Leadership in the era of Wirearchy

Eric Garland Social trends 13 Comments

I have witnessed the future of leadership in the Twitter timeline of Charles Wade.

Mr. Wade, who goes by @akacharleswade, has been a leader and chronicler of the Ferguson movement since the very beginning. Today, he had a salvo of blistering critiques for Oprah Winfrey after she made the following statement as to her lack of involvement with the justice movement:

“What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ “

Now, anybody who has spent 18 seconds on Twitter since August would look askance at that statement, judging it at the very least peculiar, if not totally clueless. There has been an entire generation of American leaders born out of the past several months and they have been vocal, precise, and relentless about exactly what they want: the rule of law, accountability for law enforcement, a redesign of government institutions to fall in line with democratic principles. And, y’know, not to be shot a dozen times for carrying a BB gun in Wal-Mart.

Mr. Wade has been at the forefront of this movement, and his commentary reminds me of just how different the next generation of leaders looks, thinks, and acts. Check his Twitter for the voluminous response, but the main points were:

“Hi @oprah, how are you? Well, I’m sure. Charmed life you must live. But anyways, I’m writing to you re: your “leadership” comments…That when something is easily apparent, @oprah, you media types tend to say it’s not there when most often, it’s just that YOU missed it…The “leadership” it seems you’re looking for, @oprah, seems to be more about elevating a figurehead. Figurehead is a leader w/o real power…The “leadership” it seems you’re looking for, @oprah, seems to be more about elevating a figurehead. Figurehead is a leader w/o real power.Real leadership looks like @bdoulaoblongata, @Oprah. Real leadership looks like @2LiveUnchained. Real leadership looks like @SheenBean32. Real leadership, @Oprah, looks like @DhorubaShakur. Real leadership looks like @Blklivesmatter and @Blackstarjus”

This is a truly networked generation coming to the fore in American life, and its effects will be poorly interpreted by those looking for 20th century models. Oprah claims she’s waiting for a single, charismatic leader with an organizational model and skill that would be hypothetically like Dr. King (but which would practically be closer to Al Sharpton.) But Wade counters that this isn’t how movements come together in the networked era. Power in the 20th century was mostly gathered around individuals who could elevate themselves within institutions. Power in the 21st century, as wielded by this new generation of minds, is about neither institutions nor individuals. You want a major leader to emerge? “What for?” asks the new generation, “to get a TV show and go on book tour?” You want an institution to come out of this, with office space in DC and a staff, one that can edit press releases? “Don’t hold your breath,” says the new generation, “All those institutions end up thinking like each other eventually, good, bad, or indifferent.”

The leadership this time is emerging in the form of Internet memes, and it travels from individual to individual on a free and open network. Leadership can be shared. It isn’t zero sum. You can be a leader for an hour and then return to your normal status. It can be in multiple places at once. That’s how the exhausted little town of Ferguson, Missouri ended up as the center of a global movement – because this isn’t the same game as the 20th century at all. It’s agile and mobile, wirearchy instead of hierarchy.

The last generation of leaders, no matter how influential, will be at pains to understand this evolution; so goes the passage of time and the emergence of radical new ideas. The last generation will be looking for the old trappings of power; that was the best way to understand social dynamics in past decades, after all. This is how Oprah, an extremely bright woman with limitless resources, can manage to miss the new generation of civil rights leaders. They don’t put out press releases – they put out tweets and vines and Instagram pictures. They aren’t polished or business-like or organizationally savvy in the traditional way. They aren’t politicians. They are individuals and citizens, young and old. And if you want to know where they are leading us, turn that TV off now – it’s happening online. And it’s happening their way. And they aren’t going to ask for your permission or your opinion. But they could use your help.

  • Bill

    Other than talk, what exactly have these @-people done?

    Oh, and protesting doesn’t count. Millions of people marched against the Iraq War. Still happened.

    You can say, “X is bad,” and everyone may agree, but if X is backed by entrenched, moneyed interests, X is still going to happen no matter what you say. Talking on Twitter won’t change the laws and conditions that allow X to happen.

    Tell me how these @-people are going to change things without getting elected, joining the institutions and changing them, and getting people with money and power—like Oprah—to help them.

    • “Protesting doesn’t count.” Really? It got women the vote and passed the first Civil Rights Act that ended the majority of Jim Crow laws, so I think it’s got a pretty good track record.

      • Bill

        Any examples that aren’t 50-100 years old?

        • Scott Race

          I hope you see the fallacy in that statement.

          • Bill

            Sentences that end in question marks are not statements, they are questions.

            So let me restate the question: is peaceful protest always an effective medium of societal change? Or have the entrenched forces learned to successfully counter this tactic over the years?

            I don’t see much evidence in recent years that protests have changed much of anything. Protesters are now not so much brining knives to gunfights as chatter to tank fights.

          • Scott

            I suppose nits become fleas, so thank you for picking my grammar nits.

            I myself had doubts about the power of protest in the modern world until the Arab Spring and the protests for Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Media hegemony makes protest seem impotent, but that is shown to be a thin veneer obscuring the new power – which is very real – enabled through modern networks. A movement can be coordinated from a million twitter accounts more efficiently than from a single march or a daily tv news outlet.

          • Bill

            It remains to be seen whether Arab Spring effected lasting change in any of those countries. One could argue that Egypt ended up back where it started.

            As for this summer’s protests, I think they prove my point—this movement lacks the discipline to carry out lasting societal change—not least, the discipline to prevent the protest from becoming violent.

            Contrast two other recent protest movements: The Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street. The Tea Party was cleverly coordinated behind the scenes to galvanize a political base to vote for candidates that were heavily backed by the coordinators, and over the course of a few years they were able to take both House and Senate (while convincing the media that the “extremists” had been vanquished by “establishment Republicans,” who “vanquished” them by co-opting their positions). Occupy, by contrast, eschewed coordination, elected nobody, and vanished from the collective consciousness.

            Long-term political organization takes discipline. I remain skeptical as to whether the “Tweet then move on” crowd has staying power.

            Hope I’m wrong.

          • Good discussion, guys. Hey, can we talk timescale? I recorded this speech from British Parliament – the first ever call for the abolition of the slave trade by William Wilberforce. It was 43 years between the time of this speech and the actual abolition of slavery. This things take time, and every social action has a consequence. They build up. They change minds, however slowly.


          • Bill
    • Scott Race

      With voter turnout in the 20-30% range, all they, all we, really have to do is give the 70-80% of voters a reason to be active. Protests show the powerless that they can be powerful.

      • Bill

        Our local congressman, who wants the Ten Commandments posted on every public building but couldn’t name half of them to Stephen Colbert (and didn’t seem to understand that Colbert was making fun of him), runs unopposed every two years. There’s never even a “protest” candidate.

        I don’t want a “powerless figurehead,” I want someone to vote for. Someone to give money to. Hell, someone that *Oprah* can give money to.

        • Scott

          Ah, my language was a bit imprecise. When I say, “…70-80% of voters a reason to be active,” I implied that they should just vote. What I meant is that they need a reason to be active in the political process. This means everything from voting (less important), to petitioning their representatives directly (better), to seeking elected office (even better).

  • jonhusband

    For better and for worse, interconnected and networked public opinion is becoming a new source of power.