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How technology is reorganizing political protest movements

Police attempt to disperse a crowd at Occupy Portland on Sunday.
Police attempt to disperse a crowd at Occupy Portland on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Author: Protests are modeling themselves after networked, personal technology
  • These movements have lots of leaders instead of one or two, Micah Sifry says
  • New leadership mode is a strength and not a weakness, author argues

Editor's note: Micah Sifry is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a website that examines how technology is changing politics, and the author of "WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency." This commentary is part of a series of "Campaign Tech" articles that will run through 2012 and explore technology's role in the presidential election.

(CNN) -- A column by New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane on Sunday raised a plaintive question: "Who is Occupy Wall Street?"

In the piece, he searches desperately for the leaders behind what is today's hottest political phenomenon. In the course of an admirably open exploration of how the Times should report on the Occupy movement going forward, he -- along with a group of his journalistic peers whom he consulted for advice -- revealed a telling assumption about how political movements must work.

Though he quotes a commenter on his blog who told him that the movement's lack of traditional leaders is part of its message, he can't let go of the idea that it must have leaders.

"An investigation into (its) origins would lead to the identities of early leaders, at least, and the search for the broader leadership of the movement should continue from there," he writes.

A sampling of leading journalism educators that Brisbane polled, many of them former top newspaper editors, agreed.

"Most said it was important to understand who the leaders were and what demographics they represented," Brisbane reports.

"Leadership tells you a lot about a movement," Jerry Ceppos, the former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, told Brisbane. "But I can't I can't cite the name of a single Occupy Wall Street leader. I know some members say the groups are 'leaderless.' But I have trouble believing that this is an entirely organic movement that grew without a leader. I'd push hard to see if there are leaders and to profile them."

Why this insistence on finding the supposed leaders of Occupy Wall Street? The reason goes beyond a desire to understand the movement's goals, I think, into something more existential that is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of how networking technology is changing politics.

For many traditional political observers such as Brisbane and his colleagues, the notion that a political movement might arise without charismatic leaders is inconceivable. Every previous movement, after all, has had its figureheads. Think of Gandhi, MLK, Mandela. Or, at the less exalted level of recent times, think of Ralph Nader, Al Sharpton or Michael Moore on the progressive left, or Sarah Palin, Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin on the Tea Party right. The same question was raised, if you recall, around the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which were often described as "leaderless."

A movement can't be leaderless, right? Who would we feature on the front page? Who would we put on the Sunday talk shows? Who would we negotiate with?

Or if you're feeling some distress about politics in America today, who might lead us to cure all that plagues us, from economic doldrums to climate change to failures of leadership in so many other institutions, from corporate boardrooms to the church to college football programs? Is there a savior rising from these streets?

No, political movements can't be leaderless. The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in fact, leader-full.

But it's a vastly different kind of leadership that is emerging. It's one that, like the networked technology that supports it, rejects all forms of top-down hierarchy and values peer-to-peer network weaving instead.

Ilyse Hogue, a progressive activist who was on the staff of MoveOn for many years, recently put it this way, in one of the first uses of the term "leader-full" that I have seen:

"We should all strive not for leaderless movements, but for leaderFULL movements. The former trends towards autocratic loudest voices dominating. In their best manifestation, the latter creates equitable space to raise up all voices, create mechanisms for group decision making and accountability, and to catalyze self-responsibility and empowerment."

Most of us come from a world and a generation that only knows one kind of leadership, the one whose organizational structure looks like a confusing government flowchart.

Everything about our industrial age institutions, from schools and churches to corporations and government, trains us to think of leadership as top-down, command-and-control. Give the right answer, get into the right school, get a good job, work your way up the chain of command, win the good life. But today, more and more of us live in a sea of lateral social connections, enabled by personal technology that is allowing everyone to connect and share, in real-time, what matters most to them.

And at a moment when so many traditional political institutions appear bankrupt, incapable of reforming themselves and paralyzed in the face of huge challenges, the result is an explosion of outsider movements for social change whose structure looks more the masses of people that gathered in Egypt's Tahrir Square, the pro-union demonstrators in Wisconsin or the Occupy Wall Street protests around the country.

Indeed, I think there's a reason we keep seeing this recurring image of a filled circle rather than a hierarchy in today's protest movements: All the points on a circle are equidistant from the center.

Spots in the middle are hubs, but no one hub dominates. Resilience is built through the multitude of lateral connections between all the points in the network, so if any hub fails, others can pick up the slack. And thus today's networked movements are not only highly participatory, with many leaders instead of just one, they are also much stronger than movements of the past that could be stopped or stalled by the discrediting, arrest or killing of their singular spokesmen.

Going from a world of top-down leaders who use hierarchy, secrecy and spin to conduct their business to a leader-full world filled with self-starting network weavers who are transparent and accountable about their actions will take some getting used to.

But the Occupy Wall Street movement, like the Tea Party before it was captured and turned into a marketing vehicle for the Republican right, represents the flowering of something very deep about our networked age. It is personal democracy in action, where everyone plays a role in shaping the decisions that affect our lives. We may face huge challenges, but while some of our material resources are in scarce supply, we have an abundance of leaders coming.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sifry.

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