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From OWS to TED, Where Spontaneous Sentiment Meets Community Organizing

Impermanent, action-oriented collectives are now becoming part of our daily lives.

One of the thousands of larger-than-life portraits that came out of street artist JR's TED Prize wish last year.


At the beginning of October, 22-year-old recent college grad Molly Catchpole woke up to discover that Bank of America was adding a new $5/month fee for all debit account holders. Incensed by the idea of paying more to access her own money, Catchpole turned to the online action platform Change.org and created a petition demanding BofA reverse the policy. Within a month, more than 300,000 people had joined, media outlets had piled on, and the company decided not to proceed with the fee.

The campaign was an example of one of the most important phenomena in the modern world: semi-spontaneous mass collaboration, in which new groups form for the express purpose of achieving a particular objective. Such efforts are not new, but the rise of social media has made creating new groups so easy that impermanent, action-oriented collectives are now becoming part of our daily lives.

The Bank of America campaign was not an anomaly. Over the past two years, social media has enabled regular people from around the world to self-organize and win efforts ranging from defeating legislation against pit bulls in Ohio to compelling the Ecuadorian government to close medical "clinics" that tortured lesbian patients. Change.org is closing in on its 10,000,000th member and 1,000th victory.

Semi-spontaneous mass collaboration has three characteristics. First, it relies on some existing community. The community doesn't have to be strictly organized—members of a website are enough—but there must to be some existing supply of people and energy to tap. Second, it needs some spark that turns general sentiment into specific motivation for action. Third, it must have a "platform approach" to leveraging the creativity and assets of the community that forms.

Online campaigns aren't the only example of these mini-movements. Every year, TED—the nonprofit behind the ubiquitous online talks—awards a TED Prize at its annual conference in Long Beach, California. The prize is meant to advance a big idea with the power to change the world, and its creation prompted the rise of a community around the ideas.

Last year's TED Prize winner was photographer and street artist JR, whose prize wish was to create a global art project that would highlight people standing up for the change they believed in. He asked people to upload portraits of themselves, which his organization printed on posters and sent back so they could hang the art in public spaces. Since last March, nearly 75,000 people from 115 countries—including a group of citizens trying to reclaim the streets of Tunisia in the wake of the fall of strongman dictator Zine Ben Ali—have participated in the project.

Historian Karen Armstrong, who won the 2008 TED Prize, wished to create a "Charter for Compassion" to reaffirm the fundamental principles of justice at the core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The TED community came together to help Armstrong find the resources and connections needed to make the project a reality. The group partnered with Sesame Street to develop a character that would model compassion for children in Pakistan, and piloted a city-wide slate of initiatives around compassion in Louisville, Kentucky, that will eventually serve as a model for other cities.

Both of these cases model semi-spontaneous mass collaboration: Both tapped into a preexisting community of energy—in this case, TED attendees and the wider community of people who participate through online talks and satellite events. They both used the TED Prize as the spark that transformed general interest—art and social change or a desire for more pluralistic attitudes—and gave it specific tangible goals. And both used a platform approach that allowed supportive community members to be influence the way the goals were carried out.

From Change.org to the TED Prize and Stop SOPA to Occupy Wall Street, mini movements of self-organized citizens are growing at an incredible rate on- and offline. Together, these semi-spontaneous mass collaborations add up to a tapestry of transformation that is fundamentally shifting the way change happens.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Nick J Webb

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