March 01, 2008

Organizing the Masses

Organizing a protest or boycott has always been a difficult affair. After all, the individual logic simply doesn't add up. For example, "why should I boycott a product that I like when it causes me harm but is unlikely to cause harm to a company or change practices that I don't like? "

(see, for instance, Dogbert's great quip to Dilbert about buying a fuel efficient car)

A new application for Facebook may provide a model by which to change the rules of the game and, when employed as part of a coordinated campaign, change the underlying personal logic of mass protest.

The application, called "Ultimatums," allows users to establish a threshold of people boycotting or protesting that the group believes will be sufficient to change the behavior of their target. Users then pledge to act, but only when the threshold has been crossed.

For instance, a local store places an anti-immigrant sign on their door. Local high school students then develop a protest based on boycotting the store. They use the Ultimatum App and post their ultimatum on Facebook. "Take down the sign, or your store will be boycotted." They can then set a threshold of 2,000, feeling that the small store would balk or fold at this level of protest in the community. The store could follow along to see if its stance is actually bad for business.

Of course, there are problems in the model. No one has proven that a commitment made by all the beautiful, intelligent, and extroverted personalities of social networking sites translates into action by living counterparts in the real world. Also, in the case of the small store owner, he may not care if 2,000 people sign up for the protest if 95% of them are empathetic high school students from a different zip code who have never shopped at the store.

On mass issues, however, such as Walmart and healthcare or the presidential elections, it may offer the ability to mobilize masses of people--and may be able to stimulate change by the threat of mobilization. Beyond that, it offers counterinsurgents fighting in less wired lands (and, of course, their enemies) an insight into how to mobilize people. The logic for an individual family to resist the insurgents does not work. However, if we can gain commitments to participate in self-policing at a certain threshold and demonstrate our ability to meet that threshold, then perhaps we can change the individual logic of fear.