Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cultural Musings: Leadership and Group Participation in the Digital Age


Leadership and Group Participation in the Digital Age
by Sabrina Beram

Technologies that have emerged are providing a new way for groups to form and allowing for new types of leaders to exist. The widespread availability of computers and the internet, now available to more than seventy percent of Americans, allows an individual to espouse a message to the world. Since the common person can reach a much wider audience, people who would normally not be leaders, such as those without a degree from Princeton or a wealth of money or even charisma, can inspire movements. There are groups out there waiting to be led. If an individual takes action and goes against the grain, or the established rules of society, he/she can become a leader given the willingness to embrace technologies. Those technologies, in turn, give the masses the capacity to support an individual’s idea and bolster it up through power in numbers. This is toppling existing societal architectures.

Anyone Can Be A Leader

Breaking down the support behind a strong political candidate has long been attributed to newspaper columnists or public officials involved with the campaign process who wield influence over public opinion. Now, however, individuals are exercising the same power and starting movements by taking the initiative to post on the web. This was exhibited in the senatorial election of 2006 in Virginia, during which George Allen was running for re-election. Allen was favored to not only win re-election as senator but many considered him the front runner as republican candidate for president in 2008. However, the course of events were changed by a seemingly inconsequential, certainly unknown man with the use of an ordinary camcorder and the internet.

At a campaign event at which Allen was speaking, a young Indian American, S.R. Sidarth, was filming the speech as part of his job to track the Allen campaign for his democratic opponent, Webb. Noticing Sidarth, the only non-Caucasian in attendance, Allen pointed to him and said “This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film and it's great to have you here and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come. [...] Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” (“2006”).

Macaca was soon after exposed as a racial slur meaning monkey. This offensive incident may have gone largely unnoticed in another day and age. The public did not initially discover Allen’s incriminating statements via conventional reporting and established news outlets, but through Sidarth’s youtube posting of the video which made it notorious. Sidarth took a risk by acting on the inclination that his amateur, handheld footage was as worthy of attention as stories in the media shot by professional crews and hosted by well-known newscasters. The video hit number one on YouTube charts and, due to the growing public interest shown through internet activity, it was picked up and broadcast by comedy shows and traditional media. The event in Virginia was small and not widely attended, but with the assistance of easily available technology, the world could see what had happened and those interested in protesting could (and did) rally together and effect change.

Risk-taking is essential for leaders to emerge.

The internet is a tool capable of revolutionizing existing societal structures, but in order for its
potential to be realized, brave individuals, like Sidarth, must be willing to challenge established
architectures in the first place. Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody that “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies- it happens when society adopts new behaviors” (Shirky 160). One such behavior is the willingness to take risks. According to Seth Godin, author of Tribes, fear of change is built in to organisms, because change is threatening. It is human nature to assume that the world is stable, but stability is an illusion. This is evidenced by the technological revolution itself. The United States Constitution is regarded as the supreme guidelines for how Americans lives should be governed. Since the framers of the constitution could not foresee the technology of the internet, there is now uncertainty about the meaning of some of those laws. With the arrival of computer worms which can search for a specific file on computers without the computer owner’s knowledge, there is question regarding the intention of the fourteenth amendment; does it protect against burden or suspicious-less search? (Lessig).

The rush from stability is a huge opportunity that Godin urges individuals settling for hum drum lives to take advantage of. It is much more fun to make the rules than to follow the rules, he exclaims, and people who break away from the confines of established societal structures are being rewarded today. Take, for instance, Linus Torvald’s initiative to collaboratively create an operating system. This seemed like an impossible feat according to the standards of his heyday, but Linux, the resulting product, is now responsible for running about 40 percent of the world’s servers and “has almost single-handedly kept Microsoft from dominating the server market the way it dominates the PC market” (Shirky 238).

The risk is smaller today than ever before.

When a member of society goes against the grain and does something different, they inevitably attract attention. In the past, a rabble rouser with a new idea may have been shunned by the closed- minded community to which he/she belonged, be it a company or a small town. Iconoclasts were justified in their concern that they’d be fired from a job or, in Godin’s words, “burned at the stake.” Information sharing creates shared awareness. Since the internet provides a way to share information on an international scale, new ideas are more likely than ever before to attract positive attention when seen by others who are likeminded with the idea’s initiator.

Clay Shirky observes that over the past 50 years, participation in group activities was on the decline in the U.S. due to “smaller households, delayed marriage, two-worker families, the spread of television, and suburbanization” and while “it is easier to like people who are odd in the same ways you are odd […] it’s harder to find them” (Shirky 193). However, sites like Meetup, are supporting the formation of new groups who “have no culturally normal place and time to meet and no ready way to broadcast their interests without censure” (Shirky 198). Some of the most popular groups were not for older civic groups, but for “Witches, Pagans, Ex-Jahovah’s Witnesses, and Atheists… people who share some religious or philosophical outlook but have no support from the broader U.S. culture” (Shirky 198). Kinship among groups of minority status is “higher than average” and now, with the help of the web, the likelihood that they will find each other is much increased (Shirky 200).

An observable pattern exists in which those technologies that made it possible to communicate bi- directionally did not enable groups to form (ie. the telephone created a one-to-one person information exchange) and those that inspired the aggregation of viewers/listeners did not make it possible for that audience to communicate (watching a particular television show is an experience shared by many people who have no power to interact back with the medium or the majority of other viewers). The internet is a break from that pattern; cybercitizens can create media, broadcast it to many people, receive comments from anyone and everyone who consumes it, and carry on a discourse around the object of attention. This system of increased expressive capability, successful due to a low barrier of entry, is empowering individuals by enabling them to connect with others who share similar interests at a very small cost. Thus, it is less arduous to bypass naysayers and create a new community of believers who can pull their efforts together to nourish an unpopular, yet promising seed of inspiration.

New Tools for bringing groups together

New tools such as weblogs, e-mail, wikis, and cell phones have spawned new forms of easily sharing information and readily organizing by removing the burden that existed before the web. Before the internet, printing presses belonged to the big businesses that could afford them, and the cumbersome quality and degree of work required for an average joe to copy information and forward it more often than not prevented such behavior from occurring since “even the minimal hassle involved in sending a newspaper clipping to a group (Xeroxing the article, finding envelopes and stamps, writing addresses) widens the gap between intention and action” (Shirky 149).

Weblogs, sites in which entries are displayed in reverse chronological order, and e-mail, an electronic way to accept, store, and forward messages, allow information to be both effortlessly forwarded to a mailing list and kept in one location designated for interested parties to leave comments and connect with one another regardless of their geographical proximity or the time at which they choose to engage in the discourse. Wikis, collaborative webpages that enable anyone to contribute to or revise whatever content they want when they want, allow multiple people to work together while sidestepping prescribed procedures characteristic of real world collaborations. Due to this, a wiki serves as a platform for experimentation and can morph from a database to a coordinating resource, like wikipedia did during the London underground bombings of 2005 as people added news and a list of contact numbers for people trying to keep track of friends and family (Shirky 117). The adoption of cell phones with web access have given rise replacement of advance planning with the real time coordination of groups. Dodgeball, a social networking service designed for cell phones, hooks users up with their friends and friends of their friends (by sending a digital picture and the name of the person serving as the degree of separation), spur of the moment based on geographic location. Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect are offering a similar service in the virtual world by allowing users on the internet to connect with their friends on different websites which are not primarily social, such as those for e-commerce and news. These tools solve the coordination problem that prevented latent groups from getting together in the past (Shirky 196).

The role of the leader has changed. Leaders are necessary for the launching of a cause, but for the movement to take off, leaders must permit followers to be leaders as well.

Both Shirky and Godin recognize a need for leaders. Shirky states, “No effort at creating group value can be successful without some form of governance” (283). Shirky’s point that “many people care a little about the treatment they get from airlines or banks, but not many care enough to do anything about it on their own” supports Godin’s key argument that without leaders, internet users are unfocused crowds. An initiator is needed to turn them into tribes with the capacity to create change by working together towards a specific end. For example, without Wes Streeting setting up a place on Facebook to complain about HSBC, a bank that tried to rip off students and graduates with a underhanded change in the policy which had been essential to the recruitment of those consumers, the protest to get the bank to reverse the change would not been able to start (Shirky 180). Once Streeting created “Stop the Great HSBC Rip Off!,” “students began researching and recommending other… banks that still offered interest-free overdrafts,” a product of Streeting’s action that he did not forsee, which was possible due to the freedom afforded facebook users resulting from the flexibility of the tool Streeting chose (Shirky 180). Had Streeting selected a petition format, simple signatures would not have informed HSBC customers of better alternatives and fewer students would have threatened to move their accounts.

Godin insists that leaders in the context of the internet must not be managers. Managers lead for themselves. Leaders lead for everyone. They define a purpose or provide a platform through which interested parties can connect and encourage the members of the tribe to engage and communicate. While it is necessary for a leader to set the ball rolling by motivating through passion and connect people with the same passion, in order to keep followers engaged enough to create a movement, it is vital for a leader to get out of the way.

The founders of Wikipedia learned that in order to for their project to become successful; they needed to adapt both the platform and their manner of guiding progress to give the masses optimum freedom. Jimmy Whales and Larry Sanger took a risk and challenged the typical way reference works are made and distributed when they set out to create a collaborative encyclopedia. The most common criticism of Wikipedia over the years stemmed from the simple disbelief: ‘That can’t work’ (Shirky 115). The first two tries did fail due to the implementation of ineffective top-down strategies. Although interested experts were found to contribute to Nupedia, the precursor to Wikipedia, it did not survive because Whales and Sanger followed the established rules for publication which made for a process of creating articles that was too confining. The advisory board, editorial policy guidelines, and a process for creation, review, revision, and publication of articles bogged down progress.

Ward Cunningham, creator of the wiki observed that “most of the available tools for collaboration were concerned with complex collections of roles and requirements [and he] made a different and radical assumption: groups of people who want to collaborate also tend to trust one another. If this was true, then a small group could work on a shared writing effort without needing formal management or process” (Shirky 111). Whales and Sanger enlisted the use of user-editable websites and faced “vehement objection from their advisory board” (Shirky 112). The founders changed the name from Nupedia to Wikipedia.com and reached two thousand non-experts through the Nupedia mailing list who spread the word and helped create fifteen thousand articles within the year.

In a segment of Tribes, in which Godin defines necessary characteristics of leaders he states that it takes effort to step out of the way and not micromanage every step. This is the difference between leaders and managers. Leaders who give, he ascertains, are more productive than those who take, and a tribe can sniff out a selfish leader and will not follow. Wikipedia.org hit a second bump in the road when Sanger stepped out of his role as leader and tried to become a manager. He infuriated participants when he sent the following statement to the mailing list: “I do reserve the right to permanently delete things-particularly when they have little merit and when they are posted by people whose main motive is to evidently undermine my authority and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, damage the project” (Shikry 113). Shortly after, Sanger was laid off and Wikipedia was changed from .com to .org. This move was essential to the continued success of the project.

Guiding volunteers to work together and get something done requires a fine balance between overseeing too little and too much. In Wikipedia’s case, Sanger’s tight oversight was detrimental. This has much to do with why grassroots groups follow a leader or support his cause. People bother to get involved and “cooperate without needing financial reward” because they are “motivated by the desire to do a good thing” and “make a mark on the world” (Shirky 133). Furthermore, Shirky attests, “lack of managerial direction makes it easier for the casual contributor to add something of value; in economic terms, an open social system like Wikipedia dramatically reduces both managerial overhead and disincentives to participation (130). Conversely, Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of Ebay, initially found that additional oversight was necessary to prevent anonymous users from acting on dishonest impulses, such as online fraud, during transactions. Through code, he put in place a restraint on unsavory behavior by creating a reputation system through which users were enabled to report their level of satisfaction with one another (Shirky 284).

Both sites’ wild growth stemmed from the flexibility of role afforded contributors. Wikipedia’s users could act as readers and writers, and the freedom participants had to contribute as little or as much information as they desired to the project. This drastic step away from the established mode of creating an encyclopedia excited the masses. Since they could easily get involved, they had a vested interest in the success of the project and defended against posters of misinformation. Ebay’s users could fill the role of consumers with the capacity to buy and leave reviews of products and distributors where allowed to sell to many people at once while communicating on an individual level to answer specific questions of potential buyers. Thus, a new kind of marketplace supporting home business came into being.

Why Existing Architectures Falter.

As groups come together through the web and rebuild the existing architecture to be more personal and interactive, movements occur whereby the new ways of doing things often alter or displace the existing societal structures. The internet’s facility for “ridiculously easy group forming,” an alternative to managing large scale effort, is posing a challenge to managerial culture and specialized professions previously essential to allowing groups to “tackle tasks that are bigger, more complex, more dispersed, and of longer duration than any person could tackle alone” (Shirky 22, 16). Thus, traditional institutions (commerce, government, media, and religion) quintessential to society as we know it are being destabilized by civilian groups who utilize the principle of power in numbers to call attention to bureaucratic flaws and impact them.

The new group leverage afforded by the internet is allowing ordinary people to talk back to established institutions and change the rules. In 2006, Evan Guttman drew on the expertise of many diverse, interested parties and their public display of dissatisfaction to pressure the NYPD to shift away from their power play resistance (“we make the rules”) and respond to Guttman’s rational request to have his complaint regarding his friend’s stolen sidekick, handled not as a lost property case, in which no action would be taken, to a stolen property case, in which the thief was jailed and the property returned to its rightful owner. Similarly, in 2007, Kate Hanni used the comments section of an Austin newspaper website to galvanize the general public to back up her effort to pass an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights meant to hold airlines responsible for the treatment of their customers during delays. She “drove the creation of an organization within days that quickly went national and had an almost immediate impact, changing the legislative agenda, press coverage, and public expectations of the airline industry” (Shirky 23).

We are already beginning to see the threat of replacement that the modern group dynamic poses to comparatively less effective organizations, such as news corporations and the music industry which are “still reeling from the discovery that the [production] and distribution [of news and music]…is now [not only] something their customers can do for themselves” but something that consumers can do differently (Shirky 23). For example, a slew of bystanders with camera phones can document a newsworthy situation better than professional photographers who contend with time and geographical constraints. And once a picture hits the net in a group forum, the conversation around it can change the function of the photo from mere documentation to a method for awareness meant to galvanize viewers to help find a loved one who has gone missing, which happened several times during the tsunami (Shirky 36).

People integrate a new structure into their identity when they have had a hand in building it up from a mere idea. This is preferable to idly behaving in accordance with architectures that are run from the top-down, as most are in our society due to the organizational dilemma, which is being resolved by the web. This is in accordance with Godin’s assertion that it is much more fun to make the rules than to follow the rules and is resulting in increased use of collaborative community versus corporate systems, as evidenced by Youtube stealing television viewers. BBC reported in 2006, “Some 43% of Britons who watch video from the internet or on a mobile device at least once a week said they watched less normal TV as a result” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6168950.stm). Content on Youtube, Wikipedia, Yelp, Flicker and other collaborative platforms rely on the “wisdom of crowds,” a concept which purports that “distributed groups whose members aren’t connected can often generate better answers by pooling their knowledge or intuition without having to come to an agreement” (Shirky 267).

Shirky ascertains that “All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences- employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration” (107). Lawrence Lessig, in his guest speech at NYU, addressed this point when he posed the question “Is Amazon really just a commercial site? (41:12). At face value, its main purpose is to sell books and products for money, but what made Amazon a success was the value created by diverse users who wrote reviews that helped other people navigate the site by providing better insight into which products might appeal. This service distinguishes Amazon from bookstores and there is no doubt that it had much to do with the fact that, according to a 2008 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, “over the last five years, sales through bookstores rose a meager 3.6%, while sales through Amazon jumped a remarkable 104%” (Milliot). Lessig pointed out that “hybrid economies,” like this are cropping up everywhere in the digital age. The challenge is going to be for companies profiting from crowd sourcing to come to an agreement about how to retain group loyalty while simultaneously exploiting contributors. As individuals realize “These guys are going to gain all sorts of money off our collective backs. Are we going to get anything from that? Not likely” the response will become “To hell with this” (59:30). It looked as though this was going to be the case when Wikipedia contributors protested Sanger’s assumption that he had the right to manipulate user-generated content independent of user agreement, so it is more than likely to be the result when unequal financial gain is involved in virtual environments relying on equality in community contributions. A question posed at the end of Tim Westergren’s speech emphasized this point: “[Do] Pandora users have a right to access their data?” (103:00). Who owns this data? “Who’s providing value to who and how?” (104:30).

Iconoclasts who use the web to spread new ideas rely on contributions of web users in order to incite movements. As these leaders benefit from user involvement, there will be more ambiguity surrounding who exactly deserves to be credited for the success of a movement. This may not be an issue in situations where credit is not synonymous with financial reward, but as the internet increasingly becomes a space for monetary gain and a new economic architecture surfaces, this issue will begin to rise to the forefront.

Today it is much simpler to take a risk by attempting to influence the masses since all that is involved is turning on one’s computer and posting something. Because this method allows individuals to reach a wider audience than is possible organizing face to face, the likelihood that an idea will find support is greater than it has been in the past. Movements created through the internet depend on group formation and the participation of other individuals motivated by an initiator, or leader, of a cause or effort. The collaboration between diverse minds, enabled by web access, in turn helps characterize the internet a generative tool. When many people get involved, new and more efficient ways of doing things arise from the collective intelligence. These modern methods are challenging traditional strategies which have governed organizations necessary to the maintenance of human civilization up until the current era in which modern technologies are being integrated into the public conscious and taken for granted as a part of everyday life. Individuals and groups are more powerful than ever now that computers, cellphones, and cameras are regarded as cyborg-like extensions of the self. These tools, in combination with the web, enable stronger connections to be built around the world, a revolution that breeds more revolution.




Works Cited

"2006 Virginia Senate race." Wikipedia.org.

Godin, Seth. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us. London: Penguin Group, 2008.

Lessig, Lawrence. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books. New York.

Lessig, Lawrence. "Remix." Computers and Society Guest Speaker. New York University, New

York. 2 Jan. 2009.

Milliot, Jim. "As Amazon Soars, Bookstores Creep." Publisher's Weekly. 14 Apr. 2008. 1 Jan.

"Online video 'eroding TV viewing'" BBC News. 27 Nov. 2007. 1 Jan. 2009.

Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. London:

Westergren, Tim. “The Future of Music." Computers and Society Guest Speaker. New York

University, New York. 2 Jan. 2009.

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