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.