You would have to be pretty isolated to have not heard of the multiple Group Action taking place on the Internet as of late. Anonymous, Occupy, Arab Spring, SOPA, MegaUpload, PIPA, MPAA, the Pirate Bay are all words that resonate to most people, describing movements (or the concerns that is attached to them) which used social media, and more generally, the Internet as a way of communicating, exchanging ideas, regrouping, and coordinating online or in-real-life action.
Characterizing Group Actions
Stepping backward before we move forward: Over the ages we have seen large group actions taking place when a big enough number of people were oppressed or could not stand their current living conditions. Under extreme conditions, individuals member of a population find each other, coordinate their effort and act together. Traditionally, what has mobilized people is the very bottom of the Maslow’s Pyramid: Things that affect survival. The classical form of this is the revolution.
Below are a few parameters that I believe describe group actions best:
- The pain:
- Who is affected: What portion of the population is affected [From a single individual to an entire population]
- What is wrong: What is the nature of the discontent [From a measly concern to starvation]
- Common enemy: Personified and identified source for the pain [From being nature’s fault to a dictatorship]
- The effort:
- Sacrifice: What people are ready to give up for addressing the pain
- Tools: For people to find each other and see each other’s pain (creating the sense of group); For people to organize themselves and coordinate action.
- The pain: Most people where affected with hunger, and the king and its court was the enemy.
- The effort: Very limited in terms of communication and action (no weapon per se), which meant that the sacrifice in human lives was high
What made the French Revolution what it was is that the pain was so high that things happened at a great cost: Cost in life, temporary spike in pain, etc.
I believe that there is a direct, negative correlation between the strength of the discontent and the effort that is required to mobilize masses: Generally speaking people will fight for what they believe is important, be it an ideology, freedom of speech, fulfillment of primary needs, etc.
Looking at this the other way around, what this mean is that if you provide an easy way for people to find each other and act together, at the cost of a low sacrifice, the threshold of necessary pain for action to happen is lowered.
Here comes the Internet
The Internet has been around for a little while. It has been a great repository of knowledge, a provider of entertainment, a marketplace, and an efficient news outlet. Lately it has been a social network where people were able to find each other, and exchange ideas. So much so that entire real life movement were born on the Internet. What we have seen over the past couple of years is that the gap between real life and Internet has disappeared. Internet is real life. People used to “Surf the Internet” as if to say that it was a way to past time, in itself a specific activity with a beginning and an end. The Internet is now … life. Social networks have recreated the connections, broadband access and mobile devices have made it an always-on, always-there thing.
How does the internet impact Group Actions? The effort piece from the graph above is reduced: People find each other, share their stories, organize themselves. Since effort and pain are so closely related, what this mean is that the level of pain that needs to occur for a group action to happen is largely reduced. This is reflected in some of the movements that we’ve seen – MegaUpload, Sony, Occupy, SOPA, are all movements that I believe would not have happened 60 years ago (or, the equivalent pain would not have been addressed).
Group Actions now start on the Internet – Preoccupations are raised on the Internet, coordination happens on the Internet – Freedom of speech, anti-corporatism, dictatorship, oppression are now concerns that most people are aware of and seem to care more about (or: Because signing an online petition is a low effort, they do it). Think about the last few movements you can think about in the context of the framework that I described above. How many people are affected? What is the pain? Who or what is the common enemy? What is the effort?
A potential bad outcome to how easy it is to feel like we are doing something about our pain is that people will now upvote a story on reddit or digg, or “repost” on facebook instead of protesting on the streets.
Overall this makes me feel that the Internet is getting smarter. It’s not just a repository of content anymore – It actually enables us to have an impact on our real life. I don’t know if the 13 years old teenager creating her Facebook account cares about those matters, and if she will ever be exposed to them – After all, my vision of the Internet is skewed because I spend a large amount of time reading about those subjects (Is my Internet everyone’s Internet?). What I know though, if that if she does, she will be familiarized with the notion of being able to actually have a voice and do something about things that matter, and not just be a passenger of the Internet, a passenger of life.
From the people movement to an ideology
Let’s look back at our traditional group actions – revolutions: Those movements almost always find a leader (organically or elected) and characterize their demands (put them on paper). The goal being to actually create communication. Personifying the group helps making the demands concrete. Eventually the movement becomes an ideology carried by a few of those leaders, and in most cases, the ideology mutates into something that does not necessarily resonate with people, over a period of years of decades. The voice of the people which gave strength to the movement, becomes the voice of a few leaders. The sense of purpose is lost, etc.
How does this work on the Internet, and more specifically, in the Anonymous movement? The wikipedia entry describes this beautifully:
Not having a leader allows Anonymous to achieve a few things:
- It works perfectly on the Internet where naturally the best and most backed ideas surface. They do not need to be canalized by a party or a person.
- This ensure longevity to the movement – New ideas, new blood will always rise at a low effort
- The anonymity reduces the potential sacrifice that people have to do to defend their idea
For that reason, I believe that the Anonymous movement will never die. And if it does, other movement will take over. The recent online uproar against Sony, SOPA and others, are here to stay.
Closing the loop
Group actions are happening on the Internet with the same variables than they always have – Pain and Effort – defining factor of the potential ROI of the movement and the threshold for action. What the Internet is bringing is a greater efficiency which impacts those parameters in a great way. The leader-less nature of the movement that the Internet allows ensures its longevity.
EDIT 2/29/2012: Frugal Dad’s take on consumerist social actions – Interesting recap of what the power of the web has allowed.