First Followers

There’s something I wanted to tell you, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it was. You know the feeling? It’s right on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t spit it out. Everyone’s probably experienced this, but when it happens, all you can say about it is that it’s an annoyance, because what you really wanted was to free the thought that was stuck, so you could get it out and get on with whatever it was you were trying to do. The thing is, that moment is critically important, and all we want is for it to go away. Well, don’t. Not yet, anyway, because that’s the key to how anything gets done, how movements are born, and how the world is changed.

In April 2013, Rob Kall of OpEdNews wrote, “Sometimes small acts make huge things happen… you never know whether the something that YOU do could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the action that shifts the power and becomes the tipping point.” Rob’s words reminded me of Derek Sivers’ TED talk from 2010, and the video he showed that demonstrated how movements begin: it’s not the leader that makes them happen, but the first follower. They also reminded me of Mark Buchanan’s 2001 book, “Ubiquity“, which focused on the critical state from which unpredictably large actions arise, and of “Cascade“, a short story I’d written in 2008 about the difficulty of warning people about such events. After reading the comments to Rob’s piece, I added my own, noting the power of first followers, and got on with my day.

That was six months ago. This morning, Mr. Kall invited me to expand on that comment about first followers and unpredictable event cascades. As it happens, I had returned to this thought just last month, in a short story called “Bait“, so his adding that straw was enough to get me to spit out the thought on my tongue. And it was this: Immediacy is not important.

The critical state that Mark Buchanan wrote about is everywhere, including our language. Rob alluded to it with his remark about that last straw. The camel may be on the verge of collapse, and it wouldn’t take much to bring it down, but it’s not the weight of that straw which causes its fall. Each small nudge may have the potential to trigger the camel’s downfall, but there’s no way to predict which one it will be.

Imagine a steep pile of sand. The vibration of your footsteps or the nudge from a passing breeze is enough to cause one grain to slip against the next. If that second grain nudges a third, and so forth, you might notice a small change in one part of the pile. Another grain causes a tiny slide elsewhere on the pile, and then it’s still again. Because the critical state is chaotic, there is no way to predict how much of an effect each of these slipped grains will have. Each grain gets a chance at the lottery. But then, one of the grains gets a winning ticket. When it slips, and others are jostled, the reaction continues, and the vibration from your footstep brings down a large portion of the pile.

That’s how avalanches happen, regardless of whether the particles are sand, snow or boulders. With physical systems such as these, people with the right training and tools can recognize when a landslide or avalanche is immanent, and take action to mitigate the damage it might cause. One way to do this is to intentionally trigger a slide where and when it won’t cause havoc, in order to relieve the stresses that had kept the hillside in the critical state. But these events are all well-understood, even if they are not predictable, because they involve physical objects such as snow, sand and rock. But what happens when living beings are involved? What happens when it’s people?

When we think of leaders, we unconsciously make assumptions about the relationship between that person and those who follow, and about the communication needed to enforce such a relationship. Typically, this involves some sort of command and control structure that enables the leader to direct the activities of the others. In some situations, the leader rules by force, and uses force to stay in power. In others, leadership is an elected office, and emotional manipulation of the voters is used to get re-elected. But neither of these are how movements operate. These are top-down structures. Movements arise from within, or as Rob Kall puts it, bottom-up. And some movements, like the IWW and Occupy Wall Street, intentionally avoid having leaders.

Yet, we also see what appears to be leadership in the animal kingdom, even though the sophisticated communication protocols that we assume must be required do not exist. Take birds, for example. When they fly in vee formations, is the one in front their leader? If it were, wouldn’t that bird remain in charge? But that’s not what you see if you watch migrating birds in flight. From time to time, a bird breaks formation. Most of the time, nothing else happens, and the bird slips back into the line. Occasionally, a few other birds follow suit, and the vee takes on a ragged appearance for a while, with multiple points. And then those birds drift back into position. Less frequently, a bird breaks rank and enough others join it to create a second vee, which grows in  number until it is the primary formation, and the bird that had led the other vee slips into line. Although those two birds were at the front of their flock, neither was really the ‘leader’ in the sense that we usually think about. Rather, they had followers.

What’s different when people are involved is that we can be consciously aware of the relationships that we have with others, and we manage these relationships by imagining ourselves and others to be filling the roles in narratives that we exchange with one another. As children, we participate in a narrative which places us in the care of adults or other caregivers. When we play, we join our playmates in other narratives that we either make up as we go, or have learned from stories we’ve encountered. We play at being at war, or at being a family, or at being on an adventure. As we mature, we spend all of our time in one narrative or another, being in the role of child, student, patient, worker, parent, and boss. For as long as we restrict ourselves to being in such narratives, life is largely predictable.

One very powerful narrative describes the roles of leader and follower. The strength of this narrative is partially a matter of culture, but it has been used to build empires which can use force to pen the population into the role of follower. And yet, even as powerful as this narrative may be, its strength still varies from person to person. For some, the entire universe is driven by a deity that fills the role of the ultimate leader. If such a person were to fill some less exalted leadership role, it would still be as a follower of one or more levels of higher leader. And because the world that such people experience is structured in this way, they insist that even those who do not subscribe to their views is nevertheless subject to the will of their leadership hierarchy. For others, however, the roles of leader and follower are more flexible. These people can more easily accept the idea that another person’s understanding of the world is as valid that theirs, and respect this difference. And again, this is not how movements work.

All of which brings me back to my comment about that first follower. Here’s the situation. Someone decides to step outside of the role of dutiful follower and do or say something different. In the video that Derek Sivers showed, it was a shirtless guy who stood up in the park and started to dance. Like the birds in that flock, everyone else was behaving as they were expected to in that environment. Some were sitting and chatting or reading, some were throwing a frisbee or playing with a pet. Metaphorically, they were all ‘staying in line’. And that could have been that, except for one thing: another person chose to join him. After several others joined the frolic, he was like the bird that drew a few others into a second, smaller vee. As more people gathered in the frolic, their actions began to appear more acceptable to the others, inducing them to escape the roles they had taken as sedate visitors to the park, and become part of this new group. But none of them would have done this if the shirtless dancing man had not been joined by that second person.

In human terms, a social event cascade occurs when the ‘odd bird’ who steps out of line hits the jackpot, and the pent-up restlessness of the people is released. That’s how a movement arises. Putting yourself up as a ‘leader’ does not make you one, as much as some members of the US Congress would like to think it does. Only followers can do that, and it can only happen if that restlessness is sufficient to have put the population into a critical state.

I started this essay by saying I had something to tell you, and that it was on the tip of my tongue. That feeling, the insubstantial sense that you know something but can’t put your finger on it, is critically important. It signals that your mind has reached the critical state with regards to that particular idea, but the avalanche of neural activity that makes you aware of what it is has yet to happen. You can almost taste it. It’s not yet real. And then something happens — a random fluctuation in the ionic potential between two nerves, perhaps. One nerve fires, and then another. Soon, a thought emerges at high speed, and you can finally ‘spit it out’. That’s what it feels like when those followers create a leader in their midst. You’ve experienced it. You know it intimately, but you’ve always ignored it. But now it’s out in the open, where you can examine it. What you felt inside during that moment before the thought hit is what you need to be on the lookout for in the world around you. When you find it, you’ll know it, because it will feel familiar, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it. But when you do, look around. Something’s about to happen. But it will have to be triggered. And that small nudge could very easily be something that you do simply because you’ve recognized that you are in the midst of a critical situation.

Which reminds me… That insight that I needed to spit out — that immediacy is not important? I’d like to thank Rob Kall for getting that thought unstuck. By returning to my comment after six months and suggesting that I expand on it, he showed me that it doesn’t matter if the words or deeds you’ve decided are worth following are months or even years old, or if the person who said or did it is dead and buried. You can still follow in their footsteps. You can still transform them into the leader they never sought to be in life. Of course, that’s a double edged sword, because it’s just as easy to choose to follow Howard Zinn in speaking out about the value of popular movements as it is to follow someone who has been reviled in the press for revealing state secrets. What you start might even get some traction. You never really know.

P. Orin Zack
Renton, WA — Oct 17, 2013

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