Designing social movements

Minimum viable utopia

On the theory of designing the precepts of self-replicating social groups. Important in “community stewardship” when applied, and as institutions when applied to the social structure of a society.

To discuss: Bay area rationalists, the Marrickville Warehouse Alliance, weirdo Honduran charter cities, every Schelling model.

Action manuals

See community maintenance.

On social norms

See social norms.

On governance and accountability

See community governance.

On non-monetary economies

Governance of community as governance of (some real or imagined) commons.

Status within

See status for now. Later return to the idea of multiple hierarchies in The Melancholy of Subculture Society footnotes.

Chesterton’s norms

Why do we do it that way? 🏗️


Pavlogiannis et al. (2018)


Why Woke Organizations All Sound the Same: This is supposed to be a criticism of social justice agendas, but it is also a laundry list of theory-of-change ideas for persuading institutions to implement your preferred agenda, whether it be socially just or socially unjust.

Marginalized and marginalising

Fascinating parallels in outgroups and mobilistion against other outgroups: Katie J. M. Baker on a lady equivalent of the manosphere: Mumsnet

The more I learned about Mumsnet, the more the forum reminded me of my past reporting on the ways men are radicalized by the toxic online “manosphere,” where pick-up artists (PUAs) and men’s rights activists (MRAs) recruit followers by exploiting real fears (such as economic anxiety) and blaming marginalized outgroups (women, people of color, Jews) for societal failures. As people get drawn into these communities, they become obsessed with a misguided sense of victimization and start to focus single-mindedly on their newfound worldview.

It seemed to me that was exactly what was happening on Mumsnet: some of these newly “gender critical” Mumsnetters were relatively privileged women who had never felt marginalized until they gave birth and came to feel isolated in their nuclear households and (rightfully!) outraged at the lack of support for mothers in the U.K. They turned to Mumsnet for solidarity, and somehow became fixated on trans women in the process

I take issue with some of the analyses in this article, of both Mumsnet and the MRAs, but the general thesis about the similarity in recruiting, onboarding and mobilising dynamics is interesting.

Invasive arguments recruit members to movements

Invasive arguments are effective at getting people to join your movement, if it is dominated by growth/recruiting. In fact, even if you do not wish to have a rage-based recruiting strategy as a movement founder, these arguments may yet come to dominate if incidental rage-based recruiting comes to outgrow other means. We can also manage that rage-based recruiting might even lead to a departure of non-rage-based recruits from the movement, since peacable sorts may find it unpleasant to hang about with militant hardliners on their weekends off. This might be one of the factors leading to the tendency of revolutions to devour their children. Possibly related, purity cascades.

TODO: muse about this. If I need to recruit on the internet, suppose that means I need prominence and the cheapest way to get air time is to have a movement where the most visible proponents will specialise in public denunciations and outrage. Even if I do not want to recruit that way, my movement may gain members that way unless I can tightly control how my members recruit. Even if I don’t want to recruit that way and I can onboard members with strong social norms about rage-based recruiting, my opponents could just as easily rage-recruit for me — there is certainly evidence that this has been attempted, if not reliable quantification of how effective this is.

What does that mean about what I should expect to see in social movements generally? Constant weed-like-growth in the most toxic wing of any movement?

Let me restate that another way.

The membership you attract on the internet is terrible

All else being equal, the internet is disproportionately likely to recruit the least useful and even counterproductive membership. On that recruiting ground, virtue signalling amongst members is favoured over effortful action. You need both, of course, but the balance is wayyyyy off online. Within the category of virtue signalling, the types of signal that will get most traction are likely to be the most infuriating ones (shaming, policing without consent, trolling), alienating the opposition or creating new oppositions.

I suspect this tendency is at most weakly correlated to the notional political orientation of the movement in question, because I have met humans.

Purity cascades

Which norms are stable? Which are at the start of slippery slopes? I used to think no marginal change to group norms could lead to runaway extremism (all slippery slopes are bullshit), but I think I was demonstrably wrong about that. The question is about what are the exact dynamics that encourage and discourage extremes. I have witnessed too many people I know tumbling down the conspiracy radicalisation pathway and seen social norms shift in ways that were not intended at the start. Name drop: Euphemism treadmill. Maybe move this to red queen signalling?

Jo Freeman, Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood.

TBD for now see the Benjamin Hoffman bit, the logic of Pol Pot which casts light on this from an odd angle:

Pol Pot’s policies aren’t indicative of his personal badness, they reflect a certain level of skepticism about expertise narratives that benefit extractive elites.

Expertise narratives definitely have an extractive component. (Medical doctors use law and custom to silence others’ claims to be able to heal, but MDs are obviously not responsible for all healing, or only doing healing, and they ARE collecting rents.) If they are 100% extractive, then anyone participating in them is a social parasite and killing or reeducating them is good for the laborers. I think it’s easy to see how this can lead to policies like “kill all the doctors and let teens do surgery.” This naturally escalates to “kill everyone with glasses” if you are enough of a conflict theorist to think that literal impaired vision is mostly a motivated attempt to maintain class privilege as a scholar.

Regina Rini, considers Wokeism as an aircon setting:

you can see the influence of superhero theatrics in public discourse about the culture wars. On Twitter and in podcasts, everything now seems to be an epochal struggle between two factions, the “Wokeists” and the “anti-Wokeists,” whose battles over social justice will doom or save us all.

Guillotines and pitchforks make for arousing imagery, but they won’t solve any problems. I find this “final battle” framing less socially enlightening than, say, a video on air-conditioner repair. Air conditioners are complex systems that can fail in many ways. Fixing one is a delicate process — one that is not enhanced by identifying ideological enemies. Imagine a team of repair technicians falling into dispute over allegations that some are “Coldists” who secretly aim to turn the entire building into a frigid wasteland. Their bitter enemies, the “anti-Coldists,” refuse to install another wire until their opponents’ plot has been exposed and halted.

This would be a terrible approach to air-conditioning repair. It’s also a terrible approach to social justice.

I really like this metaphor, as it inspires us to think about what the feedback systems that are in place are configured to do.

We have famous examples of escalation in purity tests in movement before. People like citing the French Reign of Terror. So we know things can go off the rails. No one is killing anyone over microaggressions, though.

Interesting case study, The OwnVoices Movement and policing who is allowed to present which identities in their characters. Who gets to define authenticity, and appropriation?

Moral cultures

There is a provocative article, Campbell and Manning (2014), which argues about microaggression in terms of moral cultures of, in order, Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood (Crib sheet). Tanner Greer likes that take too. It is an interesting perspective, although not mine. I do like the notion of moral cultures, though. What is just?

On hygiene and inner circles

Hypocrisy, mottes, baileys, inter-cultural etiquette.

Vampire-Hunting As An Vocation - Adam Elkus


Beliefs that keep groups together.

This does not mean that material effects are absent or unimportant, just that you can’t hold everything equal. Take the Christianity example: there are huge boons to well-being and productivity and [everything else I talked about] in belonging to a church. Many of these are psychological themselves, but let’s only focus on material aspects. These come from “the church”, but you’d have to show me some really extreme evidence to convince me that those were the primary or only reason they joined. The religious aspect, however you think about that, seems more than a little important.

— Lou Keep, The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life

Benjamin Ross Hoffman on Why I am not a Quaker (even though it often seems as though I should be):

In the past year, I have noticed that the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) has come to the right answer long before I or most people did, on a surprising number of things, in a surprising range of domains. And yet, I do not feel inclined to become one of them. Giving credit where credit is due is a basic part of good discourse, so I feel that I owe an explanation.

The virtues of the Society of Friends are the virtues of liberalism: they cultivate honest discourse and right action, by taking care not to engage in practices that destroy individual discernment. The failings of the Society of Friends are the failings of liberalism: they do not seem to have the organizational capacity to recognize predatory systems and construct alternatives.

Fundamentally, Quaker protocols seem like a good start, but more articulated structures are necessary, especially more closed systems of production.


Fascinating analysis by a conservative partisan, Why is Everything Liberal?.

Fascinating business-behavioural portfolio: Francesca Gino.


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