Crowds, Chaos, & the Competitive Edge

“Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.”

— liberal Egyptian friend of Thomas L. Friedman

I’ve been fascinated by Facebook’s IPO and its skewed valuation. I’ve written here about its mission to connect people, its open platform, use as a diplomatic tool and how this correlates to jazz and its similar use. Today, I’m thinking about connecting, collaborating, and crowds. While jazz encourages collaboration, it’s alleged Facebook does not… but can it? What is the relationship between connecting and collaborating? Are crowds manageable and if so, to what extent, and what are the consequences?

The role of social media in transforming dictatorships is well documented. By raising awareness and creating a sense of urgency, Facebook users in the Arab world were able to voice collective opinions about their governance and effect change. Yet, the crowds that connected to topple dictatorships have been unable to answer the bigger more prescient question: What next? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army, relatively small groups, are well-organized and will likely make decisions on next steps. In the US, the Electoral College streamlines the power of the masses and usurps the popular vote to decide Presidential elections.

But aren’t crowds the essence of democracy? Don’t the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Army, and Electoral College create oligarchies by representing (or seeming to represent) the masses who fought and died for democracy?

Meritocracy

Chris Hayes has an interesting take on this. In a really smart discussion about meritocracy in education, Chris touts the benefits of selecting the “best and brightest” from the masses through a process that is open and transparent. Those deemed exceptional receive specialized training and are tracked for enhanced opportunities because they represent society’s best. Chris disrupts the notion of hierarchy based on merit by using several key examples and reveals how centralized power is born from an otherwise democratic process that essentially reinforces the status quo.

Do open systems and crowds naturally or logically lead us to centralized power and oligarchies?

Facebook & Jazz

Facebook’s dilemma seems two tiered: how to determine its valuation and how to monetize crowds. With more than 900 million users and room to grow globally, advertisers and investors have a difficult task at hand. The growth strategy needed seems to be one of moving from connecting to collaborating and here’s where jazz can be instructive.

Connecting to jazz can be as simple as passively listening to music on an iPod but collaborating is different. Active listening – engaging the music through foot tapping, finger snapping, head bopping and the like – integrates audience members/listeners into shared time with musicians. Physical response is a way of acknowledging and validating each other’s presence; it’s collaboration, the ultimate “buy in.” In second line parades, in particular, the energy of cooperation has both magnitude and direction; collaboration is compounded because random people from various points – crowds – convene, enter into, and act upon the acknowledged shared time in a coordinated way along a designated path. The crowd eventually disseminates, becomes random again, and moves onward to the next parade.

Music experienced in shared time reduces, momentarily, the chaos of crowds by coalescing, harnessing, and channeling the energy. Individual and collective movements become relatively predictable in and around the rhythm. Of course, this is why algorithms are important (but insufficient because humans are emotional beings – think of the disruptive nature of the blues — with no finite number of predictable responses) in data analysis. But for now…

Controlling the chaos of crowds is meaningful for jazz, Facebook, and democracy. Swing jazz with its mechanically efficient time signature, is an important step in ordering action. However, this is not the Pied Piper, leading his passive followers to doom. This is a Second Line parade, a dynamic ordering of people where participants are meaningfully and creatively engaged in shared time for a specific purpose. The band and audience members need each other to sustain the forward momentum.

Similarly, in Facebook, the power of the crowd lies in its differentiation realized collectively. Administrators of Facebook Pages create spaces where people can convene and actively and meaningfully engage one another around a common topic, event, goal, or activity. In democracy, the voices of the people must be integrated into the governing party lest questions of legitimacy arise. There should be active engagement, not merely representation, between members. In each case – jazz, Facebook, democracy –individuals have the power to disrupt order despite organized efficiency (think metronomic swing, timelines, status updates, “likes”, and Six Sigma).

The voices of the people are integrated into an ensemble (if the sound is smooth) or by way of collective improvisation (if it’s edgy) – no single entity or small group reigns. According to Mc Kinsey Quarterly, this type of interaction “requires a more direct, personal, and empathetic exchange than a traditional town hall meeting allows.” It’s team building or creating a band.

The Competitive Edge?

This emerges over time as a result of differentiated focused action. Get inside the crowd; integrate into the masses and change your vantage point and your steps accordingly. Crowds don’t walk in straight lines; they are nimble, agile, and ready for change. Beware of systems of efficiency because these do not take into consideration the volatility of humans. Structures that don’t bend, break (NOLA levees and Hurricane Katrina)

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