I think we are witnessing the decline of the organization in the United States. I see two primary underlying causes:

  1. The rise of what is essentially an economic noble class
  2. The spreading adoption of social media by individuals

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830s, he was surprised and amazed by the sheer number of civic and social associations—”religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.” He said they exist and thrive because in a true democracy like America, the equality of all individuals is so consistent that no one person has enough influence to make any large impact on society on his or her own. So, Americans naturally form associations, with the intent that a larger number of citizens can be more effective than any single citizen can be.

This was so notable to Tocqueville because in his home country of France, and elsewhere in Europe, there was no such civic equality. A single nobleman could make a great impact on society of a degree that no ordinary group of ordinary folk could rival.

Things have changed since the 1830s. Loose associations crystallized into formal organizations, thanks in no small part to a Supreme Court (mis)interpretation of the Constitution in 1886 that recognized incorporated entities (which are legal fictions) as “persons” under the law, incentivizing informal, organic groups of people to structure themselves as corporate organizations. With this change, over time the citizen who belonged to associations evolved into the “organization man” identified by William Whyte in 1956.

10% of the population controls 71% of the wealth in the United States.
10% of the population controls 71% of the wealth in the United States.

What’s more, the inequality of wealth in the United States has reached such an extreme that we are now living with an economic ruling class. (See graphic, representing information from the Economic Policy Institute.) Think of how that affects social and civic organizations (we’ll leave aside political associations, as de Tocqueville did in this instance). One person can sponsor, say, an entire season at a performance theater more easily than 90 people working together can. We all know how much work it takes to organize the efforts of 90 people. Why bother, when hooking the right one person would take care of things just as effectively?

I know I’m just scratching the surface of the issue here, and I’m treating it reductively. The point is, at least in monetary terms, it takes a lot of ordinary citizens working together to equal the influence of a single member of the economic noble class. That’s a strong disincentive to associate with the hopes of getting anything done.

Economic inequality, meet social media: But what if it suddenly became a lot easier to form associations? What if a bunch of people could get together for a common purpose without the need for a lot of beaurocracy and a lot of money? It would be a good bet that you would see people disaffected by the inequality of power in our society take another shot at teaming up with their neighbors to do something good.

I think it’s obvious that social media makes these very things a lot easier. To take just one example, who’s in charge of Lancaster tweetups? No one. Is there a set system for organizing them? No. Is there any money behind it? No. But, are they well-attended? Yes. Can anyone initiate one? Yes.

In the face of something as powerful, widespread, and simple as Facebook events and Twitter, and in the face of formal organizations of ordinary citizens having far less power than entrenched individuals and corporations, I think we are beginning to see an important trend. The formal organization, inefficient and impotent, is on its way out. The (extremely) loose association, easy and far-reaching, is on its way back in.

I’ll write more about the effects I anticipate in this new social context. If formal organizations are on the decline, we will still have many organizations among us, but the “organization man”—anyone whose identity is defined by participation in formal organizations—will be a dying breed. One of the most important effects of that I anticipate is that “leadership” will become less important and necessary, and followership will take its place.


5 thoughts on “The impending death of ‘organization man’

  1. The loose association of social media IS very effective at low-risk, low-investment events and causes, e.g. #lancup. But how can social media make a jump the next level of magnitude of effectiveness, e.g. the CWL?

  2. One of the greatest assets to the Lancaster tweetups (#lancup), is their lack of mission. other then getting people together who want to get together, the tweetups have little function (for that it is my favorite group to be a part of). But how large can they get before they begin diverging into other types of meetups (political, hobby, or just fractioning off into multiple groups)? Formal Organizations can often avoid the risk of diverging into new territories through their adherence to a mission and board of directors etc., but this also limits the number of potential members, and can make their operations slow and expensive. To a large extent I think there’s room for both kinds of organizations, and as both types become more familiar with how the other works, the most effective ones will operate seamlessly between structure and flexibility.

    As any group grows it needs new resources which usually translates to needing either time or money. The downside to the rise of social media is that it is so hard to monetize (outside of selling ads), and I think the social media space is getting more and more competitive as we are all less inclined to follow just any group on facebook or any user on twitter. As users get more and more social network spam, they build up greater defenses to them, and will wall themselves off from new organizations (formal or informal).

    As with the fall of newspapers, the solution has yet to present itself, the important thing is to start trying different solutions, analyze them, discuss them, and fearlessly adapt them.

    Great post and sorry if this comment got a little out of hand.

  3. Not out of hand at all, Jeff. I feel like this set of ideas is just out of reach for me, so I’m putting it down here to try to make sense of it and see what insight others (like you) can bring.

    I think we’re still learning how to think differently about this issue. It could be that social media just give us one more way for groups and organizations to be born, and then from there they grow and evolve in the same ways all other groups do. Or it could be something very different.

    For instance, is it necessary for there to be a “group” at all? That’s an assumption that’s at least worth challenging. At a bar at any given time there are “regulars” sitting at the bar alongside other customers, and perhaps they’re all engaged in conversation. We don’t think of that as any sort of structured group. It’s the same with tweetups–we have regulars, but not (at least I don’t think) a real “group” that exists beyond that event.

    It seems to me that you can have a bunch of different people throwing a bunch of different events, with a large pool of people attending those events. Then the focus becomes the event (with characteristics of time, place, and activity) rather than the group itself.

    Yesterday, some local people who use Twitter got together to watch “Twilight,” for instance. I have no interest, so I didn’t even ask to join. Couldn’t that sort of thing happen again and again, over and over, with the pool of participants dividing, merging back together, and then dividing in different ways over and over again? Couldn’t that go on forever without the need for any sort of formal group, club, or organization, no matter how big the pool of participants got? Can’t open invites go out from individuals again and again, “I’m doing [this thing] at [this time] at [this time]. It would cost $x [or nothing]. Join if you want to [or, I need to know ahead of time so I can prepare accordingly].”

    I’m thinking out loud here (in type). I think organizations are good and useful and necessary in many circumstances, but in many circumstances today are they necessary? Are they more trouble than they’re worth? Can’t we get by a lot easier without such structure many times, especially with the tools of social media at our disposal?

  4. I was just turning off the lights for the night and then I read this post…made me think again! Coirse you…

    I agree that I don’t see the formation of a group specifically out of the #lancups. As Jeff says above, eventually the “circle” will begin sloughing off sub-circles of Twilight fans, coffeeholics or whatever. I think that’s inevitable. I would disagree that there’s total informality to the tweetup concept – more like it’s just beneath the surface, mission and all. Perhaps it’s like Seinfeld – a show they did about nothing. I bet you and I could codify our mission for the effort without much trouble. The looseness of it is what endears it to us, I think.

    I tend to compare the power of online social media to the small town experience, which largely was de-emphasized in the last half century. The major distinctive of modern networking is the removal of geographic boundaries, which is significant from a sociological standpoint. Instead of physically moving oneself, you can connect (as literally as you can manage) with others who are like-minded and share common interests, etc. You can move in and out of circles as your own perspectives change. You can regulate your participation without reprisal. Even more interesting, you can connect with others who are not like-minded and find common ground. This last piece I feel is an important one for our society as a whole, because at the end of the day everyone has to live with each other, and social media networking holds a key to making that a reality in today’s seemingly (if you are a slave to the media) fractured political landscape. As Daniel points out, there are potential economic benefits as well from the formation of new coalitions of businesspeople working to benefit each other and the customer. Capitalism anyone? Social Media networking could be the tool to ultimately merge the small town experience with the global economy. Sounds like where the internet has been destined to go all along.

    Something to talk about tomorrow?

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