The snowflake model: Marshall Ganz on how technology has changed organizing revolutions

Marshall Ganz is a ‘social movement scholar’ and author of the book, Why David Sometimes Wins.He shares his general thoughts on the use of social media in the Arab spring. This is followed by a testimony of an Egyptian youth activist that gives the lie to the Malcolm Gladwell thesis that social media cannot generate the strong ties necessary to conduct real political and social mobilizations.

As Susannah Vila writes:

“The basic tenets of Ganz’ scholarship on organizing are borne out in the recent examples of Egypt and Tunisia: an outside-the-box-perspective, a new toolbox and a unifying public narrative to hold people together. They’re all there. I wanted to know, though, if Ganz thought the new ways that Arab Spring protesters have harnessed new media will influence future scholarship on movement building and organizing. Has it taught us anything new?”

Marshall Ganz:

“In 1848, every country in Europe had a revolution. And they happened very quickly one upon the other. People were riding on horses with broadsides to the next town. It’s not like social contagion is a brand new thing. And I’m not saying that to minimize the significance of the new things, but just to put them into context to appreciate what they enable us to do and what they do not.

I think new media facilitates the process enormously. To me it’s more: “how does it enhance, how does it create new possibilities.” There was this whole period where new media seemed to have agency. People would say “the internet does”. That’s not it. It’s a set of tools and a medium of communication that is incredibly useful to skilled people who want to use it skillfully and purposefully. I think we’re learning more about that every day.

SV: 21st century revolutions have yielded big crowds but few leaders with the interest or capacity necessary to build on success and prevent a backslide. I wonder if you think there’s an interaction between that trend and the new tools that people are using to mobilize these revolutions?

MG: What you just described could have described the first two years of the French Revolution. People mobilize, and the opposition collapses, and it’s like “oh my God, what do we do now? Who’s really in charge?” The person with the most radical program usually has a big advantage because maybe they’re more militant, but then there’s the pushback and there’s all this confusion and then you wind up with Napoleon. This is again not to minimize the ways in which it is different. How can I put it? The internet can create a sort of effervescence, like “Woah, we didn’t have to do two years of house meetings to get all these people to show up.”

On the other hand, when you read the history of these other social movements and revolutions there are always people are working at it forever and then there are these tipping point moments where people seem to come out of nowhere and everybody’s blown away. Then everyone’s in confusion because they don’t know how to handle it. I think you’re pointing to a really crucial challenge. I mean, now in Egypt, how do you translate mobilization into organization?

It’s hard. In this country, if we didn’t have social movements we would never have had any change in the United States, because our electoral system is so sclerotic. In other words, it was designed by people afraid of majoritarian governance, because they needed to preserve slavery and hold on to all that stuff, so government is so fragmented here. Now, in a parliamentary system, you get somebody in power and they can actually do some stuff, like we see in Britain, whether coming from one side or another. I think you really need to look at what the institutional context is to answer those kinds of questions. You really have to understand the nature of the system being designed and what the cultural and social instructions are that are being drawn upon to design it.

SV:You teach a “snowflake model” of leadership, with one person in the middle, who is connected to different people around them who are, in turn, connected to more people around them. Has this model evolved at all considering the avowedly leaderless nature of this year’s revolutions, can we still expect (or hope) to find the one person in the middle?

MG: What we have found is that it’s important to distinguish leadership as position from leadership as practice. Because people hear “leadership” and they think “authority,” and so they think traditional authority structures. And we were sort of saying “well no, we’re approaching leadership as a practice, not leadership as a position, and as consisting of these skills, these five practices that we teach.” It’s about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty, that’s our little mantra.

Now, if a person is leading a campaign, if it’s a leadership team, which I think is really great to lead a campaign – somebody’s still got to coordinate that team. Which doesn’t mean that they’re the charismatic leader-boss-dominator-exploiter. It means that the buck stops with them for a particular piece of leadership work that has to be done. I just haven’t found any other way.

I put them in the center of the snowflake because it’s sort of imagined as a team. My role may be strategy and somebody else’s role may be storytelling and somebody else’s role may be money and fundraising. But somebody’s role has got to be seeing to the whole.

I think crafting forms of collaborative leadership and authority are really important. But we also have to be realistic about them. My generation went through a whole thing of being so mad with structure that it just said “all structure oppresses”, so then it all became structurelessness, and that was chaos. So it’s figuring out how to craft this interdependence of individual and collective, and that’s where I think the action is.

What I’ve seen in the Arab world is that the traditional leadership structures are extraordinarily unitary and top-down, and so coming up with a snowflake model is quite novel.”

Case study: the role of social media in creating strong support networks in Egypt:

A few observers continue to argue that online activism can’t quite create the “strong ties” necessary for powerful organizing. Ahmad is one example that disproves this thesis. Indeed, if it weren’t for the online space he never would have met the collaborators that are now completely necessary networks of support and inspiration as he continues the fight in Tahrir Square.

Testimony of Ahmad Hegab, 26, youth leader at Tahrir Square:

“The network of online activists within Egypt and around the world that he’s cultivated has become an essential support network. He’s spent the last 6 months in Tahrir getting to know them, and other collaborators. In the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution he met face-to-face many of the people he only had known online. Existing activist networks were greatly expanded during the revolution and existing ties between online activists such as Ahmad were strengthened by their offline interaction.

His blog and presence on Facebook has connected him with other activists that would have been more difficult to identify otherwise. This online community passed around important information, and protected and supported each other – as he puts it, he lives two separate lives: one populated by friends from his normal offline life and one populated by his online activist friends. While his friends from his neighborhood and college often didn’t support or understand his activism – he relied on his online community of friends to understand and assist.

We knew that a difference remained between youth activists’ online and offline worlds, but were surprised to discover how online networks had essentially created an entirely new socal system for Ahmad – one that pushed forward his involvement in activism. Most of his 900 friends on Facebook are people he’s never met but they read his blog and wanted to stay in touch. Facebook is yet another channel for him to keep people informed and encourage them to act.

He has held two trainings on how to create and maintain a blog as a platform to spread awareness about social and political causes. Ten blogs were created by participants of his sessions.

Even before the revolution, Ahmad blogged under this real name and encourages others to do so despite the risk of publically voicing dissent under repressive regimes. It is in fact that boldness of blogging with a real name and the risk associated with it that increases the power of the anti-regime message and can lead to a snowball effect, where more and more people feel inspired to voice their dissent, knowing that they are not alone. Anonymous blogging, on the other hand, can more easily be written off by the regime as manufactured. For him, it’s the most important lesson from the Egyptian experience that could be of use to others.

As Ahmad sees it, his role as a blogger is to help build a permanent constituency actively monitoring and taking action against human rights abuses.

“When we have more bloggers, we will have more people who know their rights,” he said.

Before January 25, Ahmad estimates that 50 people viewed his blog each day. Now more than 1,000 do. The demographics of his readers has also shifted, with the number of readers in the US surpassing the number in Egypt.

When the internet was cut and cell phone credit was impossible to find during the revolution, Ahmad said the circumstances only inspired more ingenuity. Fax was used to get information out of the country during the internet blackout and residents around Tahrir opened up their wireless networks for people to use as phone lines.

Through interaction with other online activists, Ahmad and other protestors learned useful tips for civil resistance, such as splashing Coca-Cola on your face to mitigate the sting of tear gas. Now he’s hoping to teach others — through both online and offline interaction — about the lessons learned from the Egyptian revolution.

A few observers continue to argue that online activism can’t quite create the “strong ties” necessary for powerful organizing. Ahmad is one example that disproves this thesis. Indeed, if it weren’t for the online space he never would have met the collaborators that are now completely necessary networks of support and inspiration as he continues the fight in Tahrir Square.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.