Monday, February 25, 2013

Platform for Postmoderns, Part Three: Building Coalitions

No man is an island. No book is a solo effort. No movement is an isolated incident.

Much noise has been made in recent years about "tribes." Broadcasting is out; narrowcasting is in. Affinity groups are the new mass market. Even the notion of platform, the subject of this series (see the first three entries here, here and here), functions on the underlying assumption that you can't please everyone, so you'll have to find people who are pleased when you please yourself. Or something like that.

The object of the game, in book publishing and other celebrity-based industries, has been to identify a group and climb to the top of it. There's a certain type of person who considers James Franco, for example, the greatest actor of his generation. Lady Gaga has assembled millions of "little monsters" to sit at her feet. In my field, Christian publishing, there are John Piper Christians, Rick Warren Christians, Rob Bell Christians and Joel Osteen Christians, proof positive that white men aren't entirely homogenous. (Well, maybe not proof positive . . .) Such huddled masses need leaders, and these folks and their equivalents in other demographics have seen the opportunity and taken it.

The problem with celebrity is that it's unsustainable. I've had recent gossipy conversations about people who have "left their platform," either by choice or under duress, and whose cultural power dissipated almost overnight as a result. "The phone stops ringing," my friends lamented on behalf of our other friends; that's what happens when a musician dares to experiment with another genre, or an actor makes one too many inaccessible films, or when an author or speaker or otherwise celebrated cultural leader ventures beyond the acceptable scope of their cultural leadership. We are past the age of tyrants, after all; we enjoy whatever platform we have by the consent of the governed.

The consent of the governed, in the case of cultural celebrity, is especially fickle. And so even when we do everything right--when we play by all the rules in Michael Hyatt's book Platform--our platform can collapse underneath us. In a free market economy there's always someone, something around the corner waiting to shove us off our perch, vying to capture the imagination of our tribe. For every iPhone there's a Galaxy waiting in the wings; for every Lady Gaga a Ke$ha; for every Prayer of Jabez a Your Best Life Now. We find out quickly, tragically, that whatever love we felt from our audience was actually only lust. We thought we heard them say, "I will always love you," but in reality they had only promised "Here we are; now entertain us."

Celebrity is unsustainable not only thanks to these external factors--the loss of lofty position or the abandonment of your audience--but also thanks to what celebrity costs. Platform can be all-consuming, leaving precious little emotional energy or even chronological time to devote to more homespun, mundane things like maintaining a relationship with your spouse or your kids, your parents or your siblings, your friends and neighbors. Even your vocation--the presumed touchpoint between you and your tribe--competes for your attention with your platform. You can be so busy telling other how they can change the world like you did that changing the world becomes the lowest priority on your to-do list.

When platform is understood through the lens of celebrity, everybody loses. Three of the four Gospel writers report these wise words of Jesus: "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" In retrospect, as we watch modernity wind down, we are forced to ask also, What good is it for the world?

A postmodern platform must learn some hard lessons from the unsustainability of the modernist, celebrity-based platform. These lessons are hard because they involve the ego, and our egos don't like to learn lessons. But here's the essence of it: In a postmodern world, building an isolated, individual platform is a waste of time. The logic doesn't play out. Instead of building platforms for themselves, postmoderns who have a message or a vision they want broadly disseminated should concentrate on building coalitions.

A coalition is like a union. Like-minded people recognize that their common goals can be more efficiently accomplished, their voices better heard, if they speak in unison and stand together. Their common goals are discovered together rather than dictated from a single leader; their leaders are, in fact, designated from below as being particularly equipped to carry their message to the halls of power. A coalition can change things were an individual can't.

Most platforms under the modern paradigm are already coalitions, to be honest. Hyatt acknowledges in his book the team that stands behind the coherence and volume of his message, from editors and designers to administrative assistants and the like. Read the acknowledgments in any book and you'll see that it takes a village to raise an individual's voice. What's been obscured in that approach to coalition building is that the various players in any platform are there voluntarily; in a free society, in a free market economy, they can always stop doing what they're doing, and go do something else. Even some of the members of these modernist villages don't realize how free they are, how much of their freedom they've surrendered to the agenda of the person they've placed on a platform.

But a real coalition is communal all the way down. Each individual participant is there voluntarily and knows it; they've not only embraced a vision but contributed to it, in meaning and money and sweat equity. Therein lies the value: the platform is the thing that people have built; the message is part of the infrastructure of the medium by which it is amplified. The audience is already invested--not just enough to consume the message but to repeat it, to become ambassadors for it. The platform's viability is liberated from celebrity and grounded in a communal vision.

Coalition building is how governments work; it's how unions work; it's how movements work. Coalition building is how anything with longevity works. When Jesus began his public ministry, he didn't build a website; he built relationships with twelve people whose priorities overlapped but occasionally clashed. He traveled with them, ate with them, talked about grand ideas with them. By the time of his crucifixion they recognized that they were just as vulnerable to the hostility of the state and the religious authorities as he was, so they hid in an upper room. By the time of his ascension they recognized that they were just as responsible for the propagation of Jesus' message as he was, and so they went about doing greater things than Jesus did (John 14:12) and millennia later his followers are still delivering Jesus' message to the ends of the earth.

How do you build coalitions? It takes time--time to understand your own priorities and subject them meaningfully to the priorities of like-minded others, so together you can arrive at something that all involved can invest themselves in. It takes humility--a willingness to recognize that you're not the only person who cares about your subject matter, not the only source of good ideas. It takes mutuality and graciousness--a willingness to share stages and ideas and not worry so much about credit. It takes great self-awareness of both your potential and your limits, and it takes the courage to push yourself on both.

The payoff is really good. You'll have a platform that not only you but people you admire and trust can stand on and deliver an important message to the world. You'll have a dedicated space that is maintained not by force of individual will but by aggregation of great people. You'll be able to dispense with all the artifice and soul-sucking loneliness that comes with a celebrity-based understanding of platform. And you'll make a lot of friends and share a lot of love.

Some well-built coalitions I like and see great potential in:

Red Letter Christians
The Parish Collective
Forge Missions Training Network
The New Monasticism
Missio Alliance
Christian Community Development Association

There are others, of course, and you're welcome to mention those you like here. But the main idea is this: You are wasting your energy and subverting your message if you go it alone. The age of celebrity is dying and needs to be allowed to die. A better future will come as people marry their messages to the messages of others, and platform becomes not a proprietary place for individuals but shared space for great ideas.

Keep checking back for more thoughts on platform for postmoderns.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good word Dave. I'm enjoying reading this series while simultaneously reading Hyatt's book.

Another beautiful and fruitful coalition that you will be aware of, but many of your readers will not, is the New Friars.

David Zimmerman said...

Yeah, very true. Thanks for mentioning them.