for them. Consequently, we have twenty times as many people on our listserver as we have at critical mass meetings. When people take part in developing an idea, they are likely to help put the idea into practice. With so many people on our listservers we have been getting lots of great ideas, but more importantly, lots of volunteers.
- Issues can be discussed as they arise rather than waiting a week or two for the next meeting. Lately, people have been writing letters to newspapers, politicians and government agencies and copying them to the list. Each witty letter seems to encourage others to write and an unofficial letter writing campaign has started.
- International conferences are as easy as communicating with people in your own city. We regularly talk with critical mass participants around the world.
- No resources are wasted taking minutes. That is handled by list archives.
- In Silicon Valley it is said, "and the geeks shall rule the earth". Scarily, this prophecy is very close to the truth. A couple of years after introducing the critical mass email list our monthly meetings had all but died, issues were discussed and decisions made on the internet. The problem is that three quarters of Australian's are not connected to the net and hence don't have access to decision making. Hence the geeks with internet access are effectively ruling critical mass.
- Protocols used by most listservers state that participants should only post to the list if they can add something new. "Me too" and "I agree" emails are frowned upon. As a consequence one should not assume that just because most of the postings on the list promote an argument, that the majority of the people on the list agree with that argument. The counter argument may have been presented very comprehensively once and no one has more to add. Hence, an alternative to listservers should be used if voting is required.
- When discussions become complicated, like nutting out detailed technical problems, listservers become less effective because delays between messages slows down the creative process. Meetings, net conferences and internet chat relays are better in these situations.
- Email based communication does not use all the human senses when communicating. People build relationships faster when they have access to sight, sound and smell. It is through trust and relationships that people determine whether to organise a joint action with each other. Listservers are excellent for brainstorming, but often people will not go that extra step and volunteer to take on a task. I've found a follow up one-to-one phone call with some of the key participants in a discussion helps convert an idea into action.
Before I became a cycling activist, I attended a council meeting where cycling issues were being discussed. After the meeting, the vice president of Bicycle NSW stood on a chair and gave a speech encouraging us to continue our lobbying. I walked away from the meeting alone, wondering how.
Ten years later and after writing this paper, I realise it is difficult to explain effective lobbying in a short speech and different people are most effective in different ways.
For a couple of years, I stood in front of critical mass Sydney before and after rides to announce the latest news. As a consequence people would often ring or approach me and ask where we were headed next, or suggest ways to improve critical mass. After answering their queries, I'd ask a few questions.
- What do you do?
- What are you interested in?
- If you ran critical mass what would you change?
A good motivator also benefits from the characteristics of a good leader.
- Give credit where credit is due. Pass on credit to the person who deserves it.
- Only suggest people do things you would be prepared to do yourself.
- Never use guilt as a motivator, even if the volunteer lets you down. Nothing looses volunteers faster than making them feel bad.
- A person who is working hard is a better motivator. People are happy to help out, but don't like being ordered around by someone sitting back and taking all the glory.
criticalmass in Sydney, Australia, giving interviews to the media, building up a fact pack on cycling, designing web pages and organising publicity stunts. He rides a bicycle to work.
He is one of the computer hackers who developed the activist calendar and news site http://www.active.org.au which allows anyone to write their own uncensored news story.
He helps with the system administration of the activist internet service provider (ISP) http://www.cat.org.au.
He now works as the Webmapping Manager for SocialchangeOnline, where he tries to apply the ideas presented in this paper.
His latest and most ambitious project is to write a web based cycle mapping program which will allow cyclists to enter their favourite bike routes on a map in a web browser, and for those routes to be collected into a central database and redistributed as bike maps.
He figures he only has another fifty years to live, and is desperately trying to cram as much as he can into his life before he is dead.
[Bid] Biddulph, Steve; The secret of happy children; Angus & Robertson 1984; ISBN 0 207 18945 5. [Cmass] Shorter, Cameron.: Critical Mass - Sydney - What has it become?, http://www.nccnsw.org.au/~cmass/reports/articles/about.shtml - cached
[Free] Freeman, Jo.: The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Berkeley Journal of Sociology in 1970: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/hist_texts/structurelessness.html - cached
[High] Highleyman, Liz A.: An Introduction to Anarchism, http://www.freespeech.org/ledland/Anarchism/Highleyman_AnIntroductionToAnarchism.html - cached
[Jar] Raymond, Eric S.: The Jargon File, http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/. Definitions of computer geek terms.
[Noos] Raymond, Eric S.: Homesteading the Noosphere, http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/homesteading/homesteading/ - cached. The second in a series of essays which define the computer hacker culture.