When movements go mainstream

Irina Bolychevsky
Jun 6, 2018 · 2 min read

I’ve now been part of three separate movements that got big (relatively speaking) and there’s something that happens to movements when they reach a certain size. The scope gets broader and fuzzy. The means start being confused with the ends. Subset communities develop and start fighting each other. Yet these communities all have a part to play. I call them the purists, the opportunists and the pragmatists.

The purists are idealistic, visionary, inflexible. They cause havoc and stress. They’re the recipients of cult-like worship and vitriol alike. Their world is black and white, complexity and trade-offs forgotten. They drag the movement towards bold stances and principles. They’re judgy, newsworthy and get lots of recognition. They shift the status quo. They make everyone else in the movement look tame in comparison.

The opportunists come along once the movement gets big or cool enough. They’re drawn in by the chance to make money or get status. The purists hate them. But they help make the movement real, big and mainstream. They’re the reason the purists are getting attention. They add numbers, bulk and a sense of normality. They don’t always ‘get it’, but they also don’t burn out and keep the wheels turning. They’re fun in the pub.

The pragmatists are all about complexity and compromise. They are passionate about impact and making a tangible difference in the world, so they compromise to make it work. They leverage their seeming sensibility to get traction with the groups they hope to affect. They care too much. They risk becoming part of the establishment they hope to change. Too many opportunists in their mix and they lose perspective of the bigger picture. They judge the purists for being stubborn, but secretly need them to remind them of the point of it all.

Recognise anyone yet?

I’ve definitely played all three roles at different times and within different contexts. In fact, there’s other sub-communities too. The key is balance and acceptance. Despite the criticisms we can think of, we’re better off attacking the establishment, not each other, and recognising that each different approach brings it’s own strengths.

I founded redecentralize.org in 2015, worked on open data, open source and open at okfn.org. Served inside and outside government in tech, and helped organise CitizenBeta, decentralisation and open meetups/events

Irina Bolychevsky

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Digital Strategist. Product person. @redecentralize founder. Open Knowledge Trustee. I love technology, ideas and figuring out how things can be better.