Online campaigns and the wisdom of crowds

I recently attended a meeting of people involved in workers’ rights issues. We were discussing online campaigning. At one point, the participants got very worked up over the question of how to choose an online campaign. There were different points of view about what would constitute a good campaign to select. There was agreement that a committee should be formed to set criteria and create a procedure for deciding which campaigns needed to be launched.

The problem is that there are so many terrible things happening to working people around the world, so many violations of workers’ rights, that it is not possible to respond to them all. Someone needs to pick which of these campaigns are do-able, which ones should be released to the public.
As the discussion proceeded, I couldn’t help but remember a book I’d recently picked up. Written by James Surowiecki, a New York-based journalist, it’s called “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few.”
Surowiecki sums up his argument in this way: “Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.”
Surowiecki’s book is filled with examples of this, and I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that for those of us raised on books like Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” this new book is heresy. But Surowiecki may have a point.
Maybe we who are engaged in a daily basis in the struggle to protect workers’ rights around the world do not need to make as many decisions as we think we need to make. It may not be necessary to always filter out the less important cases, to choose which need to be released to the general public. Maybe, sometimes, we should just trust in the wisdom of crowds.
Let me give a concrete example from LabourStart’s experience with online campaigning over the last year.
Back in October 2005, we were asked to launch an online campaign in support of Indonesian security guards. Those guards were employed by Group 4 Securicor, a giant transnational company which is the focus of organising campaigns in several countries.
We told our readers the following about the case:
“Group 4 Securicor security workers in Indonesia walked off the job to protest changes to their working conditions the company imposed following the merger of two firms to form Securicor Indonesia. Group 4 and the Indonesian police are working together to harass strikers who are standing up for themselves and their families.”
In other words, a strike that included some harassment of the workers. It was not terribly urgent or dramatic, and happens every day around the world. That’s not to say it was unimportant — it was very important, certainly to those workers. But obviously there can be more exciting campaigns than this one.
It turned out to be one of our smaller campaigns. Only 847 people sent off messages of protest. By comparison, a campaign launched two weeks later in support of embattled Siberian oil workers got almost 2,600 messages sent. In other words, 847 was not a good result for one of our campaigns at that time.
People seemed to voting with their mice, saying that the Indonesian security guards did not particularly need our support at this moment. There were more urgent matters to attend to.
At the end of January 2006, again at the request of the union we did another variant of the October 2005 campaign, sending basically the same message out.
And once again, with no particular change to report in the situation, only 942 people bothered to send off messages to the employer.
A little more than four months after that, we were approached for a third time by the union. This time, there had been a change on the ground.
Some 150 security guards, fed up with the company’s refusal to obey the law and re-hire the workers, had occupied the offices of Group 4 Securicor in Jakarta.
We launched a third campaign focussing on Group 4 Securicor in Indonesia, our third in eight months.
This time, the number of people who sent off messages was 6,402 — one of the largest campaigns we ever ran. The “velocity” of the campaign, the speed at which messages began reaching the employer from the moment we announced, was also extremely high. Thousands of messages were sent in the first 24 hours.
By mid-July, the company had caved in and the workers celebrated a great victory.
But what caused the sudden surge of support for this online campaign?
It is true that our mailing list was somewhat larger in June 2006 than it had been at the time of the two earlier campaigns. It had, in fact, grown from around 31,000 in the fall of 2005 to 41,000 by June 2006. But that growth, important though it was, does not explain the 700% increase in the number of participants in the campaigns.
The only explanation is that among the tens of thousands of people who receive news of our online campaigns ever week, people are picking and choosing when to respond. They are not responding automatically, not taking orders and behaving like a disciplined army of workers’ rights activists. Instead they are acting as free agents, selecting campaigns as one might choose pieces of fruit in a market.
They are making choices based on how important they judge a campaign to be, and how much of an impact they might have by sending off a message.
By reacting as strongly as they did in June, understanding instantly the significance of what had changed in Jakarta, they were able to push the company harder than ever before and contribute to the victory.
I am not saying that it was right to show indifference to the earlier campaigns. Perhaps if we could have sent 6,402 messages to Group 4 Securicor back in October 2005 we might have contributed to an even earlier victory for the workers, and maybe even prevented their need to occupy the company offices.
But the collective wisdom of tens of thousands of activists behaved almost like a free market, and the campaign which most needed their support was the one they chose.
So what does this tell us about future online campaigns?
I don’t think it means that we should simply throw everything “out there” and tell activists to pick and choose. If every single case of a workers’ rights violation triggered a global online campaign, people would instantly be overwhelmed and would switch off.
But that is not the only choice. It is not a question of either putting out every issue that comes up, or relying on a committee of experts to carefully choose the “right” ones.
Sometimes the task of such a committee is not to endlessly ponder which issue to bring to the attention of activists, but to instead rely on the wisdom of crowds to make the right choices.