How to start a movement / love is the message

I’ve been thinking a bit about leadership over the past year or so, especially since being awarded a ‘future leader fellowship’ to explore algorithmic patterns.

Here’s a fun 3 minute talk from Derek Sivers that gives an interesting perspective on this:

His take-home is that leadership is over-rated, it’s really the second and third person who starts turning a lone weirdo doing something strange, into something with real momentum. I can definitely see this with the movements I’ve been involved with (e.g. dorkbot meetings, Placard headphone festivals, TOPLAP, Algorave, TidalCycles and the fledgling Pattern Club). A big part of their success has been in a) folks coming along and taking on an idea, and pushing it forward in their own way and b) co-founders being happy about that, not centering themselves too much or constraining things, letting the movement have its own life as it spreads. An Algorave in Mexico City will feel different from one in the UK. Good !

I think there is another message in this video though. There’s a clear sweet spot in this ‘movement’, about 1m45s in. The people are having a wild time, getting to know each other, expressing themselves together. After that it quickly gets swamped, and by the end it’s completely lost. People are standing around looking confused, probably not even knowing why they’re there, they just went towards the crowd. The movement was not only created inside 3 minutes, but also extinguished itself. By the end it’s just a very conventional crowd vaguely waving their hands in the air.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course it’s totally fine for a movement to have its time. The Dorkbot meetings of ‘people doing strange things with electricity’ spread from New York City to dozens of places around the world in the ’00s, but there are very few active dorkbot events happening now. If a movement persists for a long time, then it’s not leaving space for new movements to grow and flourish. (This is why institutionalised movements, e.g. electroacoustic music, can sometimes feel ‘stuck’, and as if they’re punching down).

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re living in cultures with a really unhealthy attitude towards growth, and in particular wilful ignorance of the consequences of overgrowth. Perhaps you can see it in the “how to start a movement” video, but you can surely see it in our increasingly polarised economic system.

I’ve been enjoying the ‘Love is the message‘ podcast a lot, where two cultural theory professors and soundsystem enthusiasts chat about radical musical movements from the 1960s onwards. David Mancuso’s parties in NYC Loft are a clear obsession, and it’s pretty fascinating how someone like Mancuso instigated counter-cultural change by making space for things to happen, basically putting parties on in his house that challenged the social (and financial) rules that constrained conventional commercial venues, to instigate change in the world ‘one lounge at a time’.

So maybe doing something weird, inviting people to join you en mass (a reasonable prospect if we can find the right balance of controversy and relatability to make a social media post or TEDx talk go viral), and quickly getting swamped by your own meme isn’t the best approach to leadership. Instead, it could be better to focus on doing things on a small, local scale, while embracing the out-of-control nature of ideas.. A collective approach where you make space for ideas to be explored, in a way that they can spread without a centre. Love is the message, indeed!

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