Earlier today I gave a presentation to Steve Newcomb of Virgance and got a fascinating peek into his world. In amongst a wave of articulate critiques of a business plan I put together with some friends, he made an off the cuff comment that we should “start a social movement” to assist with our marketing efforts. Fascinating.
As the world of sustainable business puts more and more toes in the pool of collective social action I’m hearing the word social movement get thrown around more and more, generally with little regard for what it takes to actually get one going or the complicated ecosystems that make them tick. There’s well intentioned excitement about merging business and social organizing, but a widespread misconception that a social movement is basically just a participatory values-based marketing campaign. As someone who’s actually started a social movement, I’d like to set the record straight.
Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because There’s A Good Cause– There are too many good causes in the world and people are too busy.
Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because People Get Fired Up- When people are fired up they do whatever action is in front of them then go home and talk to their friends about it. The action and the conversations are great, but they won’t come back.
Social Movements Don’t Happen Just Because People Are Empowered To Make Change– Empower people to make change and they’ll do it, feel great and then wander off. They won’t build on the experience and self organize.
What makes social movements happen?
In my experience, social movements happen when people make friends impacting a cause that is related to a personal struggle. Feminism and the civil rights movement are fantastic for tapping into national and international struggles that mirror intrapersonal ones. There’s a reason it’s “Students for a Free Tibet” and not “Suburban Housewives for a Free Tibet”, Tibet is only a powerful personal metaphor for a certain demographic.
The “making friends” part is what gives movements their self-organizing properties. A movement has to be a way to work on yourself AND on your relationships AND a cause, otherwise people won’t consistently put in the time. Movements can evolve new tactics and strategies only when the process of evolving those tactics and strategies is also a way for people to do meaningful work on themselves and form stronger connections with their friends.
Carrotmob is a fascinating example of when social movements work and when they don’t. They’ve been wildly successful as a specific tactic and hit a wall trying to evolve into anything more.
As a tactic they’re all checkmarks. They’re pushing for sustainable business- a cause that’s personally relevant to anyone trying to reconcile their desire to live their values and their desire to have a financially successful career. Organizers essentially plan parties at local businesses that are going green, flooding them with business as a sustainability incentive.
It would be great if this could translate from targeting small, local businesses to targeting large ones (Steve Newcomb talks about Carrotmobbing Coke and Pepsi), but there’s a big problem. In order to do that you have to switch from a series of one-off tactics to a self-organizing social movement. All of those Carrotmob organizers in all of those cities will have to start sitting down and strategizing, hitting up conferences together and thinking about how to make that giant Carrotmob happen.
That means getting people who’ve been using Carrotmobs as a way to deepen their connections with their existing social networks to spend time away from those social networks making new friends on the internet. If MySpace proved anything, it’s that people generally aren’t in the market for new friends on the internet, especially people who have enough offline friends to organize massive parties. You also lose the personal significance. Carrotmobbers are attracted to the idea of sustainable business because they want to save the world and get paid doing it, and they won’t spend time and energy organizing a sustainable business-oriented social movement unless there are sheckles down the line.
Here’s what it would take to make that Pepsi/Coke Carrotmob a reality:
1. Make Relationships Between Organizers Attractive
Ask yourself: What can a Carrotmob organizer get from being online friends with another Carrotmob organizer that they can’t get from all of their offline friends? The big answer is respect and recognition from their peers. Their friends will congratulate them, but may not really get the work that went in to what they’ve accomplished.
The way that many communities do this is by creating a system to welcome and mentor new members. When a new carrotmobber comes on the scene, create a way for them to publicly voice their questions and insecurities. This will make some existing carrotmobbers feel wise and experienced, and will get them engaging online to address the questions. Once they begin to recognize and respect one another for the answers that they’re giving they’ll start discussing tactical issues, complimenting one another, and forming the relationships that will take things to the next level.
2. Show Them the Sustainable Money
In order to put serious time and energy into Carrotmob, organizers will have to feel like they’re saving the planet while advancing their own careers. They don’t have to get all of them jobs, they just have to know that whatever they’re doing is legit enough to get put on a resume.
A strategic partnership or two with big name marketing firms could deliver this sense of professional credibility. It’s an appealing play- edgy, sustainable and socially networked. Create an aspirational class of paid professionals (NOT on your staff, out in the “real world”) who get to live their values making Carrotmobs all day, and make them visible to organizers looking for a career path.
Now you’ve got an excuse for people to take time out of their lives for Carrotmob and a set of relationships where innovation can happen. The rest is just gardening. Listen to the community, give it what it needs and then help it evolve to fulfill that need itself. You may not wind up squaring off Pepsi and Coke, because that’s your idea and movements (like gardens) aren’t built to follow orders. But you’ll wind up going somewhere interesting.