Swarm Politics

These essays correspond to the six chapters of the film. They foreground the key ideas of each chapter and flesh out additional themes.
We offer the essays as commentary on the film, and hope they provide a springboard for further discussion and debate.

Swarm Politics

It was billed as the Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes. In November 2004, the election was over and Democratic Americans had plenty to feel blue about. George W. Bush, who’d stolen the Presidency four years before, waged oil war on Iraq at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, trashed international conventions and implemented draconian extensions to the powers of spy agencies at home, was back in the White House.

Conservative America was having a party. The other forty nine percent of the country, along with the rest of the world, was fighting a major depression.

James Zetlen decided to make a personal statement. He bought the domain name <sorryeverybody.com> and posted a photo of himself holding a handwritten sign that said: “Sorry world (we tried) – Half of America.”

It was supposed to be a joke. Very quickly it became something else.

James’ message struck a chord. Hits for the site started going through the roof. Soon “I’m sorry” photo submissions were flooding in from all over the country. Twenty six thousand photo submissions poured into the site over the following weeks. The faces in the photos expressed the gamut of emotions being experienced by people on the ground: anger, horror, misery, disbelief… It was a mass outpouring of passion and grief, stunning in its scale and focus. Each submission framed the message in a different way. But to the rest of the world, the chorus spoke in a single voice: “Please don’t give up on us. We tried – we really did.”

Posting photo messages online didn’t change the outcome of the US election. But for the twenty six thousand people who contributed to sorryeverybody.com, and a good proportion of the seventy five million who visited the site in following weeks, it was an empowering experience. For many, just knowing the site was there made a difference. In the wake of political defeat, it was consoling to be reminded that progressive political culture still existed in the United States of America. When people feel powerless to change their circumstances, a creative endeavour can be a hugely valuable experience. Sometimes we need to be reminded that it is still possible to think, act and create – to do something – in order to keep going at all. James’ site gave people this opportunity. Posting a photo message online was a simple, perhaps trivial, act. But the act was part of a group initiative, and knowing that that initiative existed was a source of strength for many in this unhappy hour.

The story of sorryeverybody.com illustrates how an online initiative can focus and coordinate the action and desire of a multitude of people in geographical space. It shows how, under the right conditions, a site, or series of sites, can trigger a human swarm that centres about an issue of common concern and functions as a locus of empowerment. Swarms take shape when a mass of people see that a common, creative activity will be empowering for them. Individuals gravitate towards the collaborative activity as a source of empowerment, and they participate for the hit or experience.

Sorryeverybody.com is not the only example of a swarm offensive or even the best one. The anti-globalization protests that rocked world capitals between 1999 and 2002 were a firecracker-string of swarm offensives, extinguished by the Bush administration’s war on terror. The global protests against the invasion of Iraq, in February 2003, tens of millions strong, represented the final gasp of this activity before the politics of fear sucked the life from the movement. Not all swarm offensives are political in nature. In some cases the desire to do good is enough to trigger a movement. Take, for example, the cascade of online donations to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. Or (perversely) the Facebook campaign that sent Rage Against the Machine’s song “Killing in the Name Of” to the top of the UK pops in Christmas 2009 – an act of consumer swarming that should make future-thinking corporations sit up and take notice.

The fact remains, however, that the political domain is where swarm offensives stand to have the greatest impact in years to come. Political strategists are already experimenting with mustering and harnessing human swarms as part of their grab-bag of campaign tricks. The success of Barack Obama’s Facebook-styled web 2.0 platform (mybarackobama.com) in the 2008 US Presidential election portends a new approach to political campaigning that will change the way that supporters interact with their candidate. The netroots swarmed in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign and this played a major part in sweeping Obama to victory.

It is too early to say how swarm politics will reshape the twenty first century. What we have seen thus far is only the beginning.

Welcome to the era of swarm politics.

Tim Rayner

About the authorTimothy Rayner is a writer and philosopher based in Sydney, Australia. His consultancy, Philosophy for Change, teaches practical philosophical skills for everyday life. Tim has taught philosophy at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, Australia. He recently completed 'Philosophy for Change' the book, and is writing a book on innovation.

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