Awesome Summit 2012 - Decentralized Organizations and Open Brands | MIT Center for Civic Media

Awesome Summit 2012 - Decentralized Organizations and Open Brands

Live notes from the "Decentralized Organizations and Open Brands" session at the Awesome Summit, by Rahul Bhargava, Ethan Zuckerman, Matt Stempeck and Willow Brugh.


Erhardt Graeff introduces a sesison on decentralized organizations and open brands. The Awesome Foundation thinks about themselves as an open brand, made up of independently organized chapters. They have a flexible definition of awesome - it bends to fit locale, set of trustees, and themes. There are a range of innovative strategies for handling trustees and choosing grantees. For instance, the Nova Scotia chapter rotates through 30 trustees, keeping them fresh and new, rotating through roles in the organization. There is a lack of hierarcny and legal structure within Awesome, which allows for more focus on the fun of it all! They have created the Institute of Higher Awesome Studies (IHAS) to serve as the exoskeleton of the organization (@higherawesome). They try to address questions like

  • What if a chapter needs tax-exempt status to partner with another entity?
  • What happens if a chapter or trustee goes rogue? Is someone distorting or stretching the brand? How do we protect against this, or do we assume that obvious rogue is obvious?
  • What if a TV show tries to trademakr the Awesome Foundation - the LA chapter has been pitching the Awesome foundation, had a pilot accepted

One answer is that maybe we don't need to solve problems we don't have yet. The Berkman Center has written a memo and a draft licensing agreement, just in case. It includes language to the effect of "IHAS reserves the right to determine, in its sole discretion, what is Awesome and not Awesome"... which Erhardt mentions sounds kind of not awesome.

Bryce Dwyer - Sunday Soup Chicago

Sunday Soup generates money for cool projects. They gave out their first grant late in 2007. Sunday Soup is a premise, more than a brand - an idea that people are willing to embrace and build on. They started off by inviting people to a storefront in west Chicago. They charge $5 for a bowl of soup, solicit grant proposals, and give out $100-200 to support small grants. In 2008 they found themselves overwhelmed by the weekly dinners and moved to once a month events (charging $10 for soup and more). In 2009, they moved out of storefront space.

All the founders had been arts administration grad students, and this gave them a chance to talk about the problems of arts funding. They saw a lack of small scale, unrestricted funding. Particularly they saw a lack of funding for projects that didn't fit well in existing categories. They wanted Sunday Soup to be something others could take up and adapt. The teams presented at Democracy in America in NYC in 2008 to share the idea. The model has now cropped up as STEW in Baltimore, FEAST (funding emerging art through sustainable tactics) in Brookly, STAKE in Philly. They held a meeting in 2010 for this network of people working on food-based microgranting. They couldn't agree on many things, but did start a website, allowing people working on similar projects to join together. They also held an international day of soup in 2011. This led to the creation of a poster to help people start their own sunday soups.

The sunday soup in Chicago was on hiatus from 2009 - 2012, but has recently restarted. Now it is organized quarterly. The first grantee is Sarah Ross, who does a prison-based arts project.

Benjamin "Mako" Hill -

Mako studies the social structure of free software communities. He is a fellow at the MIT Center for Civic Media. He thinks a lot about decentralized brands in the free software movement. As Richard Stallman, coined 20+ years ago, free software definition allows four core freedoms - use for any purpose, study and modify, share and distribute, collaborate together. Free software started out with this clear definition - defining free software is a defining aspect of the free software movement. Stallman's original definition is a big overbroad - Debian has offered ten guidelines. Open Source came about as a term when people took the Debian guidelines and made them more precise.

Mako's has a definition of free cultural works - used by the Wikimedia foundation to determine if a work is open enough to incorporate into wikimedia. The effort to define freedom has created a big tent with clear boundaries - capable of including anarchists and arch-capitalists, like IBM. Mako says that what we're doing that can include strange bedfellows. Open Source attempted to take out the service mark on a Open Source mark, but the government wasn't willing to grant it because it was so general. This doesn't mean people don't defend the mark. People attack projects for not being sufficiently open source. For instance, Cryptocat got slammed for barring commercial use.

The problem is not that people are misusing your brand. It's that not enough people are using your brand. You should create a brand that people care enough about to want to abuse. Any attempts to block abuse of the brand will probably limit your brand's success, and also will likely fail. For instance, debian commissioned a logo. They selected two: an official use logo and an open use logo. It turns out that the offical use logo - which needs permission to use - is never used. The open use logo is incredibly widely used. The open use logo one has been abused, but has spread widely and wildly.

Becky Hurwitz - @beckyhurwitz

Becky is the community outreach coordinator for the Center for Civic Media. She has been involved with the technology community around the Occupy movement. Becky thinks hard about social movements and decentralized organizing. Becky thinks that there is a common ground between decentralized organizations and social movements. It is possible for us to learn from more structured movements like labor. Occupy was decentralized as a deliberate tactic - the very nature of the movement was independent geographically, which allowed multiple different camps in various locations. It began from "Bloombergville" with NYC activists, and was further catalyzed by the Adbusters call to action. Very soon a question popped up - how do these camps communicate?

The Interoccupy group set up a voice and web based call between occupy encampments. As people started talking, the sense that we could build stronger ties through better communication came about. Soon the Occupy Bus Tour tried to help unite encampments in the northeast US. At that time the New York camp seemed to have a monopoly on media attention, and donations. Other camps were asking for help and for skillshares. The decentralized movement had a question of aligning visions and values. It was pretty easy to send Occupy into a tailspin over values, with questions like whether the movement was explicitly nonviolent or not. They did have common grounds like open education. There was a "spring training" to train 10k americans in nonviolent direct action (though not directly created by the Occupy camps it involved many members).

Becky has worked on connections with labor. She works with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, made up of over three dozen domestic workers groups. They are a coalition of smaller organizations, but have pulled together into a campaign for domestic workers rights. They are very different from organizations like the SEIU, which have a national organizatoin and local chapters with limited autonomy. Sometimes the national SEIU will take over the locals. Decentralized networks can work in very different, more indenendent ways.



Q&A opens on this question of common and shared values. Bryce tells us that he can't promise us that all Sunday Soups share exactly the same values. But they're often working on the same set of issues - scarce funds, very few funds for early-stage projects. However the environment can be very different in different places, for instance in the UK they are reacting to sudden cuts in arts funding. Becky notes that Occupy ended up being deeply decentralized, including over serious issues like whether the movement was violent or nonviolent, and what the public stance on the issue was. In this case, value disagreement led to something of a firestorm, and became a way of discrediting and undermining a movement. Mako identifies a community who would need to buy into a definition of open cultural works. Not everyone has to agree - if you search for unanimity, you'll only get very broad, unhelpful definitinos. You may need to find enough agreement, not total agreement

Mako suggests that once you have a set of principles behind an organization, you can engage in selection of new leaders. It's a mistake to build organizations that are extensions of a single leader's personality and tendencies. Becky suggests that leaders within Occupy looked a lot like traditional leaders - you need charisma and energy to develop a constituency for your idea. Having a shared cultural background makes collaboration easier at the outset, but one of the great things about working within a large, popular movement is that there are opportunities to involve a diverse range of peoplein the movement. Bryce tells us that he's been very conscious of trying to build a diverse base for Sunday Soup. This means doing outreach to people who don't look like you to apply for grants and support the movement. The Sunday Soup Chicago movement is facing a possible leadership transition - it's possible they'll continue with the founders taking on most of the organizational responsibility, but the hope is to start transitioning to a broader leadership team.

Erhardt offers his final "monster" question - how valuable is the brand in recruiting new people to a movement? Sunday Soup, for instance, doesn't have common naming around chapters - Brcye has to say "food-based microgrants" to describe the space. Bryce tells us that the brand needs to be open to allow people to have ownership of their projects. Erhardt quotes an occupy organizer that sees Occupy emerging as a brand - "the good news is that the idea is now living on its own, but there are concerns about corporate caputre of the idea". Becky suggests that corporate capture happened most through having occupy emerge as a news event. Independent of that news event, it's very hard for people to know how to join and engage with the movement. Erhardt refers to Red Hat's fedora trademark, which is a much more traditional mark than Debian's swirl. Mako notes that firm-based projects often work in more traditional ways, while other projects are far more open. Mako points out that Democratic and Republican are both open trademarks - you can create your own local Repubican group without permission.

Sam asks about the adoptiion of tactics by movements. It's cool to give in a certain way in a New York-based giving circle, but it's somehow bigger when it becomes an Awesome Foundation project. Mako suggests that grants often act as legitimators and amplifiers - the Nobel includes a bunch of money, but way more prestige, The brand association has a great deal of power. Bryce suggests that putting together a dinner and projects gives participants the best of both, an event that's cooler than getting together for a meal or giving out grants.

Wirh occupy, Becky tells us, the more people in the streets, the more likely we would be to receive media attention. As a result, it was exciting to let others adopt and extend the brand. This also aligned with the assumption that inequality was a function of lack of participation - more participants should mean less equality. Andrew Slack suggests that occupation didn't seem sustainable, but that the narrative of the 99% might survive. Now that the 99% spring is over, Andrew wonders, have we reached peak occupy? Is lack of attention to occupy a function of leaderlessness of the movement? Becky suggests that occupy is moving into smaller groups, some of which have been effective, like Occupy the SEC, which organized commentary on a new banking rule. Groups are organizing around foreclosure defense. Furthermore, occupy is now leading to the organization of new networks that may be powerful moving forward. As for the 99% narrative, it's hard to know what's going to happen - the smaller groups don't seem heavily invested in that narrative

Erhardt asks Mako about dying open source movements. Mako brings up Inkscape, a vector drawing project kitten Voltron" that is IHAS, and an amorphous blob of rogue funders, who are the different chapters. There seems to be a difficult-to-strike balance between appropriate structure, and the emergence of bureacracy. How do organizations navigate this tension between too much and too little structure? Bryce explains that it's better to do less and not burn out than it is to push yourself beyond the limits of your abilities. Becky notes that it was pretty tough to sustain the Occupy encampments - at a certain point, you need to move beyond day to day confrontation and towards building a better future. Bryce suggests that setting a set of expectations might be a better idea that setting up a bureacratic checklist - there may be better ways that simply reproducing existing systems. Mako notes that very few free software projects survive for ten or fifteen years. The movement is based around a set of principles, not around a set of tools that need to be built. Building this way creates creative space for movements to grow and evolve.

A question from the audience puts forward the notion that new organizational structures are emerging that may meet some of the needs of these creative organizations- are any appropriate for movements like Awesome or Occupy? Mako reassures us that he's involved with conventional startups and NGOs, but that he has a bias for smaller organizations, with fewer than 30 people on staff. Becky points to the National Domestic Worker Alliance, independent groups that come together around legislation to protect domestic day workers. Interoccupy is trying to become a 501c3, and Organize to Occupy sits within another NGO. Bryce tells us that his group consciously decided not to become a 501c3, in part because they didn't want a mission statement - they preferred questions to answers. Still, this has tricky implications - he's serving food and alcohol without a city license, and collecting funds that need to be reported on his personal taxes. There may need to be structures to make it easier to handle these sorts of open questions.