Swarm Movement

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Tim Rayner:

""Swarm movements shape identity in a completely different way. First off, they are are issue- or cause-based, rather than identity-based, movements. Instead of seeking to reduce the movement to a single set of grievances representing the struggles of a single group identity, swarm movements affirm the diversity of participants as their fundamental strength. This diversity is irreducible to a single identity, but it is powerful when focused on a common cause.


A second point of difference between traditional and swarm movements concerns what these movements seek to achieve. Traditional movements focus on challenging and changing institutions. The goals of these movements are thus extrinsic to the movements themselves: they are achieved as a result of movement activity. Swarms can (and usually do) set extrinsic goals. Their primary goal, however, is to sustain the critical mass that holds the network together. As a result, movement activity is focused more on the intrinsic goal of empowering the swarm than any extrinsic goal the movement might hope to achieve. This can make swarms look unfocused from an external point of view. But within the movement, conditions tend to be highly conducive for participation. Swarm movements are intrinsically empowering and thus intrinsically rewarding for participants. Ultimately, participants do not need to look beyond the act of participation for a reason to join the swarm. Swarming is its own reward; the payoff is the empowerment that comes from swarming.

The intrinsic nature of swarm movements makes them hard to understand from an external perspective. Commentators like Lessig, who are familiar with a more traditional style of movement, often feel compelled to fabricate or imagine extrinsic goals in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance they experience surveying a mass social activity that doesn’t play by traditional rules. But the more we look for extrinsic goals, the further get from understanding what really inspires swarm activity. Swarms are based in a common sense of potential. What catalyzes a swarm movement is the sense that here, today, a new way of working and living together is possible.

Swarms are transformative movements. Insofar as members acknowledge a common sense of identity, it is a transformative identity, a sense of being part of a movement that is changing the world.

We can map the logic of the identity shift involved in swarm movements as follows. First, a mass of people acquire a new cognitive map, representing an original conception of what they can achieve together as a network. The cognitive maps that inspire OccupyWallStreet and Occupy Together resonate with innovations in the online world. OccupyWallStreet is an ‘open space’ movement. The camp structure is an open API that anyone is free to hack into and explore using MeetUp as a Directory. The second step in the process comes when the mass of people who apply these cognitive maps start reflecting on how working together expands their common potential. This insight gives rise to the swarm. A swarm movement comes into being as a swarm when a mass collective grasps what it is capable of achieving en masse.

Swarms transform our shared sense of the possible. This is what draws people to these movements. It is the key to their unique political power.

Victor Hugo claimed that no army in the world can stand in the way of an idea whose time has come. No government or political institution can hold its ground when confronted with a new collective sense of what human beings are capable of doing and achieving en masse. Every major social transformation, from the Age of Revolutions to the present day, has been driven by a catalytic swarm. Swarm movements do not expend their energies by contesting the status quo. They reinvent it. Norms slide in all directions and political institutions are forced to keep up.


Swarms are vectors of mass transformation. They sweep across societies on the diagonal and reset political cultures in their wake. The protesters in Liberty Square and across the US are engaged in a more serious business than contesting dominant institutions. They are knitting together new cognitive maps based on peer-to-peer strategies and open source ethics and reworking politics from below. As Douglas Rushkoff claims, ‘we are witnessing America’s first true Internet-era movement’. And it is transforming our sense of the possible. The surges of energy coming off the movement are immense. All that remains is that the movement finds a way of articulating its power without reducing its intrinsic diversity. If OccupyWallStreet can achieve this, it could literally change the world.

Perhaps the new mode of collective enunciation has already been created. The Human Microphone System that Occupy Wall Street protesters use to facilitate their General assemblies is a remarkable expression of direct democratic culture. Electronic amplification is banned in the square. The speaker says half a sentence and the crowd repeats it, so that everyone can hear. The speaker then completes the sentence and the crowd repeats this too.


The human microphone system is a physical expression of the appreciative process that happens on the internet all the time. When a blogger posts something that others think is significant, they share the message through their networks, so that that others who are not included with the author’s networks may enjoy it too. In doing so, they affirm the incredible power of open networks to create collective knowledge and wisdom. OccupyWallStreet applies the same modus operandi to transformative political action." (http://www.coalitionblog.org/2011/10/swarm-wall-street-why-an-anti-political-movement-is-the-most-important-force-on-the-planet/)