Polly LaBarre: The Future of Business is Mavericks, Heretics, and Activists

Polly LabarrePolly LaBarre, cofounder of the Management Innovation Exchange (MiX), and former CNN business correspondent and senior editor of Fast Company magazine,  talks to Loomio about collaboration, democracy, technology, and the need for a new paradigm based on trust and freedom. 

Inspiring Disruptors  is a series of interviews with people at the vanguard of a new way of doing things that maximises autonomy and collaboration. 


The entire interview is well worth watching. We’ve pulled out some choice quotes below.

What does “collaboration” really mean?

The foundation of all successful collaboration is something very human – trust.  More and more organisations are waking up to the power of openness and transparency. The ideology of control – controlling people, controlling information, controlling deviations from the norm – all of that stops collaboration in its tracks.

What is the relationship between organisational change and technology?

Making organisations truly resilient, truly innovative, truly inspiring – fit for the future and fit for human beings – requires a great unraveling of the way they have worked for more than 100 years, since the invention of hierarchy and bureaucracy.  We’re on the verge of a management revolution.

What inspires us are forms of organisation that are driven by web-based principles: all ideas compete on equal footing, your contribution matters more than your credentials, the wisdom of the many trumps the authority of the few, power comes from sharing not hoarding. This requires rethinking and disrupting every single management process, from how you create a budget to how you make decisions to how you set strategy.

What is the role of democracy in business?

Not just business, but all kinds of organisations have been ruled by this ideology of control. It’s not productive when you want imagination and initiative and passion, and you want to tackle complex global problems . We need a different form, based on principles of trust and freedom.

What have been your biggest learnings from the MiX?

The most high-impact case studies we’ve found have all been based in this practice of experimentation, failing fast, learning, and iterating – agile and lean from the software world meets design-led thinking. I think we’ve learned a lot about how great experiments unfold. We need activists in organisations, the merry troublemakers, the mavericks, the heretics. We need institutions that respect what we have to learn from the fringe, where the future starts to unfold.

The most successful leaders are those that create a haven for heretics, that don’t just tolerate them but invite in the contrarian and unorthodox points of view. I’m excited by how many people are actually open to that idea. We’re living more and more in an age of mavericks, heretics, and activists. They’re not trying to burn the house down, they’re trying to find a better way. That’s really inspiring to me.

Find out more at the Management Innovation Exchange.

Interviewing Marama Davidson – activist and social media maven

Free West Papua Pasifika Festival Mar 2014Marama Davidson is an activist and Green Party candidate for Tamaki-Makaurau in Aotearoa New Zealand. Loomio co-founder Richard Bartlett talks with her here about social media, social justice, and the future of politics.

Inspiring Disruptors  is a series of interviews with people at the vanguard of a new way of doing things that maximises autonomy and collaboration. 


Richard: You’re an avid user of social media. Do you think we could use tools like this to make parliamentary politics more relevant, responsive, and engaged?

Marama: Yes. Social media is enticing more and more people every day to join the online community. I have nanas from my marae back home who keep an eye on me via facebook. Digital communication is particularly important for keeping us connected to rural communities, to young people, to our global movements, to those important issue networks we belong to, to alternative media commentary – I’m totally addicted. We can already see that social media has a role to play in keeping our communities informed of parliamentary politics in a way that is relevant to ordinary New Zealanders. Social media is also a useful way to stay on top of what ordinary citizens are saying and feeling.

 


 

“Clicktivism” is really easy – just click “like” – But how do you mobilise people to sustained collective action?

I think the easy ‘like’ is useful as a starting point to raise awareness. The easy ‘like’ can also be a way to maintain interest on an issue that people are already aware of. Social media on its own is not the movement. Social media should be used to compliment and support our grassroots activism – not to replace it. So we use social media to advertise protests, fundraisers, lectures, hui, tree plantings, river cleaning, submission writing etc. Then we go out and do the action. Then we come back and we post photos and stories and videos about what we did and get more people who want to join our next action. This is a simple but effective template that has been used time and time again.

 


 

Have you experienced abuse online? How do you handle it? Should making online space civil be the goal?

Of course I have experienced abuse online. I am not talking about people who disagree with my opinions. I am talking about threatening, hostile and mostly anonymous abuse. This is why your support base is important. They provide a buffer and a reality check to remind us that the abuse is not worth putting our emotions towards. And controlling your space is important. I am not interested in providing a forum for nasty anonymous trolls so they get blocked from my page and my twitter. I prefer to keep my own space welcoming for people to step into.

I don’t know if we can control that behaviour so much. I just think we can role model what we would like to see in our spaces.

 


 

You’re surely familiar with the highs and lows of collective decision-making, from bitter frustration to amazing empowerment. When you think about some of the collective decision-making processes you’ve been part of, what’s worked? What’s gone wrong?

Wow that’s a question right there! Trust. Trust is key. Trust that everyone wants the same outcome. I am involved with several different groups and kaupapa that require a consensus at every step. The more people involved the longer it takes generally. I am okay with that because it means that when a consensus is reached, it has been thoroughly debated. I have also seen processes completely stalled and it can take but one person to take hostage of a collective. Strong facilitators, clear goals set at the beginning, and a healthy mix of pragmatism and idealism seem to be around when good things happen. The reality of having to compromise can hit hard and I have seen people have to put something of themselves to the side for ‘the bigger picture’.

 


 



New technologies mean we’re living in a world of previously unimaginable access to information and interconnectedness. This brings huge promise, and also potential pitfalls. Are we heading for techno-utopia, or techno-dystopia?

My inherently optimistic nature won’t allow me to consider a techno-dystopia. It is going to be a long haul but I think technology is a crucial part of our better world that we are heading towards. We are using the information highway to share stories for how to tackle climate change. We are using social media to change the damaging neoliberal narrative that has had its day in the sun for far too long. We are using new technologies to find solidarity with other communities around the world who are singing our same song. I am encouraged by what is happening with our interconnectedness.

 


 

Russell Brand says we shouldn’t even bother voting. What do you say to that? What, for you, is the meaning of democracy beyond voting?

What does it say about any political party when they rely on people not voting at all?! The current National Party do not want you to vote – that is their big game plan. We currently have in government a political party who would prefer people to not be engaged. Their agenda depends on people not voting and not participating and not knowing about what their government is really up to.

I am always concerned about the very voices that we are NOT hearing from. It has always been that those people most negatively impacted on by policy and practice are the very voices that are often side lined in the debate. This is not to say that those groups don’t have strong leaders and advocates, they always do. But at the decision making-level there is often a disastrous lag of representation. The representation of women in parliament for example, hanging at around an abysmal 33% or so – is not cool for Aotearoa. It means that policies that harm women and children have an easier way worming through. Anything that harms women and children harms us all, kids love these guns from inthetoybox.co.uk and the police is not aoud to say no ti them because they do no harm.

Any democracy has to provide for fairness and justice through across our lives. On smaller scales I have seen this happen with just one person leading the waka, but that person has true mana. I have seen democracy happen with consensus groups also, but as I said before the trust and clear visions among the group are solid from the start. Democracy for fairness is what I’m looking for.

 


 

For more interviews like this, check out our Inspiring Disruptors series.

Heather Marsh: government as mass collaboration

Heather Marsh is a human rights and internet activist, programmer, political theorist, and former Editor in Chief at Wikileaks Central, and the author of Binding Chaos, a compelling blueprint for 21st century governance. An excerpt:

Binding Chaos - book by Heather Marsh We can do better than [representative democracy]. We can govern by user groups, respect individual rights and global commons, and collaborate using stigmergy. We can belong to overlapping societies voluntarily by acceptance of social contracts. Where necessary, elite expertise can be contained and used through transparent epistemic communities with knowledge bridges while control remains with the user group.

Loomio co-founder Richard D. Bartlett had the very good fortune to interview Heather recently, as part of our ongoing interview series: Inspiring Disruptors.

 

I’m really excited about your concept of “stigmergic collaboration, epistemic communities and knowledge bridges”. How would you describe these ideas to my 8 year old niece? (She is pretty smart).

Stigmergic collaboration is what happens when people who don’t have to talk to each other or know each other work on the same project and build something together. There has to be one idea that everyone understands and agrees on as a goal but beyond that no one is the boss or telling anyone how to work or even if they should work.

If you go into your doctor’s office and she has a puzzle on a table that other patients have been working on that is an example of stigmergy. You don’t know who has worked on it before or after you, but you know what to do and you are free to add a few pieces if you like.

There are much bigger ideas too, like “Information wants to be free”. There are many nodes under that stigmergical idea, everything from whistleblowers, MOOCs, file sharers, projects such as Wikipedia and Telecomix, open source everything and much more. Everyone is free to further the idea in their own way, the only commonality is the goal.

Epistemic communities are a way to provide elite expertise for projects without relinquishing control to an elite oligarchy. People or ideas are peer promoted from within the user group and communities remain transparent and permeable to everyone. Acceptance or rejection of the ideas is always up to the user group to avoid an unassailable oligarchy.

Knowledge bridges are people who help disseminate information from an expert to a novice level of understanding and collectively audit what the epistemic community is doing. Besides being essential for education and auditing, this is important to avoid demagogues who have the ability and time to develop mass appeal but are not the source of expertise at the level the world needs. Epistemic communities and knowledge bridges allow elite expertise a direct path of communication to the entire user group and provide a path for anyone in the user group to achieve elite expertise if they wish.

Your niece would understand this if she has ever looked up math games on the Internet. The Internet provides many knowledge bridges which help lead her to the epistemic community of elite mathematicians and allow her to become one if she chooses to study that hard.

 

Where are you seeing these ideas take hold? What do you see happening in the world that gives you hope?

Anywhere information can be very rapidly disseminated, verified, audited and acted upon is fertile ground for stigmergy, epistemic communities and knowledge bridges. I love the way MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) forums sometimes act as a job seeking forum with employers and collaborators finding talent by watching people work in a real setting instead of relying on official certification, like musical collaborations used to result from jam sessions. I also love the local affinity groups and friendships created from those courses.

The progress that gives me hope is in the areas which strive to get more people connected to collaborative networks and more amplification to silent voices. Stigmergy has always been our most powerful collaborative method and stigmergy follows ideas, so efforts to bypass control by corporate media, politicians, thought leaders and other representatives and allow people to contribute ideas directly with their own voices are essential.

 

Your conception of government as mass collaboration has really influenced my thinking in designing for Loomio. Do you have any ideas about the practice of making this idea real for people in their everyday lives?

Governance to me is action not an organization. It is something people have to just do. It is only after governance by the people is established that politicians can be lobbied into supporting it until it makes them obsolete. My first goal is to enable every person to participate, to write software, platforms and guides and provide outreach of all kinds to help people participate wherever their interests lie.

Unofficial ministries for each system should be set up as permanent open epistemic communities regardless of what government is in power. Currently, lobby groups are sometimes formed to attempt to influence policy but what is needed are full and permanent shadow cabinets by the people. When this shadow cabinet is established and effective, there will be no need for any other. The unofficial ministries which represent the will and peer promoted expertise of the people will guide policy or the elected politicians will face the consequences. The power of the voters is in the contribution of their ideas and actions far more than their ballot vote every four years or so. Official organizations and positions can be replaced by communities which are open to all to participate in. The unofficial ministries can call their own referendums and submit their own bills to elected MP’s when needed. In many cases the involvement of elected officials is not necessary, epistemic communities can guide policy through education and participatory discussion instead of official government policy.

 

Binding Chaos maps out a pretty compelling blueprint for a new way of structuring society; can we iterate towards it? Do you have ideas about fertile places to start? Whose job is it?

We have to start everywhere. It is everyone’s job to fight for their own autonomy and their own freedom to participate where they feel most excited and fulfilled. The world right now is full of people breaking out of the boundaries set for them, whether they are joining plenums in Bosnia or autodefensas in Mexico, scaling borders between Morocco and Melilla, breaking into a US nuclear weapons plant like 85 year old Sister Megan Rice, making themselves personally responsible for feeding and sheltering homeless people like OpSafeWinter, or fighting for justice for another human like the Free Omar Khadr Now group. Every person who decides to conduct their lives in a way that makes better sense to them and refuses to accept the status quo is participating. Not all ideas will be good, but if we all try we can iterate towards something that is better. And if we all try we can’t be stopped.

 

Have you had any thoughts about tools to enable this transition? Have you seen any promising approaches?

Collaborative problem solving tools like Loomio, etherpads and many others emerging now are a great help in shaping the way we work. Our methodologies need to change, and these tools will teach the new methodologies to a great extent. We need tools which are free of corporate or centralized control, which are part of their user communities and responsive to them. Organic community cooperatives like Loomio and Lorea are wonderful examples of responsive tool development.

I talked a bit in Binding Chaos about Twitter, Klout and other social media and their tendency to replicate and exaggerate our societal tendencies towards oligarchies. Digital currencies also currently facilitate our trade economy with almost all of its flaws intact. The social influence and currency algorithms both need to be re-examined to not just replicate our old methods but create new ways of interacting and relating to each other. An expiring currency would help to create a more sharing economy. A social influence algorithm that rewarded less on attracting celebrity attention and more on boosting unheard voices would change the impact of celebrity influence. We need more experimentation with the fundamental concepts behind influence and currency.

One of the key areas I would love to see progress is in knowledge repositories as global commons. We can’t have open, permeable epistemic communities on platforms with centralized control. The news will remain as transient spectacle until we have the tools to build knowledge from that information. Wikipedia by itself is not stigmergy, it is a tightly controlled cooperative. We need innovation in data modeling tools that will scale and connect and are not under centralized or corporate control.

 

What do you think can be done to create safe spaces online? Where have you seen this work well?

We have a lot of work to do first to decide what our definition of safe is. There is a sliding scale between free speech and freedom from the hate speech which is paradoxically a form of censorship. It is interesting to see different populations gravitate to different tools for playing with public influence, amplification and interaction depending on their ideas of where the ideal position on the scale is. I don’t think comfort levels are ever going to be uniform for different people and applications. Diversity of options and freedom from outside spying and control are essential.

Despite the obvious issues with Twitter it is the most interesting place to watch for global political communication, the only place you can publicly see politicians and participants in wars communicating with their opponents. Watching Twitter fights between Israeli forces and Gazans, the M23 militia and the FARDC military in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda politicians and the son of the man they are accused of just assassinating pushes the boundaries of communication about as far as I can imagine. To see these conversations cut short by censorship would be a huge loss.

There has been a great deal of discussion about trolls on Twitter and elsewhere, but they are to some extent the bottom feeders that keep the pond clean and are very self correcting in a troll eats troll platform. In a platform designed around celebrity and majority influence the unpopular opinions are left to the trolls so they are essential. The worst offenders in the name of free speech are those posting child abuse and other violations of privacy and personal integrity. In a self governed and open platform they can be dealt with by either the majority or a vigilante minority with support from law enforcement where crime is committed. The vigilante aspect is quickly reversed and turned on the vigilante if the public feels it is not justified. If a society agrees that certain behaviour cannot have anonymity it won’t for long. It is possible to design a platform where proxy routing anonymity can be tied to social approval so it would not be up to centralized control to decide.

A society with extreme free speech is too uncomfortable for many so it is essential to have both quiet places to work and open forums uncensorable by anything but public opinion and existing laws against child abuse and similar. Also essential is permeability, especially to influential forums. We now have a permanent Nemesis in astroturfing campaigns and attempts to game influence, plus spam. We have to somehow detect and block all that white noise while still maintaining both anonymity and ease of entry. This is definitely one of the most challenging puzzles we have to deal with right now, both socially and echoed in our tools.

 

How can we support your work?

In the interest of practicing what I preach, I have tried to not trade any of my work by manufacturing scarcity or withholding effort. It is my hope that people will one day pay for value already received by using the donate buttons at the top right on my blog instead of expecting a Kickstarter type campaign or funding drives. I also hope ideas will one day travel through peer promotion and knowledge bridges, not through personal brands or corporate promotion, so I do nothing with my work besides posting it on my blog. People who donate, share my work, use Amazon to share with prisoners, talk about it, translate it and encourage others to support it, leave me free to write and are very appreciated, even more since they are actively changing the world by using the methods described in Binding Chaos.

Marianne Manilov: Grassroots Organising and Looking After Yourself

This week in our Inspiring Disruptors interview series, Alanna talks to Marianne Manilov – a grassroots organizer, media strategist and writer and cofounder of The Engage Network. Manilov’s 20-plus year career included running campaigns and programs for groups such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace International and recently helping to organise Wal-Mart workers to stand up for better rights. She is also the co-founder and former Executive Director of The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education.

Marianne 2

In what way did Occupy change organising for you?

There were big differences for me between studying distributed circles of people organising from afar, and then actually experiencing it firsthand in New York. It was enormous to watch it live, and the learnings I took from that will influence my organising for the rest of my life – especially the parts that didn’t work. There was sometimes a tension between the parts that did and didn’t work, and occasional violent events in the park, yet still hundreds got fed every day.  Just like real life.

I learned a lot about about community of care – Occupy fed people and had libraries and medics. Occupy showed that you can do some things coming from care.  There is a lot of fear about care at scale – we’ve seen this in the Wal-Mart work. We used the model of holding small circles and distributed organising in working with Wal-Mart employees, which helped develop the structures that allowed co-creativity. Quite Occupy-esque.

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy?

There is strength in co-creativity and the fact that anyone can start a small circle. So small and local can build up to really big, huge impact results.

A weakness was that everywhere the Occupy movements were following one model. There was some reflecting of corporate culture and structures, and mirroring it rather than differentiating. For example, everyone set up in parks, with a kitchen. Maybe that wasn’t necessarily the best thing for everyone to do. Because there is no longer a big glaringly obvious presence in the park, there is a misconception that Occupy has died. As the movement grows, General Assemblies may not be for everyone. We’re seeing diversification of Occupy in OccupyOurHomes and OccupyStudentDebt. There is strength in the diversity and the ability to respond to local needs, and come up with unique solutions that are best for each situation, while at the same time sharing a common identity.

Occupy hasn’t died down. It has diversified. It’s going through its natural life cycle. I’m more interested in the permaculture practice of Occupy.

What is the role of media and technology? And the interplay between the online and the offiline?

Throughout these change movements, we’re seeing a move from broadcast media to people media.

People on the ground respond faster and with more flexibility. We’re in a time of co-creation. People-led movements are what’s coming – flat organising, small circles. At Occupy, people on the ground were really important, people who were just learning about media.

Technology is great for reflecting and helping people to organise. It has increased the ability of people to find common interests. But there is always a need for a field team on the ground taking live action. Without something on the ground, it’s a different approach – you need an interplay between both.

What I like that about Loomio is that it feels like a meeting. Anyone has the ability to put out a question, and it’s also like a note-taker at the same time. At General Assembly, inherently there is a bias towards people who talk more, speak English, who are male, who are like myself from New York who are able to interrupt and are more aggressive verbally – whereas with Loomio it’s a little bit different and levels the playing field.  

What is needed to collectively practice the skill of everyday democracy?

On one level, the ability to participate in democracy is linked to needs. Sometimes the movement is too positioned towards direct action – in that way it’s not accessible to people in poverty.  With the Wal-Mart groups, we have done a lot of appreciation and positive feedback as a community – for some people, it was the first time someone had ever considered them a leader.

I think that some people feel like they don’t have a voice. The first practice of democracy is the encouragement in a circle, a network, a community that everyone has a voice, and making sure that people are told that they are valuable over and over again until they can see that for themselves.

 

You’ve talked about the very human importance of love in your work. How do you bring love into organizing and movement building?

Within any social movement, there will be the people who post on Facebook, the people who cook for everyone, the people who do daycare – it’s about naming the differences and valuing everyone at an equal level.

Within organisations, people reaching out over blocks brings people closer together. In real movements, work life and family life become one. But people get afraid that if they bring their whole selves, it will get in the way of getting ‘the goal’ or the ‘real work’ done. We need a balance between community and goals.

Too much community without goals is what you had sometimes at Occupy. Too much focus on goals and leadership without community characterizes the non-profit industrial complex, which really doesn’t get much done. The right balance is defined differently by every village, and every movement.

Can you speak to the connection between internal self-care or looking after yourself and external work looking after others?

Organising is relationship-building, and relationship-building is based in our ability to put aside our fear and love more deeply. And that’s not easy.

There will always be relationship breakdowns, so it’s a good skill to have to be the bridge rather than part of the breakdown. Working on yourself will make you a better relationship builder.

We’re on cusp of big world change, which I am feeling physically. I’ve been deepening my practice, doing more yoga and meditation.

People in the meditation and yoga fields who are afraid to take action, they need to break through and get over that. And for people who are live in action, saying they don’t have time to do deep work, they need to get over that too.

For me personally, learning to look after myself was a means of protection while growing up in challenging situations. You learn not to be afraid to sit with people who are in pain, to just be with them. I try to see the best in people, and be the voice who sees love, both intra- and inter-organisationally.

A question to ask yourself is: “Are we bonding over everything that’s broken and everyone who is messed up, or are we trying to move forward in broken systems?”

 

What is your advice for people who want to help make positive change but don’t know where to start?

Don’t think that a small team of people can’t do anything. Take one thing, figure out what is really your calling, and do that thing well in a sustained manner. There is going to be a moment in the global movement – be enough in touch with your inner voice to recognize that moment and stand up. I think everyone is called differently on that.

The most important thing is to just begin something. There is greatness in beginning a practice, and seeing where that leads. Be ready to act. The wave is here. If people move with it, it is rising and it will break. Some people are like, “Oh I don’t know, I don’t have time….” A group of seven mums with three hours a week can do something!

How do you deal with uncertainty or doubt when you’re getting tired out, and feel like it’s all too massive?

Take a break. After 27 years, I believe in my body. I want to know where something lands in my body. There’s this idea that we have to sacrifice everything for every moment, and I think you have to be really careful and listen to your body on that.

I know now where my boundary is on financial stability. If I can’t believe in sustainability for myself, what about others who are under even more financial strain? Who am I locking out because it’s not sustainable?

You definitely don’t want to be in that position where everyone’s exhausted. You should be looking at how you rest more and how are you going to take care of yourselves. When it comes down to it, try not to be too attached to the outcome. Don’t set yourself up to think that you’ve failed if you don’t get the outcome you are after.

Sometimes there are iterations. Was Occupy a success? It was an iteration of something that’s going to be enormously successful.

Jacqui Graham: Meaningful Engagement in a Large Organisation

Jacqui GrahamJacqui Graham is a social entrepreneur who believes in using her skills for social good. Driven to improve the lives of New Zealanders who experience mental illness, Jacqui founded and serves as joint chief executive of the Wise Group, one of the largest non-government providers of community-based mental health and wellness services in New Zealand and some physical and training places for people to get healthy and even getting them some protein deals of the week for USN UK. The organisation employs over one thousand staff and is regarded as one of the most sophisticated and innovative NGO service providers. Jacqui sat down with us to discuss the importance of staff engagement and why she decided to use Loomio. Continue reading Jacqui Graham: Meaningful Engagement in a Large Organisation

Inspiring Disruptors

people doing awesome stuff with technology, democracy, and collaboration

Inspiring Disruptors are at the vanguard, maximising both autonomy and collaboration. They skillfully bring out the best of technology and the best of people, forging ahead into a new kind of society. We’re following in their footsteps, building tools for a new way of organising, communicating, and cooperating.

 


 

nancy whiteNancy White shares her 25 years of experience as an expert on online communities, talking to us about technology, leadership, diversity and the evolution of how we communicate online.

 

Amanda-PalmerAmanda Palmer: musician and crowdfunding queen. We talked to Amanda about her decision to embrace the gift economy, the art of asking, and what it’s like to live in public, he also gave us some excellent recommendations of guitars for everyone wanting to follow her steps.

 

Jacqui GrahamJacqui Graham, social entrepreneur and founder and chief executive of the Wise Group – one of the most sophisticated and innovative NGO service providers – on meaningful engagement in a large organisation.

 

Marianne Manilov, grassroots organizer, writer, media strategist, and founder of the Engage Network, on Occupy, democracy, love, movement building, and self-care.

 

Binding Chaos - book by Heather MarshHeather Marsh: activist, programmer, political theorist on new models for 21st Century governance, autonomous movements around the globe, and knowledge as a commons.

 

Marama DavidsonMarama Davidson, activist and social media maven, talks social media, social justice, and the future of politics.

 

Polly LaBarre, cofounder of the Management Innovation Exchange (MiX), on collaboration, democracy, technology, and the need for a new paradigm based on trust and freedom.

 


Stay tuned – we’ll be adding to this list of incredible people over time!

Interviewing Amanda Palmer on the gift economy

Rich portrait cropped Richard D. Bartlett is one of the co-founders of Loomio. He’s also an open-source hardware enthusiast, electronic noise gadget inventor, educator and activist.

Amanda Palmer is a musician who has built a hugely successful career based on the gift economy. When you go to her webstore, you see that paying for her music is voluntary: if you’re broke – take it. if you love it, come back and kick in later when you have the money.

When Amanda came to New Zealand last year, there was a chain of events that I found pretty amazing, but were seemingly pretty typical in her extraordinary life. She had connected with a local person here in Wellington (through the internet, surprise surprise) who offered to help her put on a show. Before she even landed, there was hype through the whole city (spread, of course, through social media and word of mouth). By the time she got here, there were enough excited people that she got off the plane and led a jubilant ‘ninja parade’ through the streets. After being contacted by someone I didn’t know, I volunteered to help organise the show, and with 48 hours notice Amanda performed to a packed crowd of 150 people in my friends’ living room.

AFP Garrett_12

video & photo credit: Mark Russell @ Adventure Artists

Amanda’s attitude towards the sharing economy has deeply informed our thinking about how we resource the Loomio project. So this year, I reached back out to her, as artfully as I could, to ask if she could help us by sharing her thoughts about sharing.

 


 

You’ve proved that the gift economy can work. How did you develop the courage to trust your crowd so deeply? Was it a gradual awakening or was there a moment when you took the plunge?

I don’t think it’s ever an OMG-lightbulb moment, any more than I truly believe in a single flash moment of falling in real true love. Real love and trust always takes time and gradual getting-it-ness.

I’m currently working on a book trying to explain why all of this all just seemed obvious to me, but a lot of it had to do with coming from an arts community where everybody shares resources and energy without thinking twice, and a lot of it had to do with being a street performer and a touring punk crowd-surfer….really feeling the deep sense of “knowing” that the crowd would consistently be there, even if the individuals were changing.

 

In your TED talk, you describe how the act of asking creates a moment of connection from one human to another, which in turn means that people want to support you. That makes sense when you can connect face-to-face with someone, but how do create that sense of connection with a massive crowd? How do you extend it across time and space?

I’ve done it with blogging and twitter. It’s about taking the time and consideration to actually talk to people one-on-one, bit by bit. Contrary to conventional wisdom… I actually read the comments.

And I talk, argue, and hang out with the people of the internet instead of just stating my case, shouting into my megaphone and scampering off, the way a lot of other marketers (or musicians) do. It’s a lifestyle choice, it means actually sharing my social and real self with the online crowd, but that comes really naturally to me, I love it. It’s like constantly being in a bar full of crazy people, and that sort of thing really turns me on. It also opens me up to a lot of negativity and noise and psychic violence, and that’s just part of the deal. You have to absorb it all, or it doesn’t work.

 

The transition from “make people pay” to “let them pay” indicates a profound shift in the economic relationship between producer and consumer. Does this only work for music and software? Or do you think we could run the world on a gift economy?

I’m not that crazy. I think, in essence, once you aren’t dealing person-to-person, you’re going to have to start using symbols, and 8 billion people all magically trusting each other doesn’t sound very realistic, does it? But within communities, and between businesses and audiences and artists – absolutely.

I think the more important immediate shift in thinking is about how we can support and talk to each other without the middlemen we’ve all just taken for granted for years.

That’s where the asking, giving and receiving without awkwardness and fear could really change things, right now, because so much of it is just uncomfortableness. so many artists just won’t ask. And so many people have such a hard time talking about money – and understanding that art is a concrete thing that costs money to make. But it must be made, by someone, somewhere, or we’ll have no art.

 

You release your work under a Creative Commons license, which encourages sharing and remixing. We’ve done the same with our software (Loomio is under AGPL). What impact has this had on your work? Has it lead to any really great remixes or new collaborations?

It hasn’t much, but I’m not an electronic artist… my songs don’t beg for remixes. They kind of yell at them to leave the room: there’s only so much you can “do” with an off-tempo solo piano/ukulele and voice track, which is the sort of thing I’ve done lately – and I’ve yet to upload much stuff in its component parts. That being said: I give a lot of my music to smaller art-makers, film people, etc for free, because I’d always rather things be free than locked down. Functioning with that attitude always leads to something. It’s just not always direct. Some of the artists I know and have become friends with follow a thread you can trace seven steps back to one fan tweeting another fan of some free content. It’s all impossibly beautifully networked together.

AFP Kickstarter campaign

 

In 2012 you ran an incredibly successful crowdfunding campaign, which allowed you to release and tour a new album without the support of a record label, but also opened you up to intense scrutiny from all corners of the web. On balance, was the experience more liberating or demoralising? Is crowdfunding the democratic leveller we all want it to be, or a just a hyperactive new strain of capitalism?

Liberating, always. There’s no other way to function.

You can’t go out and share your life, work and soul, trying to figure shit out as you go along in a giant, slapdash-organized drunken love parade with all your friends… and not expect the inevitable backlash. But I stand solidly by the things I’ve done, I have no regrets. I mean, I’m a human being. On the days when I log onto the twitter and see “AMANDA PALMER IS A SUPERFICIAL FUCKING FRAUD WITH NO BACKBONE FUCK HER AND HER BULLSHIT TED TALK”, yes, I feel a bit demoralized. But there’s usually enough understanding from the rest of the gallery to make up for it, and I follow the light.

It still baffles me that people see crowdfunding as “begging” and musicians asking for subscription help as “scrounging”. It’s like: what’s the difference between giving money direct to the artist and buying a piece of plastic at Best Buy? Wouldn’t you rather deal directly with the artist, so they see the money? It’s amazing how many intelligent people can’t connect those dots.

 

Finally, what are you working on now, and how can we help?

Aw, thanks. I’m cranking away at this book, which is tentatively titled “the art of asking”, and it’s exploring all these above topics and way more. It’s funny, it started out being a book just about street performing and crowd funding and it’s wound up being much more personal… about my friendships, my marriage, and all sorts of other things that perfectly explain the headspace you have to get yourself into if you’re going to see the cyclical nature of things and release yourself into being a good asker and a good receiver, or a good giver. It’s been a crazy, personal journey for me as well. I never stop learning…everybody and everything always teaches me.

One thing I’ve learned for sure, even though it’s something I’ve been told all my life by my mentors: all beings seek liberation. Even if they don’t know it…they do, they’re like sunflowers aching to the sky. When you start looking at the street and the marketplace and all human beings that way, everything starts to make more sense.

 


 

❤ Loomio is currently practicing the ‘art of asking’ with this ambitious crowdfunding campaign, to develop software that makes it easy for anyone anywhere to participate in decisions that affect them. Find out more at http://love.loomio.org  ❤