The key to a successful swarm is to be better at understanding and using massive-scale social dynamics than your competitors. We’ve looked at some of the specific techniques in chapters 4 and 6. This chapter will round off with the more advanced, yet most crucial techniques.
1. Understanding The Swarm
2. Launching Your Swarm
3. Getting Your Swarm Organized: Herding Cats
4. Control The Vision, But Never The Message
5. Keep Everybody’s Eyes On Target, And Paint It Red Daily
6. Screw Democracy, We’re On A Mission From God
7. Surviving Growth Unlike Anything The MBAs Have Seen
8. Using Social Dynamics To Their Potential (this chapter)
9. Managing Oldmedia
10. Beyond Success
When you communicate the swarm’s goals to tens of thousands of people or even to hundreds of thousands, it poses unique challenges, as they’re all in different positions of understanding the swarm’s goals and have different motivations for choosing to receive your communications. You need to be aware of all of these and cater to the well initiated as well as the just-recruited activists, all at the same time.
A lot of communities make the mistake of only using online connections. As we observed in chapter 4 when taking to the streets, the real strength of an activist swarm lies in being able to cross-use online and offline social friendships.
Offline friendships are much, much stronger than online friendships and connections. It is the offline discussions we want to cover the swarm’s topics; they are much stronger in terms of emotional attachment and intensity between people. Thus, we need to use the reach of online tools and communication to make people want to talk about the swarm’s goals in their respective offline environments, where the possibility of recruiting new activists is much, much better than on a random web page.
Once we’ve established that we want to utilize the offline friendships that activists have with their friends to explain the swarm’s message to more people, we need to look at how our activists are in different situations with different abilities to do that.
GROWING ON THE EDGES
A swarm only grows on its fuzzy outer edge: at the swarm’s center, where you are, everybody is already involved at the highest activity level. This leads to an important insight: the people who are most active can’t recruit any new activists to the swarm themselves by talking to their friends.
The people leading a swarm must be acutely aware that they cannot directly influence a single individual directly to join the swarm. The swarm can only grow at its edges, where people who have joined the swarm know people who have not yet joined. There, and only there, are there social links that can be used to communicate the values, mission, and enthusiasm of the swarm to gain new recruits.
But it is still the responsibility of the most motivated people to grow the swarm, despite the fact that they can’t do so personally. Rather, it is their responsibility to enable the people who can recruit new people to do so, despite the fact that the people in a leading position have no idea who these people actually are.
To enable such recruitment at the edge, a couple of key components must be communicated to the entire swarm at regular intervals in heartbeat messages. This must be done by the people with the most experience in talking about the swarm, typically once a week. The heartbeat messages should contain at least the following:
Newsflow. Let people know what’s going on, both in the swarm and in the world as it relates to the swarm. Both are equally important. The most active will already know most of it, but your wording of it will help them, too. Overcommunicate the context of the news, the external news in particular — make sure even the newest activists understand why you chose to highlight the events that you pick in the newsflow. Don’t assume everybody read your letter from last week, because the newest activists didn’t.
Sample rhetoric. The newly joined people, who know the most not-yet-joined people, are also the ones who are the most insecure in their rhetoric about why the swarm is important, fun, and skilled in its work for a better world. Their confidence can be increased in many ways — one of the most straightforward and successful is to supply direct quotes that can initiate a conversation, or sample responses to typical questions.
Confidence. This brings me to the next point — the people who are in a position to recruit must also be supplied with the confidence to do so. One of the easiest ways is to enable them to use stickers or pins with the swarm’s symbols that in turn lead to conversations like above. If they’re not confident enough to initiate conversations, just identifying with the swarm gets part of the way there.
Sense of urgency. When these people are in a rhetorical and confident position to recruit new people to the swarm, they also need to want to do so. Telling them in a mass mailing is obviously not enough: they must actively want to recruit themselves. If they believe in the swarm and its mission, part of that mission must be to grow the swarm itself and to understand how such growth contributes to the swarm’s end success.
A swarm grows by people talking to one another, one conversation at a time. The Swedish Pirate Party grew to fifty thousand members just like that: one person at a time, one conversation at a time. These conversations are the key to the long-term success of the swarm.
UNDERSTANDING THE ACTIVATION LADDER
In any swarm, it is essential to know where the paths to individual success coincide with the success of the swarm’s mission, and to bring new recruits into alignment with one of these paths as soon as possible.
When somebody joins a swarm with a particular mission, he or she obviously doesn’t go immediately from first hearing of the swarm to being its leader. There are many, many steps in between: hearing of the swarm for the first time, hearing again of the swarm, looking it up on the web, seeing somebody in the streets, talking to him or her, etc. This is obvious when spelled out, but for being so obvious, surprisingly few organizations respond to it. We call this the activation ladder, and the swarm must understand each step on the ladder and make it as easy as possible for everybody to climb to the next step of activation.
In the previous section, we discussed how the swarm can grow only on its edges. The activation ladder is equally important to understanding recruitment: the edges of the swarm are not sharp, but quite fuzzy, and it’s hard to define the moment when people decide to activate themselves in the swarm for the first time. Is it when they hear about the swarm? When they visit its web pages? When they first contact a human being in the swarm? I would argue that all three of these are different steps on the activation ladder.
The key insight here is that from the center, where the people leading the swarm are located, the swarm looks like a flat mesa (with just one steep step to climb), but from the outside, it looks like a rounded hill (with many small steps). This is key to making it easy for people to move to the highly active center of the swarm: as we want to activate people in the swarm, it’s important to understand that activation is a gradual process with many steps on the activation ladder.
The crucial action that is needed from the people leading the swarm is to identify as many steps as possible on the activation ladder, and make each of these steps as easy and accessible as possible. Again, it sounds obvious, but many organizations fail miserably at this. Some swarms or formal organizations make it easy to become a member but explain nothing about what they do, while others go out of their way to explain how important the members are but make it impossible to come in contact with an officer of the swarm.
The problem with these organizations is usually that they have chosen one key metric that measures their success, and so, the organization reshapes to focus on that metric alone rather than the full activation ladder. (We discussed metrics a bit in chapter 5, as you will recall.)
There are several key things that need to be done. Some of the least obvious are to always make sure that all people in the swarm can respond meaningfully to questions about the swarm’s purpose from people who are just hearing about the swarm — normal social growth should never be underestimated — and that there are always plenty of empty boxes in the organizational chart for people who want to take formal and real responsibility for the swarm’s daily operations. Yes, we keep coming back to this detail, because it is important.
Apart from this, asking a dozen activists to describe each step that led them to join and activate should be a good start to discover the activation ladder for a particular swarm.
The key success factor for any swarm is its ability to mobilize activists; its ability to activate its followers. As we saw in chapter 5, metrics are tremendously important to follow and track, and can be used successfully as a motivator for internal competitions and trendspotting alike.
When push comes to shove, it’s not the number of Twitter followers, Facebook fans, or newsletter subscribers that counts (even though these metrics are easily measured). It’s how many people you can activate. This is a different number, one that isn’t as easily seen, even though it has some form of correlation to the easily measured numbers: it can be assumed to rise and fall when the other numbers rise and fall, but over and above that, it’s hard to predict.
Also, it depends a lot on your leadership. As we saw in chapter 5, direct leadership will have a tremendously better effect at activating people en masse than vague wishes when it comes to doing something very specific.
But there’s more to it than that. Your leadership is not enough. You must also provide the means for your officers and local leaders to activate people on their own. You may want a flash mob to form outside a courtroom as a verdict is handed out, for example, when all the TV cameras are there. You have twenty-five minutes, and you’re in a different city. What do you do?
The first thing to realize is that you shouldn’t do anything except contact the local leaders of the swarm and ask them to make something happen. The next thing to realize is that these local leaders must have the tools to make that something happen.
The Swedish Pirate Party has tools to send a text message to all activists in a geographical area. (We don’t track the activists’ actual location — that would be bad and rude behavior. Instead, people can subscribe to messages related to certain areas where they typically move about.) The local leader would go into our swarm activation tools, choose an area to blanket with a phone message to our activists’ phones, and send something like “Flash mob for the verdict today. Meet up outside the District Court on 123 Such Street at 12:30, 22 minutes from now. Get there if you can.”
When such a message is sent to thousands of phones, hundreds of people show up. That is more than sufficient to look like a significant group of people, especially if you make sure that placards are available from a nearby stash so that the group looks like, well, a group — your group — rather than just a random assorted audience.
Remember, a swarm can’t compete on resources — but it is absolutely unbeatable on speed, reaction time, and cost efficiency.
CALLS TO ARMS: PERCEPTION IS REALITY
You can and should use mass text messaging over your favorite platform to mobilize the swarm not just to physical locations, but to any place where your issues are discussed. This particularly includes comment fields and discussion threads.
A lot of people in general want to be on the winning team in most contexts and will adapt their behavior to match it. Therefore, if you can make your swarm look like the winning team, regardless of your actual strength, 90 percent of your work is done. In marketing, this principle is based on the mantra that “perception is reality” — in other words, what’s real is what we perceive to be real. But the mechanisms go beyond that idea; perception also shapes reality.
In order to make the most of this, you need some kind of alert mechanism within your swarm to call for activists’ attention whenever a certain idea, perspective, or product — the one your swarm is focused on — needs to dominate a discussion, a comment field, a forum thread, etc. The addition of a mere twenty-five people to the discussion who all are pulling in one specific direction can often make it look like public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of your swarm’s goals for somebody casually visiting the discussion — and for everybody writing in a particular thread, there are ninety-nine people just reading.
In the beginning of the Swedish Pirate Party, we used this mechanism a lot. Whenever there was an article in oldmedia on our issues, we would send an alert phone text to people interested in swarming to the article and making sure our perspective dominated the comment field. In this way, we were able to give a very clear impression of public opinion on anything that touched our areas — an impression that we turned into reality by creating a persistent perception.
Again, most people will match their actions and opinions to be at least compatible with their perception of the public opinion. Control the public perception of who’s the winning team, and you become the winning team. Therefore, you need some kind of call-to-arms mechanism to quickly relocate your swarm’s activity to where people are looking at that exact moment.
In the postelection evaluation of the European elections in 2009, the Social Democratic party — Sweden’s largest party — wrote that their election workers had seen the Pirate Party “on practically every square in the entire country,” showing colors, handing out flyers, and talking to passersby. As the party leader, with a hawkeye on our activities and resources, I knew that this statement was very, very far from the objective truth. But it was our competitor’s perception of reality — a perception that we had created. If the election workers of the country’s largest party perceived reality like this, a large part of the general population also did.
It’s not just that perception is reality. If you can shape perception, you can also shape reality. A swarm excels at this.
MORE WAYS TO TRICK PERCEPTION
In Sweden, there is a political conference every year known as Almedalen, going by that name from the general area it takes place in. It doesn’t have an obvious equivalent anywhere I’ve seen — it’s just an informal agreement for everybody working in politics (reporters, analysts, PR people, and politicians) to gather for one specific week on a remote island in Sweden. There are some ten thousand people who go there every year, essentially taking over that part of town for a week.
By wearing distinctive clothing — purple, crisp-looking short-sleeve shirts with our logo and the person’s last name printed on the back — we were able to get noticed. We had sent seven people to Almedalen one year wearing such shirts, and by the end of the week, people were asking me, “Just how many people did the Pirate Party send here, anyway? I see you everywhere!” The other parties send delegations of hundreds, and yet it was our seven delegates who got noticed because we made it easy for people to notice us in a crowd. The particular shade of purple stood out everywhere, whereas all the other delegates would wear random private clothes, turning them into an indistinct grey mass. (The choice of color was not random: purple is the party color, but it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the party color had been grey or beige.)
This is also the reason I encouraged activists to buy and wear shirts with the party’s color and logo in the streets. We didn’t make any money on the shirts. I didn’t care about that income stream. What I wanted was to get the colors out there, into the streets of every city and town in the country.
Again, perception is reality.
The more information you require about your activists, the fewer activists you’ll have. You’re certain to have clowns in the organization complaining about your collecting too little data on the people in the swarm, asking you to collect as much data as possible about every volunteer in order to data-mine and find patterns that can be used in various forms of marketing. Kicking people who do this hard in the groin solves the immediate clown problem: everybody in the organization needs to have responsibility for the primary swarm goal, which can’t be attained without a large number of activists. Maximizing the number of activists is therefore always the primary subgoal, and scaring away potential activists counteracts this.
It’s not just the workload burden of a potential activist typing in his or her name, phone number, mother’s maiden name, shoe size at age twelve, and whatever more data over a half-dozen consecutive pages that will make them a nonrecruit — more often than not, it can be the act of identifying themselves in the first place that is the primary deterrent.
Think about it. Your swarm likely strives to achieve some change in the world. Since you’re choosing to use a swarm, you’re likely up against resource-rich organizations (where the use of a swarm is the most effective way to dropkick them). You will find that there are many people that want to change the status quo that these rich organizations uphold, but you’ll also find that a lot of people don’t want to sign their name publicly to that aspiration — several of them may even work for the organizations in question, or be suppliers to them, or otherwise dependent on their goodwill. After all, if they are rich in resources, they control a large enough part of society to be able to cause trouble in society for their opponents — their named opponents.
And thinking about it another minute, you don’t need to know who your activists are. You just need them to talk about the swarm’s issues with their friends, show up at rallies, etc. Many will prefer to be anonymous, and honoring that will make the swarm immensely stronger.
In the Swedish Pirate Party, you can sign up as an anonymous activist. We ask for an e-mail address and/or a phone number where you can be texted. Leave at least one of them; both can be anonymous. It works great.
(You will need to know who your officers are, on the other hand, as they become points of contact at some level. But the many-cogs-in-the-machine activists can be completely anonymous if they prefer — and many do.)
REWARDING THE LONG TAIL
Many organizations, when discussing marketing, ask themselves how they can sell their values to their target group; how they can get people to like them enough to monetize or profit in other intended ways. That is the entirely wrong question to ask, the entirely wrong framing of the problem, and solving that misframed problem will yield counterproductive results in a swarm environment.
The correct question to ask is, “How can we reward people for discussing our topic (values, politics, services, products)?”
Note that I say discuss, not promote. There is a world of difference. People are hyperallergic to positive messages that have been vetted or promoted by a suited-and-tied PR department with shiny bling-toothed smiles. It’s the worst thing there is, second only to trying to ski through a revolving door. You want to reward people for mentioning your name, no matter whether they like you or not. Again, this is counter to traditional unidirectional marketing of the shove-down-the-throat kind, but goes very well with what we learned in chapter 4 about message diversity and how crucial that diversity is to success and respect.
Many PR departments, as we also learned in chapter 4, are industrial-grade neurotic about having absolute and precise control over the brand. But when you release that control, you can achieve wonders. The same goes for rewarding the long tail — as in, the people who aren’t normally seen — for speaking about your swarm or your topics.
In the Swedish Pirate Party, a significant portion of our homepage was devoted to “People blogging about the Pirate Party.” Anybody who mentioned the Pirate Party’s name in a blog post — no matter in what context — got their blog post highlighted and linked from our front page. This could be accomplished fairly easily with automated processes.
Let’s examine what social dynamics this created.
Most bloggers get ten to twenty visitors a day to their blog. This is “the long tail” on bloggers that, frankly, doesn’t get a lot of readers at all, compared to the thousand- and million-reader blogs that tend to set the agenda. Nevertheless, these small-scale bloggers are just as sensitive to — and curious about — traffic spikes as the larger blogs.
Imagine you had one of these blogs, your traffic was in the low twenties of visitors a day, and all of a sudden you had a traffic spike of some five hundred visitors when you mentioned the Pirate Party in a blog post. (This was the actual effect of promoting everybody who mentioned us on our well-visited front page.)
What would you think and feel about those sudden numbers if you were a small but aspiring blogger? How would that affect your blogging? More importantly, when you sat down to write your next blog post, what subjects would you have in mind for that article?
This is one of the mechanisms behind our becoming the most-discussed party in the entire Swedish blogosphere. When you give up the illusory control of your brand — which you never had anyway — and reward people for discussing you, unconditional of the context, they will keep discussing you and your topics, services, or products. That is exactly what you want to happen.
So reward the long tail with attention — that can tip an entire blogosphere toward discussing you, with the exception of the star bloggers, but they’re the few and the long tail are the many.
USING ATTENTION TO BUILD A COMMUNITY
On August 29, 2012, Barack Obama — the president of the United States — did a thirty-minute so-called AMA on a site called Reddit. AMA is short for “Ask Me Anything.” Anybody in the whole world had an opportunity to ask questions directly and personally to the president of the United States, and he responded to as many as he could during the allocated time.
Some twenty-three thousand people took the opportunity to ask questions directly of the president of the United States. He had time to respond to only ten of them, but did so in a very personal, frank, and candid manner — not just sticking to political questions, but also naming his favorite sports player, talking about how he managed his work/life balance, and discussing beer recipes.
A number of generations into the future, it may be perfectly normal to be able to speak to anybody in the whole world and get responses, including from heads of state — but today, it is most definitely not. This extends to leaders of swarms. People do not expect to get comments and cheers from leaders of political parties or other significant organizations. You can use this nonexpectation to your strong advantage to build a following.
In artistry, this is known as connecting with fans. It is the exact same thing, although you need to actively seek out the fans in question rather than just allowing them to speak to you.
When I led the Swedish Pirate Party, as soon as somebody mentioned the party by name on a blog, I would see if I could contribute anything to the discussion (did they ask a question out in the air or wonder aloud about anything?). When somebody mentioned on Twitter or their blog that they had joined the party, I would write a short “Welcome aboard!” signed by me personally. This was easily accomplished with a folder of bookmarks containing search pages across blogs, Twitter, etc.: it was a one-click operation to see if anything had appeared that mentioned the party’s name.
Still, this blew people’s minds. They did absolutely not expect to be personally welcomed by the party leader in their own space, that this person would come to them. Doing so builds a very strong following and activist base. However, it also requires continuous work. The president of the United States may get away with answering questions for thirty minutes total, but you are not a head of state. You need to search for new activists or potential activists every day, at least once a day, and just acknowledge that you see them — in your own preferred way. While it requires continuous work, it is not really that burdensome — just make sure to have a couple of bookmarks with search across blog networks and Twitter for the swarm’s name and your own name, and go to those bookmarks once or twice a day.
Attention is reward. Unexpected attention is great reward. Reward people for their interest in your swarm, and show them attention. It works wonders.
In the same manner, engage with people who read what you write. If people ask questions in the comment fields of your columns, articles, or blog posts, engage with them. This is generally not expected, but very appreciated, and builds a strong following. (I’ve seen people be downright surprised over the fact that I respond to questions they ask me in the comment field of my own columns: “Just ask Rick a question in the comment field; odds are he’ll even respond.”) This is quite surprising and shows what the current net generation is conditioned to — that people who write publicly lock themselves in an ivory tower and don’t want to be talked back to. Come down from the tower and connect with fans, and you’ll get a much stronger following, activist base, and swarm.
Also, the monkey see, monkey do principle that we discussed in chapters 4 and 7 applies even more when discussing in public and in other people’s spaces. People will be rude to you from time to time (after all, your swarm is trying to change the world, which is guaranteed to make some people angry). This will be challenging to your mood and psyche, but you need to respond, and you need to be nice and polite. You may never turn the person who is rude to you and angry at your values, but you will take every other reader on the site by complete surprise, and they will become potential activists in your swarm. Odds are you will even get positive responses from people other than the initial aggressor, written out in cleartext to your nice and polite reply.
Just the other day, I got a comment about this in a discussion forum: “Hey! You can’t just go out and be polite on the Internet! Who do you think you are!?”
“Monkey see, monkey do” also applies to everybody else in your swarm here, of course. People will behave as you behave on public discussion boards about the swarm’s ideas. Teach them to be polite and friendly, no matter how harshly and viciously attacked, and you’ll win wonders.
Politics is a spectator sport, and so is arguing your case anywhere on the Internet. As they say in other spectator sports, “win the crowd.”
Onward to chapter 9 >>
(This article is part of the final edit of the book manuscript. It is Creative Commons, CC-BY-NC.)
EXCERPT FROM PUBLISHED BOOK
This is a part of the book Swarmwise, available for purchase from Amazon (US, UK) or for download as PDF. It is an instruction manual for recruiting and leading tens of thousands of activists on a mission to change the world for the better, without having access to money, resources, or fame. The book is based on Falkvinge’s experiences in leading the Swedish Pirate Party into the European Parliament, starting from nothing, and covers all aspects of leading a swarm of activists into mainstream success.
This article is also available in other languages: Czech.