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Systemic Implications of Social Swarming

By: Nancy Southern | 07 Feb | 2 comments


Photo courtesy of LibCom.org

I recently received an invitation to comment on a blog posting defining social swarming and how it worked in regards to the decision of the Susan B. Komen foundation to withdraw support of Planned Parenthood, which was fairly quickly reversed.

According to Leland Russell, social swarming occurs "when a disparate group suddenly moves en masse in the same direction. The rapid, collective motion of a large number of self-propelled people has enormous power." Clearly this can happen given how many people participate actively in social media and well-oiled online organizations, like Move-On.org, that have developed the capacity to get the message out and inspire people to act.

The power that rests in the hands of the people, however, can have good or bad consequences. I see it as, essentially, a new form of majority rule and question whether this is always the best approach to change. While there is an idealism that is awakened within many of us when we see the power of these social movements, I would like more conversation that addresses both the challenges and the opportunities.

Russell suggests that the leadership lesson of this "New Normal" is to think strategically and respond quickly. The ability to bring a group of leaders together, engage in strategic dialogue that considers the implications and possible responses, and then act in a way that supports both the values and mission of the organization is always an important capacity. The impact of social swarming brings a requirement to do this quickly. 

One might see social swarming as a feedback loop that lets organizations and their leaders know when their actions are out of alignment with social values. This can be a very good way to keep organizations in check and possibly avoid some of the inappropriate actions that have had negative impacts on society in the past. Since there may be a greater number of younger people involved in social media movements, this can be a way for them to shape a future that is aligned with their hopes and aspirations.

At the same time, we need to consider the dark side of social swarming. Having studied and taught the process of organizational change, I have come to believe that it is important to understand the contextual reality of the current situation, envision a desired future and develop a roadmap to support change that is systemic and paced in a way that protects the fabric of an organization, community, or society.  I do not assume that the “will of the people” is always well informed or prepared to effectively carry out change.

We saw the power of social networking and swarming that supported the Arab Spring and can see the potential for these movements to both do good and do harm. To what extent was the overthrowing of governments the best solution to the problems? I don’t understand enough about the situation to answer that question, but I think we always must consider how best to approach change that is effective and sustainable and has the least negative implications to people and planet. 

As we consider how social networking is putting greater power into the hands of people, we need to also consider how best to support the change that results. How do existing organizations respond effectively?  How do organizations that naturally form, such as around the Occupy movement, develop the capacity to educate and manage people who desire to support change so that there are more positive than negative implications? The answers to these questions are not so obvious and require a dialogue that looks systemically at both the challenges and the opportunities.

Read other posts by Nancy Southern

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Comments and Discussions

Great questions Clay.

Great questions Clay. Unfortunately there seems to be far too little time devoted to exploring both positive and negative implications of technology and much of what is becoming the New Normal. The importance of critical thinking seems to be undermined by the euphoria of new ways of reaching out, having a voice, and taking action. Thanks to adding your critical reflection to this challenge.


Sociotechnical Swarming

As I pondered your words, the realization that I have not only observed but have also been swept up in these swarming phenomena hit me full on. From my younger days as a child, responding to the latest playground trend to the current movements enabled by digital technology, I have set my individuality aside and allowed myself to ride the tide of a movement. As you astutely raise question of positive direction rather than negative direction, I also often see myself looking back and asking, "Is this really where I (we) wanted to be?" With Facebook as the "largest IPO offering in history," and the ensuing rush to "get a piece of THAT...", I wonder how we can ensure that wherever this and other pieces of sociotechnical society are taking us will be someplace better... Will Facebook, even more commercial and beholden to myriads of stockholders, become even less concerned with the needs and desires of the individual? Will it move forward with greater technical capabilities, but with less freedom, perhaps, than the original swarm to be part of the IPO? While I realize that Facebook isn't a social movement in its purest form, in a sociotechnical lens, it is indeed a swarm of gargantuan proportions.


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