OuiShare: a modern cult

Always hopeful for something – some event, something – to add to the gaiety of life in this interval consisting of things that do not add to the gaiety: Trump, Brexit, unaffordable housing. Nothing for ages and then, all of a sudden: OuiShare. Two OuiShare ‘connectors’ visited my workplace earlier this week, to ‘facilitate’ with us (I had not invited them; somebody else had). What is OuiShare? Well, you may remember that in Season 5 of Mad Men, Paul joins Hare Krishna, and no one sees it coming:

Cults of the 1960s piggybacked on popular novelties of their era: trips to India, sex, alternatives routes to transcendence. The passage of time has left Krishna followers looking perhaps a bit more distinctive than they’d ideally like, but look at what the Beatles were wearing back in the day:

At root, cults have an offer, and the offer is always warm, inviting, positive. Who could not want? A modern cult of the 2010s will naturally ally itself with modern positivity: technology, sustainability, the sharing economy, entrepreneurship, diversity, companies without hierarchies, a world without borders, a better politics. Enter OuiShare, with its heart-shaped logo:

“OuiShare connects people and accelerates projects for systemic change. We experiment with social models based on collaboration, openness, and fairness. Our mission is to build and nurture a collaborative society by connecting people, organizations and ideas around fairness, openness and trust.”

You think, yes, all good, now can you be more specific? How do you ‘experiment with social models’? Is it with software or something else? Who do you experiment on? Do you have examples, case studies, peer-reviewed papers? Is there ethical oversight? Are you partnered, perhaps, with any universities? And this is where the cultishness starts to shine through. There aren’t any case studies or journal papers, there are no higher education affiliations, there is no ethical oversight; there are only vague ‘our values’ statements, the Ouishare ‘magazine’, uninformative think pieces on Medium, links to TED talks (by others), pictures of young happy people being sociable. You enter this reflecting chamber for a while only to stumble out a while later having grasped nothing. It becomes a relief to turn to your favourite news site and see simple reports; facts and events. Brexit. Trump.

Cults have hierarchies; circles of involvement. They have novices, initiates, and somewhere at the centre, a founder and his or her close circle. OuiShare has this feature. ‘Friends’ are people who might give them a mention. ‘Members’ have signed up, but only minimally; they have given personal details and possibly a small monetary contribution. ‘Connectors’ are fully involved; these are OuiShare’s foot soldiers who carry recruiting, event organising and fundraising obligations in addition to whatever business consultancy services they manage to sell; as far as I can tell, they are treated as independent freelancers even though – and perplexingly – invoicing is handled centrally. Many of their activities are scripted. You become a Connector when you satisfy a recondite ‘333 rule’. ’Core Connectors’ run the organisation, although OuiShare – note – is a flat ‘emergent organisation’ with no hierarchy. Or is it? There is some doubt as to whether the Core Connector role exists.

Cults also feature obscure terminology and revealed concepts. This, for me, is where OuiShare is at its most fascinating and entertaining. Trendy and more or less meaningful language – ‘OuiShare is in permanent beta’ – is juxtaposed with a word you’d likely have to look up: ‘stigmergy’. Some terms appear unique; for instance: ‘lazy consent’ (a moderately sinister voting system bespoke to OuiShare). During their visit, our Connectors had us engage in an obscure ‘1-2-4-All’ process: first you think of an idea on your own – perhaps ‘something you feel is holding back the company’ – then you find a partner colleague to compare notes; then the two of you merge with another pair to make a four and agree an idea to promote; finally, the whole group comes together to discuss the ideas that made it through. (Is this really as democratic as it might at first seem? Who cares, it has a nice numeric mnemonic and we’re on a schedule; let’s go to the next activity, everyone.) Taken as a whole, the mix of terminology – from familiar to never before heard – does useful psychological work. Your interest – ‘I’ve heard of that; it sounds exciting but I’m not sure I fully understand it’ – presents itself for exploitation. As it happens, here are some friendly explainers to help. ‘Well, it means …’ And so on into the mysteries of the organisation.

Where the French-originated OuiShare stresses technology and collaboration, the US-based Ashoka Changemakers stress social entrepreneurship and the environment. The offer is, well, change:

“We analyze the current landscape of a problem by defining the core problems, and mapping them against patterns and trends emerging from the work of leading social entrepreneurs. We take this information from the frontier of knowledge and assemble it, producing a Discovery Framework that serves as a mosaic of strategic opportunities for moving the needle on systems change. We support this with a communications strategy that includes calls-to-action and compelling visuals, deployed through traditional and social media, to activate large-scale changemaking.”

Although less obviously cult-like than OuiShare – there is arguably such a thing as beneficial ‘social entrepreneurship’ – the Ashoka Changemakers nonetheless reveal a model of endless recruitment and expansion. If they disburse stipends to social entrepreneurs, at the same time there is also a price list. For $7,500 they will visit your university campus and conduct a ’360 degree campus scan’:

“… an empowering experience and structured process to assess the changemaking ecosystem at your institution, catalyze deeper commitment among your allies, generate new insights and ideas about what could work at your institution, and get feedback, recommendations, and comparative institutional case studies from Ashoka U.”

Three further steps (with associated costs) will bring your campus to the stage where it can be honoured as a ‘Changemaker Campus’. Perhaps all campuses will one day be Changemaker campuses?

If there is one defining characteristic of a cult, it may be an economic one: a cult expands faster than its payroll. It must do so, or face hard economic limits to its influence. Given that cults do indeed exist – and do expand, or try to – we can ask: what does it cost us? Perhaps an organisation that seems cult-like – such as the Ashoka Changemakers – may on balance be benign. Others, such as OuiShare, may threaten little more than time wasting or make-work for their followers. Not all cults are destructive and not everyone will be asked to drink the Kool-aid.

I’ve yet to witness OuiShare’s second visit to our firm. If they do come – perhaps once more with their anonymous photographer in tow – I look forward to what will be revealed. The thought brightens my day quite a bit, actually.

Arrr!

Remember the Pirate Party?

Back in September 2011, they boarded the Berlin city-state legislature, winning 8.9 percent of the vote. That put five parties in the legislature and complicated the coalition math. They highlighted the Greens’ generational challenges, put digital issues on leaders’ radar screens, and showed that discontent among Berlin voters was not limited to the eastern parts of the city.

After that breakthrough, they won seats in the state legislatures of Saarland (in March 2012), in Schleswig-Holstein (in May 2012), and in North Rhine-Wesphalia, Germany’s most populous state (also in May 2012). Looking forward to national elections in the fall of 2013, they polled as much as 13%. A fleet of black and orange sails was visible on the horizon.

Then what happened?

Scandals, splits, sinking. They were chronically short on money, early leaders proved unable to grow or govern the organization (sometimes the leaders were unable even to govern themselves), and then some things just got weird. They also had problems with rightist extremists in their ranks.

After their rise in 2012, in 2013 the Pirates just barely cleared 2 percent in Lower Saxony (January), fell below that in Bavaria (July) and hovered near that figure in the national elections in September. In the years that followed, the Pirates sailed away from the state legislatures they had so brazenly boarded in the heady days that followed their Berlin success.

In the national election in September 2017, they polled less than one half of 1 percent.

The tale of the Pirates is unlikely to be instructive for AfD, its leaders, or its voters. It should be. It is very similar to the tale of the Republikaner, which won seats in Baden-Württemburg, Berlin and Bremen. It is similar to the tale of the “Schill Party,” which won nearly 20 percent of the vote in Hamburg in 2001 and entered the legislature as the third strongest party. The NPD and DVU had similar trajectories with lower peaks.

The AfD has done what no party since the Greens has done: win enough votes in a national election to enter the Bundestag. And yet, at their first press conference after the election, one of their most prominent members, Frauke Petry, announced that she would not be part of the party caucus and walked out on live television. It’s unlikely to be the last division.

Dead parties tell their tales, even if no one in the latest sensation is inclined to listen.

Reds Got the Blues? No.

Over on social media, a friend-of-a-friend said that the strong showing of the far-right AfD in Sunday’s German election was “further erosion of the neoliberal left.” Yeah, no.

Here’s what the main public broadcaster in Germany has from their polling about voter changes from 2013 to 2017.

(The link is here, you’ll have to scroll down a bit to Wählerwanderung, and it obviously helps to read a bit of German, although it’s not strictly necessary for that particular graphic.)

AfD’s sources of voters, in ranked order:
1. Previous non-voters (1.47M)
2. People who voted AfD in 2013 (1.43M)
3. CDU -> AfD (1.04M)
4. People who voted for parties that did not clear the 5% threshold in 2013; my suspicion would be NPD (0.73M)
5. SPD -> AfD (0.51M)
6. Left -> AfD (0.42M)
7. First-time voters (0.13M)
8. FDP -> AfD (0.12M)
9. Green -> AfD (0.05M)

Each of the first two is an order of magnitude greater than any one of the last three.

You’ve got to have a pretty heavy prior commitment for “erosion of the neoliberal left” to be your takeaway. “Protest party draws in 1.5 million previous non-voters,” “Rightist party draws votes away from center-right party” or even “Extreme right puts on new clothes, finally clears 5% hurdle” are all more accurate descriptions. (And I don’t see how you can characterize the Left party as “neoliberal,” but that’s another story.)

Further, the biggest party-to-party move of SPD voters was SPD -> CDU. That makes “Left-of-center voters reward Chancellor’s party for immigration stance” a greater factor than “Social Democrats turn to anti-immigrant party.” We’ll see what happens with the SPD in opposition, but looking at where SPD voters went, it’s clear that we have another chapter in the basic poli sci book, Voters Frustrated With Junior Partner in Grand Coalition, which should surprise precisely nobody.

German Elections on Sunday

Some thoughts about Germany’s election this Sunday, hoisted from comments over on Facebook. They’re more about personal preferences, and maybe not anything new for the three readers Fistful still has after Brexit broke the blog. (By the way, there’s still a media niche that could be filled by Brexit Jones Diary, if anyone has the stomach for that task.)

Martin Schulz [the Social Democrat] is not bad. I’m of several minds. Merkel absolutely did the right thing with refugees in 2015, against the trend of her party, and it made a huge difference for Germany and for Europe. And I want to see that kind of choice rewarded. Certainly, if Germany has to have a government led by the conservative party, having a female scientist from the East, who is also a pastor’s daughter, as the head of that party is the way to go. On the other hand, an additional term of office would be years 12-16 of a Merkel chancellorship. Governments get to be long in the tooth; the people in them forget that they have ever not been in power; scandals accumulate; stagnation can set in. Maybe Merkel’s next government (she is likely to be the head of the largest party still after Sunday) will beat those odds, I don’t know.

[comment from friend]

[Me again] Well, it’s proportional representation, so everybody is in the running. The Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) are likely to come in first, with the Social Democrats (current coalition partners) also likely to come in second. One of the tricky parts comes afterward: putting together a coalition that can command a majority in the parliament. Right now, there’s a “grand coalition” of the two largest parties. They don’t really want to work together, but that’s how the math turned out last time.

Her main opponent, Martin Schulz, is the top candidate of the Social Democrats. Previously he was head of their faction in the European Parliament (Brussels and Strasbourg), and in fact president of the European Parliament. His candidacy is a good thing for a number of reasons, though I will be surprised if he and the Social Democrats win by becoming the largest part in Germany’s parliament.

The far-right party, AfD, also looks likely to get into the national parliament. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons; on the other hand, it’s not surprising that far-right voters make up something like 5%-10% of the German electorate. If anything, that’s pleasingly low. But! It will be the first time that a far-right party has made it into parliament (despite what some people say about the Bavarian part of the Christian Democrats), and that’s disappointing enough. It may also mean that there are six parties in parliament, which makes putting together a coalition challenging. Not least because the Social Democrats are still holding fast to their pledge not to work with The Left at the national level. (The Left are, several name changes later, the successors to East Germany’s Communists. Back in the old days in East Germany, the Communists went after Social Democrats with special vigor, sending some to Siberia and putting others in camps that had recently been vacated by the actual Nazis. So one can see why the Social Democrats would not want to work with them.)

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, isn’t it?

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