Personal Democracy Forum 2012: Don’t Mess with Our Boobs: Ad-Hoc Networks and Online Power

Note: The following is a 10-minute talk I gave at Personal Democracy Forum on Tuesday morning, where speakers were asked to comment on the conference’s theme of “The Internet’s New Political Power.” Personal Democracy is an incredible community of political technology thinkers, developers and implementers, and I’m proud to be a part of their network.

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We’re here talking about power this morning. We’re talking about the power of the Internet, and specifically, the political power of the Internet. And, I have to say, when I was putting together what I wanted to talk about today, I could only think of a quote  from “The Princess Bride:” I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Let’s start with a story.

Back in February, you may have heard of a little brouhaha when a certain Susan G Komen Foundation, one of the largest funders of breast cancer research and screening, decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood’s screenings. For political reasons. Women everywhere were Outraged that that breast had been politicized in this way. And then realizing that our bodies are continually politicized in this way.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with what happened after this announcement was made. The Internet caught FIRE. Planned Parenthood puts up the bat signal, and activists go to work. There was public shaming of Komen (while they stayed silent), people threatening to stop donating or raising money for them. Other people were donating and raising money for Planned Parenthood.

One of the things I thought about, was, “What if you don’t have any money to donate or not donate?” How do those folks — especially the women most affected by losing funding for low-cost breast cancer screenings — get to participate in this moment without dough?

So I created a Tumblr site called “Planned Parenthood Saved Me.” And I asked people to submit their stories of how Planned Parenthood changed their lives.

It blew up, and I collected over 300 stories in a just few days. I launched it on Wednesday morning, and by Thursday night, Rachel Maddow was reading from it on her show. But you know what? The mainstream attention, while it gave it cred, wasn’t the most important piece. More than half the site’s traffic came from social media services, and more than half of it came before any major media mention. People came to the site because they were sharing their stories with one another. What does that mean?

Don’t mess with our boobs. Or our bodies. Or us.

By Friday, Komen retracted part of their statement, and everyone had declared a big win for Planned Parenthood, and the political power of the Internet. Which it was, but not in the way that you think.

What’s problematic about how we often think of power in general is in this very linear way.

We think, I have power, then we have power together, and then if we successfully exercise our power together, then we will be in power. The end!

Let’s think about connective technologies–I’m avoiding just limiting us to thinking about the Internet. I’m also thinking about mobile networks, mesh networks and other newer ad-hoc technologies that connect people to one another. They’ve given us new ways to relate to one another, and to understand our power. But we’re still stuck in this kind of linear thinking.

There are three systems of power that I’m thinking about here. I have to give big props to Nilofer Merchant and Anne-Marie Slaughter for their recent-ish posts on power. It’s also important to understand that these systems are not mutually exclusive.

  • Ad-hoc power. This is Shirky’s infamous “ridiculously easy” group formation, coming together in a moment and likely dissipating after the moment has passed.
  • Networked power, which is related to relational power in power theory. These are groups of people connected to one another in a more ongoing way. Their relationship to one another can be based on shared interest, identity or experience, actually being related to one another. There is a definitive “shared” component to networked power.
  • Hierarchical power, which is related to resource power. This is what we traditionally think of when we think of people having power in the world. It is definitive by social structures and generally involves a smaller number of people running the show, while down the pyramid, others have lesser degrees of influence or power.

In the past, we’ve been focused in politics and organizing almost exclusively on hierarchical power. This is reflected in the language that we use: we talk about grassroots or “bottom-up” organizing, versus top-down. Power lies with a few on top running the show, who we are either trying to influence or replace altogether.

But you out there in this room, you’re thinking: A-ha! I know that that’s not the end-all be-all! I know about THE INTERNET! I know that networks are important and powerful.

And *I* think you’re still not quite getting it.

We’re stuck in a very linear progression when it comes to Internet power: OK, let’s bring people together quickly and easily, and then we’ll consider them part of our network, and then we’ll get them to help us kick out the current people “in power.”

Let’s look at how these 3 systems of power were activated in the days following Komen’s announcement.

  • Hierarchical. This is where Planned Parenthood activates the resources within their control or domain. Sending out emails, getting local chapters/clinics the word. We go down one hierarchy and up another.
  • Networked. The people that already have relationships with Planned Parenthood were activated and motivated to Do Something. The level of participation varied as to where they were in their relationship– many spread the word and pointed people to PP’s comments; others donated, and encouraged others to do so. There were the creators who did things like what I did. I have an emotional connection to the work that they do and the services they provide, and they’ve successfully navigated that relationship with me to the point that when something bad happens to them, it feels very personal.
  • Ad-hoc. These were, in this case, many women who were new to activism, and for whom this attack on Planned Parenthood was their point of entry into the War on Women™. A few of them could likely be converted into networked power, but it was their ad-hoc power that did the most service here. They were the women who contributed stories to my Tumblr, who spread the news of the defunding into their own networks. It’s likely these networks were previously unreached by traditional activism. You saw this in the language that they used: “I don’t normally post political stuff,” or “I don’t usually forward these kinds of things.” And that’s OK. The effect was to activate their own untapped networks, and make this particular message heard widely.

There are mistakes that other groups make when it comes to how we view these systems of power interacting. One is the problematic notion that all ad-hoc power *has* to be transformed into network power. We want to take every one of those dotted line connections and make it solid. That’s just not realistic. Sure, some of those folks are going to have their emotional connection turned into the network, but spending an inordinate amount of time on that transformation can waste precious resources for groups and organizations that just don’t have that capactiy. *And,* it misses and erases the power of ad-hoc to reach the previously unreachable.

The other mistake that’s made is thinking that networked power is bottom layer of hierarchical power. Many think that what technology has done for us is brought all those people in the bottom layers together, so that we can fight the people in the top layers. We have to shift our thinking around this. Networked power is just starting to *replace* hierarchical power. It’s beginning to wrap around those pyramids, infiltrating it and breaking it apart, and maybe even dismantling hierarchies altogether. YAY.

As someone who sees most hierarchical forms of power in the wider world as oppressive and destructive, I’m most looking forward to seeing how networked power, with sprinkles of very conscious and intentional ad-hoc power, can be supportive and constructive.

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