© Image: Wen Chuan Tan

Crowdfunding: Revenge of the Outsider Ants

© Image: Wen Chuan Tan

© Image: Wen Chuan Tan

[Originally published on crowdsourcing.org, 22 Jan 2013]

Imagine that you’re an ant who’s looking for food. One strategy is to find other ants who are crowded around a large source, like a dropped candy bar, and then attach yourself to their supply line. A second strategy is to strike out on your own and look for undiscovered sources of food: crumbs that you can carry yourself, larger pieces that you may need some help with, or a massive new find that will attract and support its own crowd of dedicated ants.

Like ants, humans also arrange themselves in groups to exploit resources together, and I often think about human organizations in terms of this ant analogy. The first strategy described above is the “insider” approach: identify the most promising crowd of ants, join it if there’s room, and if you’re feeling ambitious, work your way up closer to the food source. The second strategy is the “outsider” route: look for some food that no one knows about, or else try to figure out a new way of finding it. If you hit it big, many more ants will join you, and you will be in front.

We all decide between one or the other of these paths countless times throughout our lives, and I credit our survival as a species to every individual’s ability to read the lay of the land, assess what they are good at, and then either “go with the program” or “go indie” depending on which option looks more promising.

With any social species, this dynamic creates a self-correcting mechanism that harnesses the collective brain and adapts the proportion of insiders to outsiders to suit the world at hand. In stable times, when food sources are reliable and long-lived, it makes sense for more individuals to join the tried-and-true existing structures, and individual success depends on institutional affiliations and relationships. In times of flux, when structures break down, independence and resourcefulness increase in value. In these times (and places), more effort is needed to find new food sources, and which ant school you attended or what other ants you know become less important than how effective you are at navigating the extra-social reality of food and not-food.

Crowdfunding is a purely outsider strategy. It does rely on groups, but they’re new groups, crowds, not existing organizations. Insiders don’t need crowdfunding. Each successful crowdfunding project is a revolution of its own: a new group of people, never assembled before, pooling their energy and resources to accomplish something that no institution made the official decision to support. Crowdfunding itself, by extension, is a meta-revolution, a revolution in the technology of revolution, that enables people to bypass or challenge existing organizations in any field.

So it’s no surprise that crowdfunding appeals so strongly to outsider types who haven’t made it on the inside, whether they’ve tried to or not: the losers, the schemers, the hackers, the activists, the crackpots. At various crowdfunding conferences, I’ve come across people who remind me of the Richard Hoover character from the movie Little Miss Sunshine, an aspiring self-help guru who’s looking for a way to make it happen. I’m the same way. They laughed at Edison, as they say, and I’m always interested in giving a fellow crackpot a fair hearing. The history of business, politics, culture, and pretty much every other area of collective human endeavor is written by the ants who strike out on their own.

So here we are, the outsider ants, hear us roar! Or at least exude whatever chemical signals ants silently make to express enthusiasm.