Innovations in networked movement building: Distributed activism as practiced by and Hollaback!

Originally published at

Based on a post first published on Greenpeace’s Mobilisation Lab blog, August 2015.


This paper looks at how two new advocacy organizations, climate campaigners and Hollaback!, a global network of anti-street harassment activists, have incorporated horizontal mobilization approaches from earlier “networked social movements” such as Indymedia, the Arab Spring uprisings, the Indignados and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Recent studies of networked social movements, specifically those that arose from 1999–2011, have noted their rapid rise to power, their use of social media and other digital communications technologies as well as their emphasis on horizontal decision-making structures. However, as digitally-savvy activists are now adapting tactics at the same breakneck speeds as technological change, networked activist models studied in the 2000s or even as recently as the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 have already been supplanted by more recent evolutions in form and practice.

Referring to studies of these past movements by Manuel Castells and Todd Wolfson, this paper draws on interviews with key staff and observation of and Hollaback!’s operating practices to show how they have adapted elements of earlier horizontal movements and paired them with a new “hybrid” command structure that allows for efficient top-down decision making but also confers a good deal of freedom and agency on its local chapters.

From a tactical standpoint, social and environmental activism has been evolving in parallel and in symbiosis with new technologies since the dawn of the internet era (Wolfson, 2014). For much of this period, this fruitful exchange has largely happened away from the limelight, both in terms of academic study and wider public interest.

With the sudden and dramatic onset of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010–2011, the rise of the Indignados at the height of the economic crisis in Europe and the global spread of the Occupy Wall Street protests, a larger number of journalists and academics began to focus to the role that Internet-mediated communications, especially social media, played in the rapid rise of such new movements (Castells 2012, Tufekci & Wilson, 2012).

In parallel, authors such as Castells and Wolfson (Castells 2012, Wolfson 2013 and 2014) have also analyzed the horizontal nature of these “networked social movements”. In past studies, this preference for de-centralized leadership and organization has been linked to the logic of the “open source” movement in software design and distribution (Juris, 2004). With regards to these more sweeping and global instances of horizontally-organized movements, Castells’ observations in Networks of Outrage and Hope (Castells, 2012) could be deemed celebratory, while Wolfson’s views have been more critical (Wolfson 2013, 2014). While Castells sees horizontality as a net tactical asset and an evolved model of autonomy and shared power, Wolfson has identified it as a potential weakness, one that ultimately cut short the lives of the movements he was tracking.

Horizontality is not just a grassroots phenomenon

While focus has been put on recent instances of sudden grassroots mobilization, many tactical elements of the networked social movement model have been adapted and applied by certain advocacy groups and Non-Governmental Organizations in the past five years. On one level, online petition-based networks such as and have evolved from a petition focus to a campaigning model and have grown their networks into the millions (,, 2015). On another level, certain cause-based groups have managed to blend top-down leadership with local autonomy in organizational structures greatly mediated and facilitated by digital communications. and Hollaback!, the two groups studied in this paper, are prime examples of networked organizations that have adopted elements of the horizontal leadership model and have taken advantage of digital tools to manage distributed activism campaigns. Climate campaigners define themselves as “a global network active in over 188 countries” that is “building a global climate movement” (, 2015). Hollaback!, for its part, is presented as: “A non-profit and movement to end street harassment powered by local activists in 84 cities and 31 countries” (, 2015). and Hollaback!’s global networks worldwide: 4000 groups in 180 countries
Hollaback! worldwide: 92 groups in 32 countries

Both of the groups studied are notable for their incorporation of horizontal mobilization tactics and spirit into distinct areas of movement structure. What’s more, their operating model has demonstrated capacity to grow global networks of scale with limited resources that also stand the test of time. What follows is a closer look at the elements behind their particular practice of what is called “distributed action” in activist circles (Aroneanu, 2009).

Central cause-framing and definitions of approach

At and Hollaback!, framing the issue at the center of all advocacy as well as determining the core approach to addressing it are activities that take place at each organization’s executive level. This top-down approach differs significantly from the strict collective process for defining problems and demands present in the grassroots horizontal movements studied by Castells and Wolfson (Castells 2012, Wolfson 2015). The clarity of vision that a top-down strategic process brings to defining a movement’s issues and goals may be a partial explanation for’s and Hollaback’s success at capturing and maintaining the support of a large network of followers.

In “How We Make Change is Changing, a recent exploration of how networked organizations are building distributed campaigns, Marisa Franco, B Loewe and Tania Unzueta note that finding “action worthy problem and solutions” is an essential first step to building distributed movements. According to these organizers, action-worthy causes must answer to two questions: “Does the problem you are trying to solve really matter to anyone?” and “Is the solution you propose realistic and effective?” (Franco et al, 2015).

Both and Hollaback! are working on issues that affect people at a personal level across the world. On street harassment, the cause at the heart of Hollaback!’s campaigning, Executive Director Emily May notes that: “Unfortunately, we have a huge population of young women and LGBT folks who have been affected by this and have no resources to deal with it,” (E. May, personal communication, July, 2015). For’s Social Media Manager, Thelma Young, “Climate change is affecting people in communities all across the world. It’s become personal now, so people are more likely to mobilize,” (T. Young, personal communication, June, 2015).

When it comes acting on these causes, Hollaback! and have carefully framed responses to issues for their members while making sure that proposed actions are straightforward and doable. In its “Take Action” guides, Hollaback!’s leadership builds on years of organizing to pull together best practices for new members. Their guide leads new adopters through a series of simple entry-level actions, such as sharing their stories with the community or organizing a ‘chalk walk’ to the wholesale activation and leadership of a new Hollaback! local chapter (, 2015)., for its part, has centrally planned and conceived climate action ideas for its followers from its early days. In an article in the activist tactical blog Beautiful Trouble, 350 co-founder Phil Aroneanu recounts how the 2009 “Global Day of Climate Action” event was first conceived by 350’s leaders as a: “message, or framework for others around the world to take similar action at the same time.” Then, with the proper push and the right digital tools provided to local adopters, the Day of Climate Action took on its own life and generated 5,200 simultaneous public events in 181 countries (Aroneanu, 2009). applied a similar approach to the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. Here again, the event and its central messaging was planned at the executive level, while local organizers were provided with a digital “hubs platform”, which allowed them to rally participation from among their communities of interest (McKenzie, 2015).

Getting autonomy right

Earlier expressions of distributed movement building, including the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement, were self-organizing and adopted radically horizontal management structures. Unfortunately, they did not have staying power. The problem with these previous cases was too much local autonomy, according to Todd Wolfson, once an active Indymedia organizer himself. This organizational weakness, Wolfson believes, is one of the “…significant factors that has led to the lack of sustainability” of these short-lived movements (Wolfson 2013, 422).

Some organizations have taken a more cautious approach to access the potential of do-it-yourself grassroots power. The groups covered in Mobilisation Lab’s Grassroots Led Campaigns report (Mobilisation Lab, 2014) — including, 38 Degrees and — provided spaces where members could initiate their own online petitions and drive a limited series of actions around them.

As the report notes, grassroots-led petition initiatives have increased participation and driven larger membership numbers for these organizations. Still, many groups using these distributed tactics have not moved very far beyond list building and online petition advocacy.

In their approach to distributed organizing, Hollaback! and seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between the radical autonomy of Occupy Wall Street and the highly-restricted autonomy of petition networks. In what could be described as a “hybrid approach,” and Hollaback! maintain top-down leadership on strategy and movement capacity-building while allowing local groups a fair amount of autonomy on tactical issues and creative freedom to adapt identity and events to local culture.

For example, and Hollaback!’s members can self-start local chapters that plan and execute actions both online and offline. These local movement nodes organize physical events, recruit new members, lead their own communities and do their own media outreach.

When questioned on their decision to allow this level of local autonomy, representatives of and Hollaback! both claim that they chose this model out of necessity.

For, this approach has been there from the very beginning as “part of its organizational DNA” according to Digital Director, Jon Warnow. “There’s no way our relatively small staff could have effectively run a ‘command and control’ program that relied on top-down administration,” he explains (J. Warnow, personal communication, July, 2015).

Balancing autonomy the 350 and Hollaback! way

Strategy, training and facilitation are all managed top-down by central staff

Framing the “action-worthy” cause and the approach to it
Creating overall campaign strategy
Planning collective actions that mobilize local groups
Creating central communications for collective mobilization
Creating a digital hub structure and digital action kits for local organizers
Continually building capacity with local organizers
Curating and mirroring local content back to the collective

Local groups have tactical and creative freedom in the following areas

Local groups can self-activate
Local group chapter leaders appoint themselves
Local digital hubs can be customized to reflect local flavor
Local groups are free to create their own messaging
Local groups can devise and execute their own actions

Hollaback!’s Executive Director Emily May explains that they chose to go distributed because there was simply no funding available to build a top-down organization to address street harassment. What’s more, she adds that: “While we were experts of our own experiences, organizing against street harassment looks very different in India and Chile and it should be local organizers there that determine what the movement looks like,” (E. May, personal communication, July, 2015).

Autopilot is not an option

Though previous horizontal movements, especially Occupy Wall Street, appeared to arise spontaneously and to evolve organically, and Hollaback have both experienced the downsides of a totally “hands off” approach to movement growth and have since adjusted their levels of oversight.

In its earliest phase, from 2005–2011, Hollaback! tried to grow a global network of followers with little or no continued support from central staff. Instead, they simply offered an online “do-it-yourself” guide to starting local chapters and allowed remote organizers to self-start groups themselves. However, though this process led to the creation of 20 local chapters between 2005 and 2010, only three remained active over time (, 2015).

At there were times when some of the group’s ambitions seem to have outpaced capacity, notably during the People’s Climate March. Writing in Civicist (McKenzie, 2015), Jessica McKenzie has pointed out that many of the hubs activated for the event have since gone idle, despite 350’s assurances that the march was “about more than just a single day.” This highlights the risks of initiating a distributed structure without the proper staff resources to see it through.

Since the fade-out of its first batch of chapters, Hollaback! adjusted course in 2011 and instituted a mandatory training program for new chapter leaders, overseen by staff at the group’s headquarters. In a series of webinars that new leaders follow for three months, Hollaback’s central command provides coaching on cause marketing and branding, basic tech capacity, how to run a campaign and how to talk about street harassment to the media. Using this approach, Hollaback! has now trained over 300 leaders in 26 countries (, 2015) and Executive Director Emily May confirms that its chapters are both more active and more stable (E. May, personal communication, July, 2015).

In spite of the lack of resources given to hubs after the People’s Climate March, is generally hands-on when it comes facilitating and managing its distributed networks and a point person is assigned this task for each campaign. In an interview with Mobilisation Lab, Louise Hazan,’s European Digital Campaigner, described her role in bringing together collective activities for the Global Divestment Day in February of 2015. Her duties included planning and writing email calls to action for all chapters and preparing the online infrastructure and digital toolkits that participants would use to self-organize (L. Hazan, interview with Mobilisation Lab, April, 2015). Beyond this,’s central facilitators spend a good amount of time training and coaching their local hub leaders and also curate and share content coming from different nodes with the larger community of organizers.

Considerations for distributed campaigning the 350 and Hollaback! way

1. A compelling cause and action framework
Central leadership frames the “Action-Worthy Problem & Solutions.” Proposes action ideas to activists that are concrete and doable.

2. Freedom to appropriate and customize
Local leaders and local chapters can self-start and adapt the movement to reflect their reality. They can modify messaging and action ideas to appropriate the movement and to better suit local contexts.

3. Self-serve tools and top-down facilitation
Central leadership prepares digital infrastructure, research and campaigning tools for activists. Staff is assigned to facilitate induction of new chapters and spends time training and building capacity with new leaders.

An emerging “hybrid” approach to distributed campaigning

With a clear lineage tracing back only as far as 1994 (Wolfson, 2014), it is clear that distributed campaigning / action is still an emergent mode of activist mobilization. As such, it is hard to provide a definitive model of its form and functions and even more difficult to evaluate which tactical choices lead to the best outcomes for campaigners.

Still, the movements and organizations that have experimented with it in successive waves up to present have provide a sufficient base of case studies from which the relative benefits of different approaches may be determined, especially as regards to efficient management structures and their balance of autonomy and central leadership.

While spontaneous movements such as Occupy Wall Street may have been too autonomous to build long term organizational power, it’s clear that leaving more freedom up to local groups has its benefits for cause-based groups. Both and Hollaback! have succeeded in growing robust global activist networks in much less time and with much fewer staff than traditional top-down NGOs. Their “hybrid” approach to distributed campaigning, a mix of strategic guidance and training from the top with a good amount of local autonomy, seems to be at the heart of this growth.

Given the impressive and sustained global performance of these organizations in the past few years, this new model of distributed campaigning is promising for organizations seeking to achieve global scale and unleash grassroots people-power with limited resources.

Questions remain, however, with regards to the wider applicability of distributed campaigning in regions across the world where digital divide issues affect Internet knowledge and access for significant portions of the population. Likewise, distributed tactics are likely to be a lot less easy to implement in areas where Internet freedoms are restricted.

From an academic point of view, this current study is admittedly under-developed. There are surely other theorists, beside Castells and Wolfson, who have critically engaged with the distributed aspects of networked social movements. It would be productive to evaluate the practices of and Hollaback! against the frameworks provided by a wider body of scholarship. Still, given the challenges of keeping pace with the rhythm of hacks and mutations in networked activist practice, this paper will have achieved its purpose if it has succeeded in bringing leading-edge distributed campaigning case studies to the attention of the academic community.

References: Retrieved September 4, 2015.

Aroneanu, P. (2009) Tactic: Distributed action. Blog post on Beautiful Trouble accessed September 4th, 2015 at

Castells, M. (2012). Networks of outrage and hope: Social movements in the Internet age. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Franco, M.; Loewe, B.; Unzueta, T. (2015) How We Make Change is Changing, Part I Open Source Campaigns for the 21st Century. Blog post in Medium accessed September 4th, 2015 at Retrieved September 4, 2015.

Juris, J. S. (2004) Networked social movements: Global movements for global justice, in: M. Castells (Ed.) The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).

McKenzie, J. (2015) The Unfinished Business of the People’s Climate March. Blog post on Civicist accessed September 4th, 2015 at

Mobilisation Lab. (2014) GRASSROOTS-LED CAMPAIGNS: Lessons from the new frontier of people-powered campaigning platforms and programs. Powerpoint Presentation accessed September 4th, 2015 at

Tufekci, Zeynep and Wilson, Christopher (2012) Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square, in Journal of Communication, 2012.

Wolfson, T. (2013). Democracy or autonomy? Indymedia and the contradictions of global social movement networks in Global Networks, 410–424.

Wolfson, T. (2014). Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.­­­

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