15 Seconds of Activism

There’s been a good deal of talk already about the Morter brothers rigging the UK singles chart to upset this years winner of the X Factor show – and about how they used the internet and Facebook to do that.

It’s a fun story; it’s always fun when a little guy can beat the system and yell “motherfucker” at the guys who think they’ve got it made. But more than that, it’s actually interesting how a lot of mechanisms who only came into existence these past few years, come together to make this possible.

Most visible, there’s Facebook, the instrument for spreading the meme. But this only works because everyone is on Facebook now, and because of the culture of forwarding and sharing memes and amusing news on Facebook (and twitter) that has developed fairly recently. Then there’s iTunes, and web music shops in general. We no longer have to buy the single, instead we download just one song. This is actually a powerful enabler here. First, people don’t have to do a lot – just a few clicks in iTunes, no going out to buy a single, and the cost is low. But also, iTunes makes sure there’s music to buy, from the much spoken-about long tail. There’s no way a record company would have believed in this and made half a million singles available to buy, much less been able to produce and distribute them in time if they did. But iTunes does not have to do anything or believe in the idea – or even know about it.

But more than anything, this is a wonderful, miniature example of how movements organize on the internet. Clay Shirky talk in Here Comes Everybody about how movements and projects today, from Wikipedia to Boston Church reformers, build on the power of the aggregated effect of a lot of people, each making a very small contribution. In successful efforts there will be a few core people doing a lot, setting things in motions, drumming up support, setting direction, putting forward a vision, but what makes it work is that lots and lots of people join in, and can do so with minimal effort and cost. Wikipedia works (and grows) to a large extend because a lot of people can make just one edit to correct just one fact, with next to no effort. Ditto many, many other projects. And ditto here – social media, web shopping, digital downloads, iTunes, it all combines to make it cheap and easy for a lot of people to say “heck, yeah, I’ll join this prank”.

And all this adds up. It adds up to a very powerful instrument of you know how to play it. And it adds up to saying “we won’t do what you tell us” to the guys who thought they were in control. Because a lot of people will spend 15 seconds and a dollar to do that. 15 seconds and a dollar to be activists, just briefly. And once you aggregate that buy the millions, it’s a tremendous force.

That, I think, truly makes a merry Christmas.