The internet has democratized the tools required for collective action. We knew that, but have objectively, miserably, failed to anticipate what a connected planet might be capable of, despite a decade of dire predictions like Clay Shirky’s 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody.”
Last month we witnessed three significant yet unexpected events resulting from collective action. Let’s take a look at these events through the lens of the key enabler, media.
First, the Capitol mob. It’s easy to assign blame: leadership (Trump), the tool providers (from web walkie-talkies to social networks), liberal hypocrisy (what Fox News blamed it on!), or Fox News (fanning the flames to make money, and neatly ducking accountability), etc. At the risk of blaming the gun, let’s say it certainly would not have happened without online collaboration tools. Not just Facebook, but all forms of information-sharing. Not just the forces of radicalization, but the tools used to organize an assault.
True, old-fashioned broadcast still provides the mass reach required to foment insurrection. It worked in 1920s Germany. Internet platforms, however, further distribute, amplify, contextualize, and provide a forum for action. Working in sync, the media become exponentially more powerful.
It’s obvious to advertising people that the recipe for radicalization is fear, stewed in blame, hung together with a spun-up narrative, repeated over and over on all channels. In that context, for example, Al Jazeera (a high-quality news organization by any measure), makes Fox News look like a terrorist training video.
It’s worth pointing out that government and industry are products of collective action too, and just as dependent on their communications to hold on to power. What’s new is that the internet has allowed the same level of organization for diffuse groups. Organizing to seize power has always relied on leadership, but leadership can’t happen unless followers have a way to listen. The internet has provided that way.
Second, the unionization of Google. This was a small story, but it certainly counts as a unique and unexpected collective action. Unexpected because it seems odd that Google’s famously coddled workers would need to unionize. What? Was the kale at the salad bar wilted again?
What happened (according to one insider) was that a few employees had some grievances about how their company was behaving, and unions turned out to be a convenient way to get the company’s attention. True, the grievances were way up Maslow’s hierarchy compared to the grievances that sparked workers to originally unionize in the first place, but, any port in a storm.
To provide some dimension, there are only 700 or so employees in Google’s union at the moment, out of about 133,000 total. The media and communications business is only about 6% unionized compared to 10% in U.S. industry overall. Despite the anemic numbers, however, this is a trend worth watching. What we don’t know is whether tools for collective action will turbo-charge the ideas and constructs that labor unions have been using for centuries, or make those ideas and constructs obsolete.
Third, the Game Stop phenomenon. This twist on collective action might have been predictable. Investment clubs have been around for decades, and Lord knows Wall Street types have been making quiet deals at Wall Street bars since financial markets existed. Was it unfair to gang up on the hedge funds? Certainly no less fair than what the hedge funds were attempting to do to other investors. Turnabout is fair play. What’s remarkable is that the ability to do this has been there for a decade. Like Dorothy, all the Reddit mob had to do was click their heels together three times.
This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s so new we don’t have a name for it yet. (Financial Flash Mob (FFM)? Extemporaneous Financial Conspiracy?). There are more questions than answers.
There’s no question, however, about whether mobs can manipulate markets. Should that be legal? The law focuses on points of accountability like corporations and individuals, so is not well-suited to addressing actions undertaken without an organizational underpinning or leader.
The sense of justice is palpable, though. It’s satisfying to see little investors turning the tables.
Net, the January trio of mobs are expressions of multilateral power. Society, particularly government, is woefully unprepared for this.
Will politics find a solution? Probably not, because it’s simple to assert that existing laws handle it. Maybe so, but enforcement is another matter.
Inasmuch as collective action will rein in those who have been corrupted by their power, the mobs of January might be a timely addition to democracy. Symmetrically, if the mobs abuse their newfound power (as the Capitol Mob clearly did) the participants should pay a price.