The Flashmob Enterprise

In 1973, science fiction author Larry Niven wrote “Flash Crowd,” a novella that explored the consequences of inventing an instantaneous, practically free teleportation booth that could take one anywhere on Earth in the blink of an eye. An unexpected consequence of this technology was that whenever anything newsworthy occurred, tens of thousands of people would immediately descend on the location of the news, leading to disorder and confusion.

A modern analogue to a Flash Crowd is the Flashmob, which is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and pointless act for a brief time, then disperse. Notable examples include pillow fights and dance sequences. In the case of Niven’s novella, both the teleportation as well as global instantaneous news are technology enablers of the phenomenon. Flashmobs, however, only require coordinated communication. The Internet clearly simplifies the formation of Flashmobs, but a simple phone tree would also work almost as efficiently.

A similar pattern, one that didn’t involve in-person activity, was Operation Payback, the hacktivist attacks on MasterCard, PayPal, and others in the wake of the WikiLeaks scandal. The group, known as Anonymous, orchestrated DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on their targets. By all accounts, Anonymous wasn’t an established, formally organized group, but rather a loose collection of individuals who found each other online and coordinated the attacks on an impromptu basis.

We see similar patterns on all large social media platforms. Ad hoc, self-organizing activities are now quite common on Facebook and Twitter, for example. A few weeks ago, it was the “change your profile picture to a cartoon to fight child abuse.” Tens of millions of people played along, although there was no indication how such mass action would achieve the stated goal.

There are many differences among these examples, along two axes: goal-oriented vs. pointless, and centrally planned vs. viral. But they all have one essential property in common: they are all self-organizing. Once the underlying framework for the action and the enabling technology are in place, then the overall behavior of the people involved takes on “a life of its own.” This self-organizing behavior of crowds is the essential commonality among these various patterns.

From our perspective, the most fascinating aspect of this behavior is the unpredictable impact of technology. Flashmobs may have been possible using only telephones, but today’s ultra-connected city dweller is far more likely to participate. Furthermore, we are only now beginning to scratch the surface of the power of massive social networks. With self-organization comes unpredictability.

The fact that technology-enabled social networks self-organize in interesting ways, however, is itself predictable, even though the resulting behavior may not be. Such self-organization can therefore serve as a powerful tool, although as with most powerful tools, it is also dangerous in the wrong hands.

In fact, technology-enabled social networks will self-organize, whether you want them to or not. They will exhibit unpredictable behavior, regardless of anything the participants or an outside controller might do to stop or control the behavior. Fighting such self-organization is a futile exercise. Instead, we must learn to understand it, and leverage it to achieve our intended goals.

How does this apply to you? Well, when I wrote “technology-enabled social network” you probably thought of Facebook and Twitter, and yes, those qualify. But what about any modern enterprise? Any bank, or government organization, or insurance company? What is an enterprise but a technology-enabled social network, when you get right down to it?

On the one hand, this self-organization is a threat to the enterprise. Bernard Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme is one obvious example. Such a scheme cannot work if only a handful of people participate. Its entire premise is predicated on the participation of hundreds or thousands of people, interacting with each other and leveraging technology to facilitate communication and other aspects of business, all while being oblivious to the fraud.

But on the other hand, the self-organization of social networks is also an opportunity. Operation Payback gave us a taste of the possibilities. How can your organization leverage this principle to achieve its goals? Can the people in your organization self-organize by leveraging social media and other technology, but instead of scheduling an impromptu pillow fight, actually work to address a strategic challenge your organization faces?

For the architects in our audience, this thought exercise should prompt a fundamental question: how should you architect your enterprise to capitalize on the self-organizing power of your organization, while mitigating the risks inherent in such behavior? If you think of yourself as an enterprise architect but you haven’t yet asked yourself or your team this question, then you have yet to take the first step on the road to building the sort of organization who will thrive in the ZapThink 2020 world.