From the alternative global movement to the Wikipedians, the key word today is “self-organization”: not doing what you’re told to do, but contributing what you can and wish to for the greater good. Marco Visscher describes the emergence of the participatory culture.
Marco Visscher | May 2007 issue
The contrast could not have been clearer than in Genoa, Italy, during the summer of 2001. U.S. President George W. Bush, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and other leaders of G8 nations were meeting behind closed doors, following a very precise schedule governing every detail of the proceedings: the exact time they had breakfast, what topics they would discuss and when they could take a break. Hundreds of people had spent the previous year working on the script.
Meanwhile, in Genoa’s city centre, tens of thousands of men and women from all corners of the world had come together. An enormous police force kept the crowd – nature preservationists, union members, human-rights campaigners, peace activists, teachers, farmers, politicians, attorneys and students – at a distance from the G8 dignitaries. The people in the streets didn’t know what would happen from one minute to the next. What drove them to interrupt their daily lives and travel all the way to Genoa was a shared ideal: the desire to show the world’s most powerful leaders that people affected by G8’s decisions want to join the discussion.
The protest meeting was an example of self-organization, in which everyone there was free to do what he or she wanted to contribute to the overall cause. Many raised huge banners; a group of young women in bright pink dresses marched down the street handing out balloons; musicians sang songs about global justice; students organized spontaneous debates and self-appointed journalists posted news dispatches and commentaries online.
This is not how serious enterprises – even grassroots political movements – are usually run. Most of us still think practical projects should be governed by a centralized organization that establishes schedules, sets priorities, supervises activities, charts progress and makes adjustments so pre-established goals can be achieved. We believe there must be a hierarchal structure whereby orders come from the top, giving a clear sense of who is in charge. We’re used to looking to experts, bosses, directors, professionals and other leaders who know what’s best. But even if they didn’t realize it at the time, the marchers in Genoa were showcasing an entirely new form of social organization. They had no spokespeople, no leaders, no ideology – or, more accurately, many spokespeople, many leaders and many, many ideologies. The alternative globalists in Genoa – and before that in Seattle, Porto Alegre, Quebec City, Prague, Cancœn, Gothenburg and many other places – were forerunners of an emerging culture in which people collaborate at the deepest levels to create something that brings fulfillment to everyone.
A new era is dawning, characterized by participation rather the command-and-control model so intrinsic to the institutions that dominated the 20th century: the military, corporations, centralized states. “Participation” is now the magic word. It’s not about more stuff or more choice, but more say, more opportunities to contribute. You see this among activist groups, which increasingly find their volunteers want to do more than collect donations and hand out flyers. You see it in the business world, where successful companies are learning the importance of customers who feel part of the enterprise, even to the point of helping design and market the products (see the April issue of Ode, p. XX). You see it in the planning profession, in which few projects go forward without extensive meetings scheduled for local citizens to express their ideas. You see it in the proliferation of new computer games that seek the players’ involvement, including The Sims, the bestselling computer game of all time, which boastsrevenues on par with the Hollywood cinematic classic Star Wars.
People’s burgeoning desire to join in is promoted in many ways by the Iternet. Consider the success of YouTube, which a growing number of teenagers find far more interesting than watching television. After all, what you see on TV is decided in a boardroom and viewers are shut out of the process – except for the odd call to the call-in-and-win programs. But YouTube (which gets as many as 8 million hits on peak days) allows you to choose the videos you want to watch and rate their value as well as upload your own footage.
But this trend – “movement” might be a better word – is bigger than simply a new spirit of collaboration. The loosely structured, unplanned nature of this emerging participatory culture is what makes it special. There are no “leaders” in the traditional sense, no “management” in the way the word is usually meant. This is a battle without commanders, staged by an army of volunteers that simply wants to do what its members enjoy – despite their otherwise busy lives.
Take the example of Linux, the free computer operating system launched in 1992 by the 21-year-old Linus Torvalds, who suspected a whole lot of people existed outside Helsinki, Finland, who were better able than he to refine his system. Tens of thousands of people around the world have since tinkered with the source code, which can still be installed, used, modified and distributed free. Linux is now used by millions of people and companies.
Mozilla Firefox executives have a similar story. Blake Ross was 14 when he did an internship at Netscape and became disillusioned with how the Web browser was being developed. He took the first steps toward developing an alternative with the help of countless anonymous people who wanted nothing more than a simple, user-friendly and free browser. The principles of open source – employedby both Torvalds and Ross – are now applied by geneticists to fill enormous data banks, and by NASA in the U.S. to identify millions of craters on Mars with the help of amateurs.
Perhaps the shining example of participatory culture is Wikipedia, the most successful experiment in self-organization. The same year that global-justice activists streamed into Genoa, Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales were running into problems on the other side of the Atlantic. Together they were working on Nupedia, an encyclopedia they planned to make available to the public, free of charge, via the Internet. They considered it the ultimate democratization of knowledge. Sanger and Wales found renowned academics who were prepared to write entries for the site as well as to edit others’ contributions. Great plan. But it had one drawback: It was impossible to get anything done. Two years in, Nupedia included only 24 articles. “The pace was horrible,” Wales says now..
Then, in early 2001, Sanger and Wales discovered “wikis,” websites on which any user could edit, modify or delete text. This is the answer, they thought. But the editors didn’t like the fact that anyone could sit down at the computer and rewrite their learned contributions. How could such an “encyclopedia” be considered reliable? And who, they wondered, would want to spend his free time writing up obscure topics in neutral language with the risk that someone else would fiddle with it? Not only would contributors never be paid, they wouldn’t even see their names on their work.
Of course we know what happened: Wikipedia is one of the top information sources in the world, with over 5 million articles in 249 languages and – at last count in September – 285,866 people who have contributed more than 10 times. “When I launched Wikipedia, we surpassed the entire output of Nupedia within a matter of days,” Wales said. And regardless of how many teachers, scientists and journalists continue to mistrust its content, studies show that Wikipedia contains only slightly more errors than the venerable Encyclopedia Brittanica.
It is not at all surprising that the new participatory culture centres around the Internet – a medium perfectly suited to bringing people into contact. The Internet is also where British management and innovation consultant Charles Leadbeater finds ample evidence for his theory that people today no longer want to be spectators but players.
“If you mix the philosophy of the sixties with Web 2.0 [a collective concept for an Internet in which cooperation and connections take centre stage], you’ll get a highly collaborative culture with many new things emerging quickly,” Leadbeater explains from London in a phone interview. “The reason why people are turning to these old, anti-institutional, anti-hierarchical ideas is that technology allows a decentralized way of working. It’s not because they sound nice or because they’re morally uplifting. It’s because it’s a practical way to accomplish complicated goals.”
In his new book We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity, Leadbeater is putting these ideas to the test. It can already be downloaded free (www.wethinkthebook.net), and readers are invited to offer their suggestions for revisions and additions. The book, which the author describes as an “unfolding conversation,” won’t be released until the summer of 2008. There is also a wiki (http://wethink.wikia.com) with a glossary of terms for the book’s themes.
Leadbeater describes the central theme of his book this way: “We are told that to be organized, we need an organization. Yet all these are complex and highly organized activities without a single organization being in charge of everything that goes on. We are told that to make sure order is maintained, someone has to be in control. Yet these activities seem ordered precisely because no one seeks to be in control and so people have to exercise their sense of responsibility, adjusting to one another, sorting out disputes as they go. The order comes from within these communities, not from the top. To get complex tasks done reliably, we have assumed we need a clear division of labour, so everyone knows in advance what they are supposed to do, whose job it is to do what. Yet in these non-organizations, people seem to voluntarily distribute themselves to work, as and when it needs to be done.”
This participation revolution has enormous implications. For example, innovation, the heart of modern capitalism, will no longer be relegated to an elite group of specialists working in private. Instead, innovation will result from a process of professionals and amateurs, designers and consumers, exchanging ideas with one another.
The revolution will also have profound implications for our notions of intellectual property. After all, who will be recognized as the creator if the end product is the result of a long process to which many people voluntarily contributed? And who should be paid royalties for their ideas and work? This new method of innovation will doubtlessly yield many breakthroughs. New medicines for illnesses common in poor countries, for example, are limited today by a lack of research funding. The pharmaceutical industry earns more if it invests in treating conditions affecting the wealthy and their pets. Collaborative research, less driven by the quest for lucrative patents, could result in new life-saving medicines getting to poor countries more easily.
Traditional media companies – which are starting to realize that the Internet was not hype after all – will have to revise their definitions of journalism. Jimmy Wales cannot influence Wikipedians in the way that Rupert Murdoch directs his editorial staff. In fact, Wales has adjusted his own entry many times in an effort to present his previous job for an erotic search engine in more delicate terms, as well as asserting that he is the sole founder of Wikipedia – a touchy matter still discussed on the site. By definition, weblogs and wiki sites offer greater scope for diverse insights and opinions – not only those of the professional journalist, but also of the involved outsider.
The emergence of the new participatory culture will have a major impact on the political playing field. Leadbeater says the effects are already visible. “We are seeing people turning their backs to parties, parliament and elections, while people – also the young – are still interested in political issues,” he contends. “They want to engage in a different way. Now we’re seeing some experiments in which political parties have people write wiki manifestos and involve them in formulating the party line and providing tools for local campaigns.”
For generations, politics has been portrayed as the ultimate spectator sport. Television emphasizes wrangling politicians, rather than showing us how we can change society. How different is that from computer games in which people adopt roles? In his recently released report, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. writes: “The step from watching television news and acting politically seems greater than the transition from being a political actor in a game world to acting politically in the real world.”
Jenkins points to the example of Ashley Richardson, who in 2004 ran for president of Alphaville, a position that would have enabled her to influence the lives of thousands of people. She and her opponent discussed issues such as operating a democracy, maintaining order and combating fraud. Ashley Richardson was the nom de screen of Laura McKnight, a 14-year-old middle-schooler from Florida and a fervent player of The Sims Online, the strategy-simulation game in which virtual lives are played out in Alphaville.
McKnight is not unusual in her generation. She is among the tens of thousands of young people who are growing up in a world of modern technology in which participation, self-organization and assumption of responsibility are key concepts.
In 20, 30 or 40 years, another global summit of the wealthiest nations will undoubtedly be on the agenda – in Seattle, Porto Alegre, Paris, Mumbai, Beijing or wherever. Then, too, the hotel where the world leaders stay will be selected in advance. But the policy they pursue and discuss with one another will be strongly influenced by the culture they grew up in – policy not conceived by political strategists, but drawn up in consultation with everyday citizens. What will that policy look like?
Will the protesters be marching in the streets or on hand in the conference room?