Friday 13 October 2000

Understanding and motivating activists

Insights into the psyche of activists and suggestions for organising and motivating us.
October 2000

Critical Mass Bicycle Riders promote clean air on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, during Kyoto Climate Change Summit, November 1997. Photo by Matthew Whitaker


As an activist and hacker[Jar], I have seen people donate huge amounts of time and energy for minimal personal gain. I have seen effective organising techniques used by hackers being copied and used equally effectively by activists. (When I refer to hackers I am using the traditional definition [Jar], a person who writes code for the joy of it, not someone who breaks into computer systems.) In this essay I attempt to understand what motivates activists and how to organise us to maximise the potential of an organisation.
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.

Look at me Mummy!

Humans are wired to search out recognition from their peers and activists are no different. In The secrets of happy children [Bid], Steve Biddulph, a family therapist, wrote the following about adults' need for recognition.

Apart from physical touch, we find other ways to get good feelings from people. The most obvious one is by using words. We need to be recognised, noticed and, preferably, given sincere praise. We want to be included in conversations, have our ideas listened to and even admired.
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.
Activists find recognition by saying, "Look Mummy, I was part of that demonstration which helped change the course of history." Many of the most effective activists, myself included, are driven by a craving for recognition. While children searching for recognition is cute, it is considered childish amongst adults. As a consequence, many activists will agree that some activists are ego driven, but not them. They are involved purely to create a better society for everyone. People have learnt to practice the maxim "Don't blow your own trumpet."  Instead people will take on jobs within the activist movement in the hope that others will notice. If the effort isn't noticed, the activist is likely to become disappointed, and drift out of the movement.
Consequently, to keep volunteers it is important to regularly notice achievements and publicly praise them.

I'm not worthy!

Critical mass Sydney draws its biggest crowd in November when everyone rides over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. This is critical mass's best shot at publicity and activists usually rally and put together a mammoth effort. However, in 1999 many of the old timers were out of town and the newbies were slow to step forward. It wasn't because the newbies were not talented, or unwilling. After I talked to a few newbies, Fiona stepped in as a competent spokesperson, Eduado organised a banner painting workshop and Michael wrote an excellent article for a cycling magazine. They all shouldered their jobs willingly, but only after they were invited to do so. I've found this to be typical behaviour amongst activists, which begs the question, why don't activists volunteer in the first place? Possibly the newbies didn't think of the idea, except I ran the ideas though our email lists with minimal response. Often the newbies feel they won't do as good job as the old timers, except in this case the old timers were not helping out at all. What people regularly say is "I've only been around for a few rides and didn't want to step on anyone's toes." They didn't feel worthy to take on important roles until invited.

Community responsibility

I joined the bush-walking club when I went to University and on my first walk we were to be picked up at a train station in the Blue Mountains and driven to an idyllic location to camp. After waiting at the station for an hour I decided to hitch and then walk into the campsite myself. From the sketch map I had it only seemed like 20km and I figured I'd get there before dark. Besides, the first part of the trip was along a busy road and I'd be sure to get a lift. I couldn't be more wrong, the campsite was probably more like 60km away and despite the busy road having cars zoom past us in a constant stream, no one stopped. Luckily, on the dirt road, where cars only passed every half hour or so, I picked up two lifts, both times from the first car that passed. This is a prime example of human sense of responsibility. On the main road the passers by didn't need to worry about my plight, there was plenty of other cars that could pick me up. However, on the dirt road the same drivers knew that if they didn't pick me up then I'd be wandering around for another half hour before I had another chance at another lift. The dirt road drivers felt more responsible for my fate and helped me out.
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.

Activism as a gift culture

Activists and computer hackers work hard, for no pay, for the good of the greater community. The reason humans perform these incredible acts of selfless generosity has been described by Eric S. Raymond in Homesteading the Noosphere [Noos] as a Gift Culture.

Human beings have an innate drive to compete for social status; it's wired in by our evolutionary history. For the 90% of that history that ran before the invention of agriculture, our ancestors lived in small nomadic hunting-gathering bands. High-status individuals (those most effective at informing coalitions and persuading others to cooperate with them) got the healthiest mates and access to the best food.
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.
Similarly, in our western society almost everyone has the necessities to live, and participating in activist activities costs little. Hence people have the luxury to be able to give time and energy to the activist community. In an activist gift culture, tasks are chosen rather than allocated. People naturally select and excel at tasks they are interested in and consequently, a gift culture is one of the most effective ways to organise people.


Critical mass  is an organised coincidence where swarms of cyclists happen to ride in the same direction at the same time during peak hour traffic. By definition, no one is in charge of critical mass, or put another way, everyone is in charge. I've seen police try to tackle critical mass by first asking "Who is in charge". "I am", someone yells, "I am" someone else yells. Very soon everyone is claiming to be in charge. This is incredibly amusing for the activists and very disarming for the poor police. Whilst critical mass claims to be leaderless and it may well have started that way, a subtle power structure has emerged. People who build a reputation for achieving gain respect. However, the respected elders are not in a position to constrain another's initiatve. For instance, if a newbie suggests a press stunt which an elder finds inappropriate, the newbie can still go ahead with the stunt. However it is unlikely others in the group would join in. Funnily enough, this situation rarely happens. Usually the elders will suggest modifications, which the newbie takes on board and the group will take part with the elders' blessing.
In 1970 Jo Freeman wrote about the myth of structureless in the women's movement in The Tyrannyof Structurelessness [Free].

During the years in which the women's liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main form of the movement. The source of this idea was a natural reaction against the overstructured society in which most of us found ourselves, the inevitable control this gave others over our lives and the continual elitism of the Left and similar groups among those who were supposedly fighting this over-structuredness. The idea of structurelessness, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women's liberation ideology. For the early development of the movement this did not much matter. It early defined its main method as consciousness raising and the structureless rap group was an excellent means to this end. Its looseness and informality encouraged participation in discussion and the often supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight.
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.
Eric S. Raymond describes a similar, loosely organised power structure amongst the thriving computer hacker culture in Homesteading the Noosphere [Noos]. The implicit theory of the Open Source [Licenses] ... is that anyone can hack anything. Nothing prevents half a dozen different people from taking any given open-source product ... duplicating the sources, running off with them in different evolutionary directions, but all claiming to be the product.
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.
Eric S. Raymond goes on to argue that these ownership customs are virtually identical to the Anglo-American common-law theory of land tenure. In this theory, there are three ways to acquire ownership of land. On a frontier, where land exists that has never had an owner, one can acquire ownership by homesteading, mixing one's labour with the unowned land, fencing it and defending one's title.
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.
While from a distance the 1970s Women's movement and hackers share similar power structures, there are subtle differences which make the hackers significantly more effective as the group expands.
  • 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.

Oh no, its anarchy!

A non-hierarchic structure is sometimes described as anarchy. Liz A. Highleyman summarises anarchy well in An Introduction to Anarchism [High].

The basic tenet of anarchism is that hierarchical authority -- be it state, church, patriarchy or economic elite -- is not only unnecessary, but is inherently detrimental to the maximization of human potential. Anarchists generally believe that human beings are capable of managing their own affairs on the basis of creativity, cooperation, and mutual respect. It is believed that power is inherently corrupting, and that authorities are inevitably more concerned with self-perpetuation and increasing their own power than they are with doing what is best for their constituents. Anarchists generally maintain that ethics are a personal matter, and should be based upon concern for others and the wellbeing of society, rather than upon laws imposed by a legal or religious authority. While I suggest activists adopt an anarchic power structure, they need not adopt other anarchic ideals which sometimes include violent action and destroying existing institutions.

Communication, Size and Structure

Activist movements generally start when a handful of people a drawn together to work on a cause. A loosely organised power structure develops. Issues are worked out at face-to-face meetings, or over the telephone. As the movement grows, meetings become unwieldy and traditional hierarchical models become attractive. These come with elected positions: presidents, secretaries, treasurers and so forth, while everyone else is just a member. Each position has responsibilities defined and people are expected to respect these roles. This significantly reduces the need for communication since decision making is limited to a few office bearers. Instead of meetings and telephones, newsletters and public addresses are used to notify members of decisions that have been made, rather than involving members in the decision making process.
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.
Consequently, it is desirable for a movement to maintain a loosely organised power structure for as long as possible. Computer hackers have developed very effective communication tools based on the internet which enable large groups of to maintain loose power structures. These tools are used by critical mass Sydney and have allowed it to grow to over 1000 participants without becoming structured or bogged down in internal communication.

Internal Communication

Communication is the lifeblood of any organisation and activism is no exception.   The efficiency of communication sets a ceiling on the effectiveness of an organisation. Like 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.
To solve these issues, computer hackers have forged the internet into an extremely effective communication tool. In many ways it is more effective than the traditional tools used by traditional corporations. The success of this communication can be measured by the success of Open Source Software, hackers software which is given away for free. Linux, Apache, Perl, TCP/IP, DNS, are some of the famous open source successes. Numerous internet communication tools are available: email, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Webphone, Newsgroups, Netmeetings and so forth. However, probably the most effective tool for hackers and activists is the listserver.  Listservers receive email and then forwards it to all the subscribers to the list.  Anyone who has an email address can easilly subscribe to a listserver.  In CriticalMass - Sydney - What has it become? [Cmass] I had the following to say about listservers.
  • 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.
While listservers are incredibly effective, they do have limitations.
  • 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.

Motivating and networking

In order to attract people to a cause, people need to know there is a problem, that a solution exists and that they can do something to make it happen. Good motivators can significantly improve the effectiveness of an organisation. Within critical mass Sydney somewhere between 200 and 1000 people would turn up to rides, however only about five to ten percent of those would do anything extra. This is not necessarily because they don't want to do more, often they don't know how.
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?
Then I'd listen. Usually these people either had great ideas but didn't know how to implement them, or had talents and interests they wanted to use. All I needed to do was suggest an idea, or put them in contact with others with similar interests and they greatly increased their effectiveness as activists. I had the most success when I'd offer to coach or help them. For instance, I'd offer to proof read a press release if they wrote it. To facilitate this I set up a brightideas web page and built myself an activist phone book, with peoples contact details, interests and talents. A public phone list would have been better, but many people like to keep contact details private, especially in a movement which occasionally boarders on illegality.
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.


When you set out to build up an activist movement, don't worry about setting up traditional heirachical structures.  They are not needed and will probably limit the potential of your organisation.  Build up the communication channels between activists and lever the new tools provided by the internet. They are a gift for activists. Save the world and don't forget to have fun.

About the author

At 30, Cameron Shorter describes himself as a computer hacker, cycling activist, and proud father of two young boys. He has invested significant time promoting 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 which allows anyone to write their own uncensored news story.
He helps with the system administration of the activist internet service provider (ISP)
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.

Bibliography and further reading

[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?,  - cached
[Free] Freeman, Jo.: The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Berkeley Journal of Sociology in 1970:  - cached
[High] Highleyman, Liz A.: An Introduction to Anarchism, - cached
[Jar] Raymond, Eric S.: The Jargon File, Definitions of computer geek terms.
[Noos] Raymond, Eric S.: Homesteading the Noosphere, - cached. The second in a series of essays which define the computer hacker culture.

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