Hive Minding the Store

The blogosphere is humming with the Dean post mortems, but the Dean people are giving money in record amounts. What’s going on here? This morning, as Jim Moore reports, Dean’s List received a message from the Guv:

The entire race has come down to this: we must win Wisconsin.
We must launch our new television advertisement on Monday in the major markets in Wisconsin. To do that, I need your help to raise $700,000 by Sunday. Please contribute $200 today so that we can reserve the air time:

A Wisconsin bat went up at 2 this morning, and, as I write this, the Dean faithful have sent in $693,000 as of 11:15 pm. This is a live bat, so YMMV.

Jim describes this as a perfect swarm and wonders what it means:

Is the DeanforAmerica community transforming itself into a community that goes well-beyond its original mission to create multiple ways to make itself heard and to be powerful–using the web as centerpiece and platform.

I think perhaps so.

More revealing is Jim’s description of how groups find their common rhythm:

What is going on?  Swarm power, emergence, something larger than ourselves.  Here is a fun thing to do: Take a large crowd–perhaps you are giving a speech–and ask them to clap together to an aligned beat.  But don’t give them a lead beat.  Just ask the crowd to find a beat, by paying attention to their neighbors, and syncing up as they can.  I’ve done this dozens of times, and the amazing thing is how fast a group can come together when it wants to.

The Dean community is coming together.  It is starting to experience a new level of emergence, of power.

The Dean community will make itself felt and heard at a new level.

Last summer, Doc asked my why people give money to the Dean campaign and the ready answer was that they’re buying hope, one month at a time. Today they’re buying hope, one ad at a time. Those of us most interested in how social networks form are trying to figure out why Dean can attract so much money but hasn’t received more votes. I’m more interested in how we can use this ideal laboratory, before the urgency dissolves in 9 months, to answer that question. The answer will be the rosetta stone of politics, whether or not it’s discovered in time to save the Dean candidacy.

Perfect Form

I suggest that the secret is to provide a way for the hive mind to grow its own relationships. We see this all the time in nature, whether it’s the insect hive, a nervous system growing its dendrites, or plants which spread by runners or roots, like strawberries or aspens.

For about four months, I’ve been encouraging the Dean campaign to formalize what I call strawberry roots. Grassroots grow from individual seeds, sending a few blades out. Strawberry roots are planted by the runners that come from another clump.

Strawberries propagate by sending out runners. In special cases, like this one, the runners can be productive without putting down roots.

The metaphor is that it takes a gardener to plant grass, but a healthy strawberry bush can create many other productive clumps.

I suggest that the secret is to provide a way for the most dynamic political nodes to grow their own relationships.

With just a little structure, it’s probable that the Dean movement can operate self sufficiently yet with organizational forces that approach the efficiency of the Linux or Apache movements. That idea defies conventional wisdom, since open source projects typically need a central figure who brings the code to a point and who continues to lead and inspire the volunteer programmers. That way, the versions are reasonable and coherent.

But for political action, where successful techniques can be forked as desired and there’s a need for millions of actions but no need for a single code base, there may be only one criterion for successful organization. That would be something like the school telephone tree. Many organizations, and all schools, have a telephone tree, by which one family alerts 3-6 others to a snow day, and the message propagates rapidly, like DNS data across the Internet. The enabling technology for all these systems is the explicit connection between an originating node and a satellite node.

This structure may appear to be hierarchical but it’s actually chronological. The first parent in the calling tree is simply the first one to be assigned to a task that any parent is adequately skilled to do. The enabling tech? A POTS line and a calling list. Synchronized group clapping, says Dr. Moore, all you need is the will to clap. Or, in the NFL, merely the idea of doing the “Wave”.

Tim O’Reilly is the instigator of the Digital Democracy Teach-In on Monday (San Diego. Joe Trippi live. $100. You really should go). He describes the central dynamic of operating an ISP, using yet another biological metaphor:

During my tenure at UUNET, I described the real business as operating a giant Petri dish — we kept it warm, we pumped in nutrients, and we made it bigger when it filled up. And people paid us money to sit in the dish and see what happened.

Dishing the Movement

So what’s the ideal petri dish for a net-enabled political movement? Here’s an email I sent to Jim Moore late last night:

Why not try a “Draft Dean” approach? Allow the grassroots to take charge and to prove what they might about peer-to-peer outreach. Let them demonstrate that a pure grassroots effort can work this year, when the tools aren’t right yet, rather than waiting until 2006 or 2008.

In other words: a true end-to-end approach, based on total transparency, a hollowed-out campaign. Expose the budget to the people and ask them to give what they want on an a la carte basis. Let them decide if we want state offices, how many programmers to pay, etc.

…In the 1986 AFC final, with a couple minutes to play, Denver was behind 20-13, on their own 5 yard line. Dan Reeves sent in the play with a lineman, who kneeled in the huddle, looked up and said, “Now we got ’em where we want ’em!” Everybody breaks up laughing, stunning the Browns’ defense and loosening up the Broncos. 15 plays later, Denver scored, sending the game into overtime, and winning with a field goal.

Get creative. Make a big deal announcement that’s so creative, humorous and endearing that we glimpse an entertaining way out of this.

I suggested today that we ought to keep a fundraising graph up all the time, showing upcoming uses of funds, inviting just-in-time sources of funds. Blogfo
rAmerica could track the contributions to Kerry’s campaign and invite the Deansters to raise, say, 125% of Kerry’s funds, as a way of demonstrating where the passion lies.

In other words, perhaps the function of “the Campaign” is becoming more of a support function, like accounting, ad placement, data management, shipping & receiving and logistical support. The real sales and operational arm of the real campaign may have to migrate out to the strawberry roots, as Zephyr has been telling us all along.

11:38:08 PM    

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