Chapter 4: Control The Vision, But Never The Message
People’s friends are better marketers toward those people than you, for the simple reason that they are those people’s friends, and you are not.
In the last chapter, we talked a lot about formal structures of the swarm. We talked about keeping the working groups to seven people in size, and about splitting the informal groups that approach 150 people in size into two groups. This kind of advice will have come as a surprise to some, who would believe and maybe even insist that a swarm must be leaderless and fully organic.
I do not believe in leaderless organizations. We can observe around us that change happens whenever people are allowed to inspire each other to greatness. This is leadership. This is even leadership by its very definition.
In contrast, if you have a large assembly of people who are forced to agree on every movement before doing anything, including the mechanism for what constitutes such agreement, then you rarely achieve anything at all.
Therefore, as you build a swarm, it is imperative that everybody is empowered to act in the swarm just on the basis of what he or she believes will further its goals — but no one is allowed to empower himself or herself to restrict others, neither on his or her own nor through superior numbers.
This concept — that people are allowed, encouraged, and expected to assume speaking and acting power for themselves in the swarm’s name, but never the kind of power that limits others’ right to do the same thing — is a hard thing to grasp for many. We have been so consistently conditioned to regard power as power, regardless whether it is over our own actions or over those of others, that this crucial distinction must be actively explained: there is a difference between the ability to empower yourself to perform an action and the ability to restrict others from performing that action. In the swarm, people have the former ability, but not the latter. We will return to explore this mechanism in more detail in chapter 6, as we discuss how to create a sense of inclusion and lack of fear as we shape the general motivations and internal culture of the swarm.
As a result of this far-reaching mandate, somebody who believes the swarm should take a certain action to further its goals need only start doing it. If others agree that the action is beneficial, then they will join in on that course of action.
The key reasons the swarm should not be leaderless are two. You will notice that I refer to “its goals.” Those come from you, the swarm’s founder. If the swarm were allowed to start discussing its purpose in life, then it would immediately lose its power to attract new people — who, after all, feel attracted to the swarm in order to accomplish a specific goal, and not out of some general kind of sense of social cohesion. If the goal is vague or even under discussion, the swarm will not attract people — because they wouldn’t see the swarm as a credible or effective vehicle for realizing their goal. After all, the goal of the swarm is uncertain and unclear if it is under discussion, so what goal would we be talking about in the first place?
The second reason the swarm should not be leaderless is these very mechanisms, the swarm’s culture of allowing people to act. These values will be key to the swarm’s success, and those values are set and established by you as its founder. If the swarm starts discussing its methods of conflict resolution, putting the swarm in a state where there is no longer any means to even agree whether people have arrived at an agreement, then the necessary activism for the end goal will screech to a halt.
Therefore, I believe that leaderless swarms are not capable of delivering a tangible change in the world at the end of the day. The scaffolding, the culture, and the goals of the swarm need to emanate from a founder. In a corporate setting, we would call this “mission and values.”
That said, I also believe in competition between many overlapping swarms, so that activists can float in and out of organizations, networks, and swarms that best match the change they want to see in the world. One swarm fighting for a goal does not preclude more swarms doing the same, but perhaps with a slightly different set of parameters from a different founder. This is fundamentally good for the end cause.
So the sum of this little introspective reflection at the start of the chapter is that the vision of the swarm’s end goal comes, and must come, from you — its founder. However, as we shall see, this doesn’t mean that you can control the message being told to every single being, or that you should even try to do so. Rather, you should encourage the opposite.
YOU DO THE VISION, THE SWARM DOES THE TALKING
Traditional marketing says that a message needs to stay constant to penetrate. My experience says that’s not very effective when compared to swarm techniques.
It may certainly be true that you can influence routine buying patterns or even routine voting patterns with simpleton messages of the one-size-fits-all type. But if you want energized activists, people who walk an extra mile to make a difference, then it’s a different ballgame entirely.
You don’t want a routine pattern when you’re looking for activists. You want people who are passionate, who feel like kings or queens of the world, and who can’t wait to make a difference with their bare hands.
Try to do that with centrally designed TV ads. You can’t. No matter how many millions you spend on an ad, it cannot be done. (This disregards the fact that swarms form in cash-strapped environments in the first place.)
“A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
Our language is a social marker. Our choice of words matters, as do minute details in their pronunciation and timing. Our language is a marker of group inclusion, and, more importantly, of group exclusion.
If somebody comes up to you and tells you a factual statement in a language that you identify as that of a group you dislike, you are very likely to discard that message as false, no matter whether it’s true or not when analyzed rationally. In the same vein, if somebody that dresses, speaks, and acts in a manner consistent with your social standards tells you a factual statement, then you are likely to accept it as plausible and maybe examine it on its own merits later.
The recipe is ridiculously straightforward: communicate your vision to everybody, and let the thousands of activists translate your vision into words that fit their specific social context. Don’t make a one-size-fits-all message that everybody has to learn. It will be one-size-fits-none.
This sounds obvious in hindsight. It has been used in some legacy product marketing, like that of Tupperware’s plastic containers, but never on an Internet scale and time. Some political campaigns try to tailor their messages to demographics, but have to abide by general demographic guesses rather than actual social presence.
Let me give a tangible example. When I speak about the opportunities associated with the obsolescence of the copyright industry, I can do so in many different languages. If I were to speak about this before a liberal entrepreneur crowd, I would say something like this:
“There is tremendous opportunity in the cutting of this link from the value chain. The copyright industry intermediaries no longer add value to the end product or service, and so, in a functioning market, they are going to die by themselves. There is a problem here, as their statutory monopoly prevents that. Therefore, we must assist in this cutoff, as removal of their overhead allows for growth of the overall market, future opportunities for the artist entrepreneurs, and for new jobs that take the place of the obsolete ones.”
However, speaking to dark-red communist groups that celebrate the Red Army Faction as heroes, I would choose a different language:
“I think it is glorious that the cultural workers have finally assumed control over their means of production, and that we finally have the ability to throw off the middlemen parasite capitalists who have been profiting for decades off of the workers’ hard labor. We should help our brothers and sisters to make this transition happen, and help them turn the captured middlemen profits into new jobs for our culture.”
Factually, these two statements are completely identical. I am saying the exact same thing. But one wording would not work for the other group; you would get thrown out of the room, and any curiosity about your swarm would be discarded for good.
Granted, these two settings are extreme contrasts to make a point. But even a subtle sign of not belonging can be enough to get your idea and vision discarded in a conversation.
This is why you need the activists — thousands of them — to translate your vision into as many different social contexts as you have activists. Only then will you be able to electrify their friends with your vision, as that vision is clad in the language of their respective social contexts.
Don’t think you can do this yourself for every setting. You can’t master every nuance of language and social code. Nobody can. I may be able to switch languages rudimentarily from years of training in different settings, but I can’t easily change appearance. If I arrive in a suit at a location where I am to give a presentation, and the people there turn out to be laid-back hippie types, then that’s it. No word I say after that can change their perception of me.
It is also important, and imperative, that your activists not only are encouraged to translate your vision, but also to interpret and apply it to specific scenarios. In a political swarm, for example, that means they need to be able to translate general principles into specific policy on the fly, and express it in appropriate language for the context — always without asking permission. The previously mentioned three-activist rule can apply here, or you can empower everybody individually straight off the bat. When this starts to happen without any central planning and control, the swarm starts to really fly.
There will be people in the swarm who object to others’ interpretations of the vision and general principles, of course. This brings us back to the distinction between empowerment of the activist self versus the power to crack down on the work of others. The golden rule of the net springs to life: “If you see something you don’t like, contribute with something you do like.”
This rule is absolutely paramount, and it is you who must enforce it.
One of the worst things that can happen to the swarm is the emergence of a backseat driver culture, where those who take initiatives and risks are punished for it — and it is your responsibility to make sure that people who do things are rewarded, even when you think they weren’t exactly on the money. It is especially crucial that peers in the swarm don’t fear other people being angry with the swarm, and punish the risk-taker as a result. After all, people getting angry with you is a symptom that you’re starting to cause change, that you’re starting to succeed in your mission. This is expected and should not be feared.
This is so important — the swarm lives or dies with this — that it deserves repetition:
When people in the swarm get criticized by the public and by influential people, that is a sign you’re on the right track. This is not something to fear, this is something to celebrate, and everybody in the swarm must know this. People must be rewarded by their peers for taking risks, and you must make sure that other people in the swarm reward other people for taking risks, even when things go bad (or just don’t produce the expected results). If people see something they don’t like, the rule must be that their response is to contribute themselves with something they do like.
In contrast, if, out of fear for being criticized by the public, people start cracking down on one another when they take initiatives, a backseat driver culture will emerge that punishes the activists who take risks and do things they believe in. If a backseat driver culture emerges, risk taking and initiatives don’t happen, because activists become shell-shocked from constant peer criticism whenever they try something. If this pattern develops, the swarm dies.
You need to celebrate every time somebody does something you feel goes in the right direction and that initiative is criticized by somebody influential outside the swarm. “Well done,” you need to say visibly. “These influential people say we’re morons. You’re doing something right.” Lead by example and teach others to celebrate when this happens.
We’ll talk more about that in chapter 9: if you’re not making anybody outside the swarm angry at all, you’re probably doing things the wrong way, and before people outside the swarm get angry, they will always try ridiculing those activists in the swarm who threaten their influence. If somebody says you’re all morons and clowns, that’s a sign you’re on the right track. If they get angry with you, that’s even better.
This doesn’t mean you can’t listen to feedback and learn from it. But it should never, ever, be feared. This is paramount.
HELP THE SWARM REMIX THE MESSAGE
The previous chapter discussed the vertical communication in the swarm. The horizontal communication is even more important to the swarm’s success.
Activists must have the ability to inspire and learn from one another without you as a bottleneck in between them. They need to be in control of the message, as translated from your vision.
What you need to provide for the swarm is some kind of work area where the activists can share work files with one another: posters, flyers, blog layouts, catchy slogans, campaign themes, anything related to spreading your ideas and vision. Also, they must have the ability to comment on and discuss these work files between them.
When you do, you will be amazed at the sheer brilliance many will show in translating your vision into words and images. Not all the posters and flyers will be great, of course, but those that are will be used in a lot more places and situations than the one they were originally made for. All without you interfering.
What’s more, the swarm will remix its own posters and flyers all by itself — it will keep evolving them into something better. Some attempts will fall flat on their face. Those that the swarm recognizes as great will live on and be used in new situations, and be remixed yet again.
The ability for the swarm to work horizontally like this, across all boundaries and all scales, is crucial for success. Speaking of flyers and posters, by the way, we arrive at the next vital part:
TAKE TO THE STREETS
Going back to the social mechanisms of accepting ideas, it is not really enough that people hear the swarm’s message from their friends, in particular their friends and acquaintances online.
We come back to the importance of inclusion and exclusion, and how vital it is for people to meet somebody they can identify with who carries the ideas visibly. Group psychology is everything here. When this happens, the ideas can carry over to the new individual.
The keys here are two: “meet” and “identify with.” People need to see the swarm in the streets on their way to work or school, and in random places in their daily life. They need to understand that this is something that takes place online and offline, in other places than just in their circle of friends.
This is not as impossible as it may sound.
Let’s take a look at how a competing political party experienced the events leading up to the success of the Swedish Pirate Party in the European elections of 2009:
“Our election workers all paint the same image: the Pirate Party was on practically every square in the entire country, talking to passersby, handing out flyers, and flying their bright colors.” — election analysis from the Social Democrats, 2009
Now, knowing the actual level of activity in the European election campaign that the above quote refers to, I know that “on practically every square” is a stark exaggeration of the actual events that took place. However, the above quote is the subjective impression of reality from a competing political party who had tons of resources and people everywhere. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to say that this represents the actual public impression.
Thus, you should know that it is perfectly possible to give the above impression without any resources, money, or fame — just using swarm techniques.
We’ll return to leadership styles that help accomplish this in the next chapter. For now, it’s enough to note that there are four classical ways to take to the streets — handing out flyers, putting up posters, having tables or similar in squares, and staging rallies.
Each of these carries its own techniques and experiences. Let’s look at them one by one.
Most people who hand out flyers have little or no training in doing so. You’ll all too often see people tasked with handing out flyers for various causes, but who look just lost, standing on their own in a corner of the street, huddling in the shadows, holding out a piece of paper to passersby who have no interest in their existence whatsoever. This is a waste of money, brains, and time. Over six years, we have learned a couple of simple techniques that make flyer handouts work in practice. It is your duty to teach this initially, and teach others to teach it in turn. (Of course, you need not follow this experience to the letter. Copy and remix to your needs and desires.) This technique takes about five minutes to demonstrate ahead of every flyer handout activity, and should be demonstrated ahead of every flyer handout.
Let’s start with the flyer design. It needs to look professional, but need not be perfect nor packed with information: the key thing when handing out flyers is that people see the swarm’s symbol and colors and an easily absorbable message, with a link where they can get more information.
In the same vein, the people handing out flyers should be wearing clean and nice-looking clothes with the swarm’s symbol and colors. Polo shirts are better than T-shirts here. For the same reason, in cold climates, handing out flyers in summer and spring is much preferable to doing so in winter.
Ideally, a handout lasts about ninety minutes over a weekday lunch, or over a couple of hours shopping midday on Saturday or Sunday, and has about ten people participating.
The people handing out flyers walk slowly in patrols of two, side by side, some three to five meters (ten to twenty feet) apart, up and down a designated part of a street or mall. Three to five meters is close enough to look organized to people they meet, but not close enough to cause individuals on the street to feel threatened in a two-against-one situation. Nobody hands out flyers alone, ever: this will look like an “end of the world, end of the world, end of the world, somebody please take my flyer and read about the end of the world” crazy who people will want to just cross the street to avoid.
The individual hander-out uses three phrases in a specific order when he or she meets people walking slowly down the street or mall: “Hello” to get eye contact; “Here you are, sir/ma’am” with a smile as he or she hands over a folder or flyer faced so the person may read it at a glance before deciding whether to take it or not; and then “thank you” whether they take it or not. This is simple, effective, and works in all parts of Sweden.
(Perceptions vary somewhat. In the slower-paced northern parts of the country, like Lapland, people may think you’re a bit impolite for not at least staying for coffee after having addressed them. In the higher-paced capital of Stockholm, people may think you’re a bit impolite for addressing them at all. But the technique works.)
If they don’t accept the flyer, the hander-out puts it at the bottom of the stack and offers a fresh flyer to the next person. Nobody will accept a flyer that he or she saw being rejected by the person right in front of him or her.
Ideally, the handers-out carry two stacks of items to hand out: one flyer, which is the main event of the day, and one folder with more information about the swarm to give to people who ask for more information. Some will.
One person needs to stay with the stockpile of flyers and other equipment so that handers-out can refill their stacks periodically. Another person needs to organize the event and be formally responsible in case there’s trouble, someone whom the handers-out can point at to deal with any complaints. This person also designates the locations of the patrols of two people each in a pattern which causes most people who are out that day to pass at least two patrols: somebody who sees the same flyers being handed out by two different groups of people will get a positive impression of a well-organized activity.
It is quite common for people accepting flyers to start asking questions to the activists handing them out. In this case, make sure that the activists are comfortable responding to the most common questions about the swarm. Having that folder with more information as a backup for the flyer helps in this scenario, too.
As for planning of print runs, a general guideline is that just over a thousand flyers per hour are handed out when working in a group like this.
Finally, some people will inevitably crumble up the flyer or tear it to pieces and throw it with contempt in the street. Make sure that everybody in the activity picks up such litter and throws it in proper trash cans — otherwise, people will register the swarm’s colors and symbol as trash in the street, and associate negatively from there.
Putting up posters is somewhat less elaborate, but needs to be done with respect for the person who will be tearing down the posters. Never superglue posters to façades unless your swarm needs to be associated with vandalism, for instance.
In general, our experience says that posters should be put up by patrols of three activists. The first activist holds the poster to the wall, the second affixes it there using masking tape, and the third explains what the poster and the swarm is about to the passersby who will invariably stop in curiosity.
A good guideline is that a one-hundred-poster campaign is a large and quite visible campaign for a suburb or the center of a small city, but it will not last for long: a few days at the most, maybe just a few hours. So choose the timing well. It is better to have rotating teams in a town putting up one hundred posters between them once a week, rather than spending a whole day putting up five hundred posters once that are all gone the next day.
When it comes to hosting book tables or other semifixed installations in streets or open-air trade shows, it is less of a science. Have plenty of materials to give out, make sure that there are always people to man the station, and have the swarm’s symbol and colors flying everywhere. You will probably not be able to afford umbrellas and similar elaborate merchandise at this stage, but a couple of flags for display come cheaply at print-on-demand stores.
A tip is to hand out helium-filled balloons with the swarm’s colors and symbol to parents who pass by with kids. The kids love it, the parents will tie the balloon to the stroller, and they become a walking billboard for your swarm. People on all sides of your table will start noticing balloons several hundred meters away. (Teenagers, on the other hand, love the balloons for running around the corner with them to inhale the helium, laugh at their funny voices for a breath or two, then come running back for more. There’s a fine line in choosing who to give balloons to.)
Finally, rallies and street protests. Arrange a speaker list with six to ten speakers, and make sure that the rally as a whole doesn’t last longer than an hour. Police permits may be required for PA equipment (and you do need that). You may be able to gain a wider audience by inviting speakers from neighboring swarms or other organizations sympathetic to your cause.
Your choice of venue matters. You want to fill a square with people to make effective media imagery. If you pick a large square and get 500 people to attend, they will look like a speck in the middle of an empty square. In contrast, in a small square, that same crowd will look almost like an angry, unstoppable mob. It is hard to estimate how many will attend your swarm’s rally before even having announced it, but you must do so before choosing where to hold it.
Rallies can be very effective when people are really angry about something that has just happened, compared to staging rallies as a “just because” activity. When people are angry, they will tend to want to share, show, and vent that in groups. This also gives the speakers at the rally a relatively easy task; they basically just have to describe how angry they are at what has just happened, in the most colorful and provocative of terms, to draw thunderous applause at the rally.
This requires quick reactions and turnarounds. A rally the day after or the weekend after an unjust high-profile verdict could be a very effective example. As verdicts are generally predictable in time (but not in content), you and the swarm are able to plan for the possibility of needing such a rally and get the necessary police permits weeks in advance. You may not use those plans, but they should be ready at hand.
When you’ve made the go decision for a rally, make sure that the media know about the rally in advance (send press releases the previous day or the day before) and put the speakers you want to be seen in media as faces for your swarm in the first and second speaker slots. Media will arrive at the rally, get their pictures and footage, and leave; they do not stay for the full duration.
Make sure to get your own footage and photos from the rally as well. Later down the road, TV stations and newspapers will ask you for cutaway footage and activity images to go with their stories about you. If you can’t provide that, they will make a story about somebody else, so this is quite important. For video footage, use a tripod and an HD camera. You can’t get broadcast-quality images when using a camera handheld. If you don’t have somebody with professional experience in filming, don’t try to get moving and panning scenes; it takes a lot of experience to get such scenes usable for broadcast. Instead, just get good footage showing a large crowd from several angles, footage where the camera doesn’t move in the scene itself.
As the rally disperses, do close with telling the people of a gathering spot afterward for those who want to get to know one another and just hang out. This helps reinforce friendships in the swarm, and therefore the organization as a whole. Also, new activists are frequently recruited when this happens. In summertime, you may want to bring blankets, picnic baskets with bread, cheese, salami, grapes, and such, and a couple of bottles of wine, to head for a grass spot in a nearby park. That makes for a very friendly hangout after the rally.
Again, in cold climates, avoid rallies in winter altogether. Odds are you’ll just get a couple of dozen huddling, freezing people that look terrible on the evening news. (There are exceptions. Don’t count on being one of them.)
In any case, limit any winter rally to about thirty minutes.
SCALE OUT, OUT, OUT
A key concept of the swarm is “scaling out.” This refers to the process of moving every activity as far out toward the edges of the swarm as possible, involving as many people as possible — and, while we’re doing so, scaling out the swarm’s operating costs along with the activity.
Scaling out is an IT term. When something grows in size, in the language of the IT industry, you can scale up or out your server park. Scaling up means that you replace the servers currently doing the work with more expensive servers. Scaling out means that you keep the low-cost servers currently doing the job, and add more such low-cost servers. We’re adding more activists. Many more activists. We’re scaling out our work.
If all operating costs of the swarm were to be paid centrally, they might come together to a substantial sum. If done by an activist at the edge of the swarm, just covering his or her portion of the activity, the cost might be so small that the activist may not even think of it in terms of a cost. This is a positively huge benefit of scaling out.
One example could be the flyers we just discussed. If you have an activist swarm with reasonable geographical coverage on the ground, and were to distribute flyers to households, the traditional way of doing so would be to purchase the printing and mailing of the flyers. But with a swarm, you don’t need to do that.
Rather, think in terms of making an A5-size or half-letter-size PDF for the flyer and asking your activists to print two hundred copies each and distribute them to their neighbors. It’s not only OK to do so, it’s even quite expected. Sure, you might not get 100 percent coverage on the ground compared to paying for printing and distribution, but let’s do the math here, just for fun.
Assume we have ten thousand activists and that 5 percent of them take us up on this particular request, which is a fair guesstimate for such a request. That means we get one hundred thousand flyers distributed to households near where our current activists live (also suggesting that those places are demographically the right locations to recruit more activists to our swarm).
The total cost to you for achieving this reach is three to four hours of work designing the PDF in question and an energizing, encouraging mail to your activists to print and distribute it. The cost is even less if you have good designers in the swarm who like making flyers, or if you’re picking one of the existing remixes of your vision in flyer format.
The total cost in a traditional nonswarm organization, on the other hand, is on the order of forty thousand euros to achieve the same result with paying for address lists, printing, packing, and postage — and quite probably with more work hours spent, too, in just the administrative work in placing the necessary orders.
It’s not hard to see the very tangible benefits of scaling out.
You can easily apply this principle to printing flyers, too, especially at the early stages of the swarm (the first year or couple of years, before there is a predictable and significant income). Encourage your activists to pick their favorite flavor or flavors of flyer among all the activist remixes of your vision, print some five hundred copies in their printer, and just head out in town and hand them out. All without asking anybody’s permission.
Posters are somewhat harder to scale out due to their nonstandard large size, but a surprisingly large number of activists have access to A3-style printing gear somewhere in their daily routines. It doesn’t take large print runs when it comes to posters. As already mentioned, a one-hundred-poster campaign is considered a large one in a suburb or small city.
If it goes well, encourage activists to take photos and share when they do activism in the streets. That encourages more people to do the same kind of activism and breeds a friendly competition. We can also use such photos for internal competitions with fun and silly prizes. This helps motivate the swarm as a whole, and also serves to show other people that the swarm is active — potential recruits and adversaries alike.
In the next chapter, we’ll take a deeper look at self-organization and making things happen.