It was billed as the Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes. In November 2004, the election was over and Democratic Americans had plenty to feel blue about. George W. Bush, who’d stolen the Presidency four years before, waged oil war on Iraq at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, trashed international conventions and implemented draconian extensions to the powers of spy agencies at home, was back in the White House.
Conservative America was having a party. The other forty nine percent of the country, along with the rest of the world, was fighting a major depression.
James Zetlen decided to make a personal statement. He bought the domain name
www.sorryeverybody.com and posted a photo of himself holding a handwritten sign that said: “Sorry world (we tried) – Half of America.”
It was supposed to be a joke. Very quickly it became something else.
James’ message struck a chord. Hits for the site started going through the roof. Soon “I’m sorry” photo submissions were flooding in from all over the country. Twenty six thousand photo submissions poured into the site over the following weeks. The faces in the photos expressed the gamut of emotions being experienced by people on the ground: anger, horror, misery, disbelief… It was a mass outpouring of passion and grief, stunning in its scale and focus. Each submission framed the message in a different way. But to the rest of the world, the chorus spoke in a single voice: “Please don’t give up on us. We tried – we really did.”
Posting photo messages online didn’t change the outcome of the US election. But for the twenty six thousand people who contributed to sorryeverybody.com, and a good proportion of the seventy five million who visited the site in following weeks, it was an empowering experience. For many, just knowing the site was there made a difference. In the wake of political defeat, it was consoling to be reminded that progressive political culture still existed in the USA. When people feel powerless to change their circumstances, a creative endeavour can be a hugely valuable experience. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it is still possible to think, act and create – to do something – in order to keep going at all. James’ site gave people this opportunity. Posting a photo message online was a simple, perhaps trivial, act. But the act was part of a group initiative, and knowing that that initiative existed was a source of strength for many in this unhappy hour.
Sorryeverybody.com illustrates how an online initiative can focus and coordinate the action and desire of a multitude of people in geographical space. It shows how, under the right conditions, a site, or series of sites, can trigger a human swarm that centres about an issue of common concern and functions as a locus of empowerment. Swarms take shape when a mass of people see that a common, creative activity will be empowering for them as individuals and a group. Individuals gravitate towards the collaborative activity as a source of empowerment, and they participate for the hit or experience.
Sorryeverybody.com is not the only example of a swarm offensive or even the best. The anti-globalization protests that rocked world capitals between 1999 and 2002 were a firecracker-string of swarm offensives, extinguished by the Bush administration’s war on terror. The global protests against the invasion of Iraq, in February 2003, tens of millions strong, represented the final gasp of this activity before the politics of fear sucked the life from the movement. Not all swarm offensives are political in nature. In some cases the desire to do good is enough to trigger a movement. Take, for example, the cascade of online donations to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. Or (perversely) the Facebook campaign that sent Rage Against the Machine’s song “Killing in the Name Of” to the top of the UK pops in Christmas 2009 – an act of consumer swarming that should make future-thinking corporations sit up and take notice.
Political strategists are already experimenting with mustering and harnessing human swarms as part of their grab-bag of campaign tricks. The success of Barack Obama’s Facebook-styled web 2.0 platform (mybarackobama.com) in the 2008 US Presidential election portends a new approach to political campaigning that will change the way that supporters interact with their candidate. The netroots swarmed in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign and this played a major part in sweeping Obama to victory.
The tumultuous year since the election has produced two further examples of swarm offensives in the United States. The fact that the first of these offensives – the so-called “Tea Party” movement – is driven the discontent of the Republican right shows that swarm offensives are not limited to politically progressive causes – they can be driven by populist anger as well. Since 2009, the Tea Party, which has no defined leadership, no campaign organization, and no big donors, has proved itself a galvanizing force among disaffected US conservatives. The Tea Party’s message of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free market activity, subsumed under an ‘anti-Obama’ and ‘anti-tax’ ethos, has inspired thousands of citizens to join in rallies across the US, and is currently reshaping the face of conservative politics, pushing Republican candidates further to the right so as to capitalize on the sentiment of the political grassroots.
Now the US center left is swarming in response. Last month, filmmaker Annabel Park started a Facebook page promoting what she called the “Coffee Party” movement – a liberal response to the Tea Party. In a space of weeks, the Coffee Party has accumulated over 70,000 Facebook followers and rising. If this wave of support translates into popular action, the Tea Party will a fight on its hands! Park admits that she is stunned by the success of the initiative, which has catapulted her to the national stage. In a discussion hosted by the Washington Post last week, she was candid about the difficulties of setting-up a nationwide movement, while optimistic about its potential. The strength of the movement, Park suggests, lies in its appeal to the common good, rather than partisan politics:
Boston, Mass.: ‘What is one key point that you would like to stress to your early followers and participants in the Coffee Party?’
Annabel Park: ‘We want to shift the paradigm from thinking of politics as a zero-sum game with two opposing sides. If one side loses, the other side wins. This is not a democracy. This is a misunderstanding of the tenets of democracy. … Democracy is based on the notion of the common good. People should come together to go through a deliberation process to produce collective decisions that benefit the common good’.
Park’s intuition is not only morally laudable, it makes sense from a strategic perspective. Swarms are strongest when participants feel that they are part of a common movement with popular appeal. There are few things as empowering as feeling that you are part of a movement that is changing society for the better. And it’s hard to argue against the common good as a standard for social improvement.
[A shorter version of this essay appears on the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ website]