Social Media-Fueled Swarms Don’t Need a Leader

Almost a year and a half ago I wrote that “we are on the verge of a massive shift in the way we communicate and inspire action.” Last February, as I watched jubilant Egyptians celebrate the resignation of their 82-year-old former president, I asserted that paradigm shift had arrived.

Today, as I read news articles mocking the Occupy Wall Street protests spreading from Lower Manhattan to hundreds of cities and towns, I realize how many still aren’t visualizing the new paradigm: a self-directed (i.e., leaderless) communications swarm flowing in infinite directions and loops—but in a synchronized way.

A “news” article in the Washington Post asks:

“Can a leaderless group that relies on consensus find a way for so many people to agree on what comes next? Can it offer not only objections but also solutions? Can a radical protest evolve into a mainstream movement for change?”

Leaderless group? Consensus? We’re talking swarms. What we’re witnessing is ideas buzzing in patterns similar to those of bees. Bees use their “humming” to instinctively move in synchronous swarms when they are building a new nest or hive. These self-organized swarms use a bottom-up approach where very simple interactions between individuals develop into complex group movements.

Mobile technology combined with real-time web applications, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, creates a buzz similar to the humming of these swarms. This buzz empowers people to align around a common interest, become inspired, and take action—nearly instantaneously and in unison without prior planning or forethought.

Swarms don’t need a leader. They don’t rely on consensus.

The New York Times Editorial Board gets at least the common interest inspiring the Occupy Wall Street protests:

“As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.

“At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity.”

More journalists, politicians, and nonprofits need to take the Occupy Wall Street protests seriously, lack of common objectives and specific policy prescriptions or not. In the words of Geoff Livingston, whose blog posts are famous for applying timeless strategic principles to social media and Web 2.0 communications:

“Though dismissed, an opportunity is being missed with Occupy Wall Street. Nonprofits seeking to resolve issues of poverty and financial inequality should be leading the charge. Democrats who would naturally gravitate towards this series of issues — especially given tax debates of late — are avoiding Occupy Wall Street. Violence has tuned up the issue to new levels.

“The end result? More steam with bigger and more widespread protests.

“Conservative “anti-capitalism, socialist” spin isn’t going to make this one go away. Like the Arab Spring, like the Tea Party, like the angered Greeks, there is too much pain. No communications plan can fly in the face of a stakeholder groundswell centered on real problems. Occupy Wall Street is shaping the national debate.”

After all, would a swarm of bees need to be following a single leader, perhaps in a formation similar to geese, before you would take it seriously?

What do you think about Occupy Wall Street or social media-fueled swarms?

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About Monica

Monica specializes in strategic communications, web and new media, and print materials with an international or multi-cultural context. She has worked on national public outreach campaigns targeting multi-cultural audiences and has conceptualized, written, and/or designed multiple websites. Monica also has written, edited, and/or designed high-profile newsletters, brochures, and reports, including some prepared in collaboration with the White House. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism and a master of international service with a focus on international communication. Monica is based in Washington, D.C.