The Social Age is a time of rebalanced power: in this, the ninth in a series of articles exploring my Map of the Social Age for 2019, i want to consider ‘power’. The structures it’s held within, and the dynamic tension between formal and social spaces.
A central context of the Social Age is a rebalancing of power: the historic structures that power is held within are significantly eroded, whilst in parallel the mechanisms by which it flows are diversified. For example your employer used to hold significant power over you, but in a time of fragmented and portfolio careers, they no longer do. The consequence of losing your job is diminished in a time when Organisations regularly make people redundant: even loyal and ‘good’ people. And a social movement you start that gains 100k followers hold significant power outside any formal system. So power is held differently, and moves differently. Indeed, in one interpretation, power itself has fragmented, away from one dominant formal type, to multiple different flavours, triangulated between charismatic forms, hierarchical ones, and reputation based ones.
Whilst my own understanding is imperfect, i’ve certainly come to view most of the functioning and coherence of social structures in terms of understanding power: particularly the gradients through which it flows, and the ways that the movement of power impacts on the evolution of Dominant Narratives.
The idea of a Dominant Narrative is simply ‘the way that things are’. A simple example would be this: in Victorian England, the role of women was domestic, and to be seen, but not heard. Today, that is no longer the case. Indeed, the Victorian notion is largely comical in how distanced it is from our everyday reality. And yet both were equally true in their own time: for Victorian men and women, the Dominant Narrative was simply ‘how things are’. And today, that version of the truth is precisely ‘how things are not any more’.
As we stand today, approaching what we can only hope is the crest of the #MeToo movement, we can look back at this shift in terms of a gradient of power: historically working in systems controlled primarily by men, and increasingly (although by no means exclusively) by both men and women, equally. Whilst the journey is not complete, the power gradient has shifted, and done so in two significant ways.
Initial evolutions of power may be by consensus, where an established, or dominant, form ‘permits’ certain freedoms. But transformation may come through fracture, where a minority group simply claims the power: it’s this claimed power that we see in the #MeToo movement, which is why it’s so fascinating to observe as a social movement, and has the potential to shift the Dominant Narrative.
But only the potential to do so.
Shifts in power are governed by two key factors: cohesion, and response. The #MeToo movement is united in opposition to oppression and harassment, but disunited in terms of what outcomes may look like. And the dominant patriarchal model of power is pragmatic enough to ‘permit’ (i use the word carefully, but deliberately) change, but possibly not a full evolution of the Dominant Narrative.
In other words, we may end up in a world that is more balanced, but still fundamentally patriarchal, just dressed up to be more equal. Dominant power will typically relinquish just enough power to ensure that it remains in control. Some types of power can be directly opposed and diminished, whilst others, if you oppose them, are strengthened. For example: Julian Assange is legally pursued by the US government, but that very legal jeopardy makes him a social hero in some quarters. Almost all Islamic Extremism falls into this category: our very efforts to prosecute it through force reinforces the self validation and belief that spawned it in the first place. In a very real sense, our opposition validates it and makes it stronger.
So you can use direct force, hierarchical power, to bulldoze a village, but you cannot use it to remove the horror and outrage of the displaced villagers. Similarly, you can use formal power to restructure an Organisation, buy you cannot remove the betrayal and frustration of the employees.
#MeToo represents claimed power, in that any woman, anywhere in the world, can take action, and tag it #MeToo. So the structural basis of that power is not hierarchical: nobody ‘permits’ you to claim #MeToo. There is no membership card. It’s a reputation based network of power, that can jump across barriers. But this type of power is open to pollution: it can be gamed, influenced, subverted, although it’s remarkably hard to counter it. If a group of white, male, middle aged, record company executives put out an impassioned plea to ‘stop the movement’, i doubt they would do more than stoke the fire. This movement is driven by an impassioned group who have just discovered that their power is very real, and almost unanswerable.
In the Social Age, the emergence of a broad category of aggregating and amplifying technologies have hastened this shift: we are radically connected and aggregate around common views or themes, partly determined by what is amplified into our network in the first place. If you look at the emergence of new technologies, or the adoption of new games, the cycles of adoption (and collapse) happen ever faster: just look at the adoption and growth of Pokemon Go. Can you imagine trying to ‘push’ that type of effect through a system? No: it was amplified, and traversed as a compelling story between spaces, gaining power as it went.
And once it had power, some of that power (held in engaged community) was translated into a different type of power (money, held within financial systems). Power does not exist in isolation: it can convert into different forms, but they are not all compatible.
For example: if i have a lot of money, and give much of it away to good causes, i may lose money, but gain reputation for philanthropy. But if i spend that money trying to bribe you to like me and tell others that you do, i will still lose money, but will likely gain a reputation for duplicity. The very act of me trying to influence the reputation economy with financial currency destroys the currency.
When we consider storytelling, we can consider power as well: what type of power ‘pushes’ your story, and what type of power ‘opposes’ it? Do you tell it with a ‘formal’ voice, or is it pulled through the system because of your authenticity? Or both? People typically say that ‘authentic storytelling’ is one of the top things they look for in a Social Leader, so we could consider that Authenticity is itself a real type of power.
Over the last seven years i’ve written various research pieces exploring power, and especially the limitations of formal structures to cope with reputation based authority: it tends to fracture or shatter them, when it hits from the side. One reason it does this is because formal power is often undermined by ambiguity: a lack of certainty or definitive action at speed is deemed a weakness, whilst in fact it’s often rapid, but incorrectly framed, action, taken too fast, that leads to failure.
When we look at a system, we can view it through different lenses: imagine that you are in a helicopter above a town, looking down. You an understand the place as a network of buildings, and roadways that connect them. Or you can look at supply versus consumption: you could understand the city by seeing places where consumables are stored and distributed, and restaurants and bars where they are consumed. This latter view would be superimposed upon the former, but it’s a whole different way of looking at the town. You could view it through political power: highlighting in red the buildings where conservative voters lived, and blue for the liberals. You could see if the Town Hall was red, or blue, and hence understand who is empowered or disenfranchised by the dominant view. All three views of the town, all three ways of understanding, would be concurrently valid. And a hundred more besides.
That’s how social systems work: we can understand them in terms of multiple concurrent structures of power, some of which are clearly connected, either in amplification or opposition, and others of which are almost entirely hidden or subversive.
Understanding structural power, and specifically the ways that different types of power interact, is a valuable lens for understanding the true context of the Social Age: understanding how these structural power relationships are evolving is a differentiating one.
What you need to know:
- There are many different types of power: some amplify each other, whilst others deny or fracture each other.
- Social systems are radically complex, and can carry power in unexpected ways.
- Power does not always flow in a linear way: some types of power can leapfrog, or transmute.
What you need to do:
- Clearly understand the limits of your formal power, and strive to understand the basis of your Social Authority.
- Develop the capability to view the complex social system through the lens of power: sometimes the way to achieve greatest effect is to switch the type of power you utilise.
- Consider how using ‘oppositional’ power may be greater than ‘consensus’ in certain contexts