Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Manhattan's birds are brilliant. From my 42nd-floor conference room in Midtown, I often see flocks fly by in perfect formation, suddenly veering right, then left, to dodge the buildings below. It's as if they're being choreographed by some grand master hawk squawking orders from atop the Empire State Building.

Truth is, of course, birds aren't very smart. [Central Park's birds still can't seem to distinguish a cookie wrapper from a bagel chip.] But flocks of them? Different story. Group-think helps them to negotiate skyscrapers and migrate to Miami in a heartbeat.

Humans, too, gain some advantages in groups: we're just starting to figure out how much smarter we can be when linked online. [Five years ago, we began using social media to find and aggregate the people we knew into simple social networks. Then we started organizing our networks to do things, like raise money for a cause.] Now? We're experiencing another big evolutionary shift in the way we use the Net to collaborate. Think swarms—multiple social networks that aggregate rapidly to influence the offline behavior of others. They're much bigger and more powerful than our single social networks ever were. And like SWAT teams, they're all about swooping in to do something quickly, then disbanding.

Four types of super-swarms made headlines last week, offering up some tough lessons in mass collaboration for organizers and bystanders, alike:

* Twestival—the 250-city, one-day global gathering of Twitter users offline—ended up catalyzing hundreds of thousands of people in 186 cities worldwide to raise money for, a New York-based nonprofit that builds freshwater wells in Africa. It was the largest, if not the first, swarm-for-good ever assembled. Yet today, nearly a full week after the Feb. 12 event, Twestival organizers still don't know how much money they raised toward their goal of $1 million. Amanda Rose, Twestival's London-based chief organizer, sent out a tweet early yesterday that attempted to lower expectations: "Reaching $1 million that quick was always going to be tough," she tweeted, "but the awareness that came out was worth it. Will not blame those who didn't reach it." [This followed an earlier tweet that indicated that only 25% of the cities participating had reported how much money they raised. Later still, she tweeted: "We are close to £200k ($284,703.210) so nothing small. Announce soon."] Throughout the day, Rose urged people to continue donating in a last-ditch effort to bring the tally closer to the goal. Take-away: Swarms can easily overwhelm the individuals who organize them; their behavior is very difficult, if not impossible, to document in detail or control by any one individual or nonprofit once catalyzed.

* More than 4,000 people swarmed into London's Liverpool Street Station Feb. 9 to both mock and mimic an ad by a local phone company. Some characterized this Facebook-driven swarm—which totaled 14,000 participants online and off—as, simply, the latest in a series of Internet-inspired pranks in recent years [The first recorded flash mob occurred in Manhattan in 2003.] But this one was different. It might be the first swarm mobilized to mock or mimic something commercial. Previous "flash mobs", new media experts say, have been focused simply on having fun. This swarm resulted from viral marketing writ huge. Take-away: Companies can help to launch a swarm as part of a viral marketing campaign but can't guarantee it will stay "on message."

* The Women's Media Center mobilized a swarm in New York and Washington on Feb. 10 to protest remarks made by TV personality Bill O'Reilly following President Obama's first press conference. O'Reilly derided veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, calling the 88-year-old journalist "the wicked witch of the East" and poking fun at her age. Within hours, more than 10,000 people sent angry emails to O'Reilly and his producers, forcing the conservative provocateur to apologize to Thomas on air the next day—precisely what the swarm ordered. Take-away: Swarm-advocacy can be used to both challenge and promote free speech and social norms in new and highly powerful ways, raising new questions about the power of a networked crowd to shape the expression—and the behavior—of an individual.

* al Qaeda forces Feb. 11 staged simultaneous suicide attacks on three Afghan government ministries by mobilizing newly formed online strike-swarms. Terrorist "flash mobs" are now being used in smaller-scale terrorist violence, similar to the kind first seen in Mumbai last November, swarm theorist John Arquilla says in a piece he wrote Feb. 17 for The International Herald Tribune. Arquilla says al Qaeda and its affiliates have been using swarm tactics for several years and that they are being coordinated, increasingly, through the use of social media. Take-away: Flash causes, or swarms—when politicized—can be dangerous and difficult to minimize or pre-empt.

Howard Rheingold, the author of the 2003 bestseller, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, says digital swarms are just getting started. Given the evolving "brush fire" mentality of the Web, expect to see many more of them taking collective action offline—for better or worse—in coming months. Warns Rheingold: “As these [flash groups] become politicized, there is a potential for good and for danger.”

For more on the early work of swarms, see Cisco engineer J.D. Stanley’s recent paper, Digital Swarms, here. Also check out Swarm Theory, an article by Peter Miller in the July 2007 National Geographic. And for the upside of swarms, check out Charles Leadbeater's 2008 book, We Think, about mass collaboration and innovation.

(Illustration, The Birds, by Harley McCabe for

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Anonymous john guidry said...

I like about this post, though part of what I like about it is the "bad news," if you will, about social network technology. You write in your cases about the possibilities, the incompleteness, and the unintended consequences of the hi-tech social network. It makes us think about how these things really affect or represent our behavior. I'm a firm believer that we'll only get the best out of something when we know all the possibilities, including the ones we don't want to think about. Being "smarter," all by itself, isn't enough to make us better.

February 18, 2009 at 2:56 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, John, for commenting. I'm fascinated to see how we adapt, as humans, to the "Net machine" we've built relatively recently to help extend our reach as individuals and groups. I look forward to sharing more of what's working here and what's not—and where it's all going exponentially: it's the subject of my upcoming book on the use of social media in advocacy.

February 18, 2009 at 3:46 PM  

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