Derek Sivers’s Ted talk, “How to Start a Movement” uses humorous footage of an outdoor music festival where one person’s example leads a crowd of people to start dancing. Sivers’s choice of this example suggests that leadership happens all the time in all kinds of everyday situations. However, the video also made me wonder whether and how it is possible to distinguish purposive collective action from conformity to a social trend.
Sivers’s video raises these questions because of the social psychological terms he uses to explain how a single person at an outdoor music concert starts dancing and (intentionally or unintentionally) leads others to join in. His language suggests that everyone in the scenario is affected, if not determined, by social psychological principles tending to produce conformity. Sivers says the leader must have “the guts to stand out and be ridiculed,” implying that he too has an aversion to being singled out for mockery, which he must overcome. Similarly, the first follower must overcome the fear that they will be seen as “two lone nuts.”
But once there is a critical mass, the followers in a movement no longer need to overcome social inhibitions. On the contrary, Sivers suggests that social psychology provides them with an incentive to join, saying, “they won’t stand out, they won’t be ridiculed, but they can be part of the of in-crowd, if they hurry.” Thus, we might ask whether the leader and first followers themselves act in the hope that they will become social trendsetters instead of being independent individuals who act from personal conviction alone. Sivers’s very example and the terms of his analysis challenge us to ask whether we are simply being pushed and pulled by social forces when we think we are starting a movement.
As social and habitual creatures, our lives may be profoundly shaped by the social dynamics of mass culture. But even if society is largely governed by laws of social psychology, Sivers’s discussion may be taken to suggest that individuals do have the capacity to step back from their social reality—to stop and think—and thus to make a principled decision to make social change. This implies that society influences our inclinations without determining our actions. Perhaps sociable beings like ourselves can lead and follow based on principles if we recognize something important in a situation that we think others, too, can and should recognize based on the common understanding we share.
Socially responsible action must be based on knowledge as well as trust. A leader may call others’ attention to a truth, but each follower must be able to recognize it for herself; every individual must take responsibility for the movement of which she becomes a part. A rationally justified belief in the rightness of a cause gives us the courage to suffer ridicule when we take a stand for something that matters to us. If so, perhaps Sivers’s video does not give us a literal example of a movement but rather forms the basis for an analogy.