One result of the increase in interest in activism, advocacy, and resistance in the United States is that tons of people are coming up with excellent and very cool ideas on how to make the world a better place. Many of those ideas involve a lot of organising, and people are ready to step into leadership roles to make those ideas come to life, rather than sitting around waiting for someone to pick up the idea. That’s great. You can’t have a successful movement without leaders and people who are willing to take point on big, complicated, sometimes scary projects.
Here’s the thing: I see a lot of people reinventing the wheel right now, and that’s bad for a lot of different reasons. The most obvious is that if someone already had the same idea and started acting on it, they sunk a lot of resources into it and probably learned a great deal along the way about what works, what doesn’t, and how to make a difference. Those lessons and that time were incredibly valuable. Why replicate their efforts when you could collaborate with them and build on them?
It’s incredibly wasteful to sink a ton of resources into something that’s already been done by someone else. Not only are you needlessly repeating things, you’re also missing out on the experiential knowledge they gleaned from their work. They found out some things the hard way, and you’re about to have the exact same experience when you don’t need to.
In addition, you may end up undermining their efforts. When multiple people are producing competing versions of the same thing, capitalism is delighted, and it can sometimes result in innovation because they drive each other to do better. But in the landscape of activism, it can have the opposite effect. You have a finite audience with finite resources. People have to decide where they want to donate and how they want to invest their volunteer time and services. Competing versions of the same thing mean that both groups get shortchanged and both ideas may fail due to insufficient support.
It can also start to feel like an infuriating personality contest if you have a fantastic idea and someone dives in to repeat it and gets a ton of attention because they have the right connections or a slicker presentation or happened to catch the right person’s eye at the perfect moment. It’s easy to start to feel resentful when you’re working on a thing and feeling like other people are swooping in to scoop up the idea instead of supporting you. Even if your repetitious work is completely innocent and you had no idea someone was involved with a similar project, they have no way of knowing that, and your ‘oh wow I had no idea!’ feels a little bit hollow.
There are times when someone is already enacting your idea and they’re doing it badly. That definitely happens. In those situations, you can choose between trying to team up with them to make it better, and to develop a project that works and will serve the world, or you can decide to not even bother with them and start from scratch with your own idea. You should be doing that consciously, though, thinking about the fact that something already exists and asking yourself how you will do it differently, how you will distinguish your effort, and why your effort will work when theirs does not.
The world is a big place and people can absolutely be involved in overlapping work without causing distress to anyone involved. But often, that’s not necessary, or you could coordinate efforts and do a much better job — for example, one of you could become the fundraising arm of an initiative while the other focuses on doing the work, harnessing your collective ideas and resources. Or you could find that an idea really needs to be split into two, with each of you handling an independent arm. There are lots of ways to collaborate to make an idea go further in a way that’s informed and wise.
So you have this great idea and you’re convinced no one has done it before. Think again. People are doing a lot of things. Take advantage of the internet to search, really search, for your idea and related concepts. Play around with different keywords. Ask questions. Confirm that nothing exists, and if you find things that seem similar, dig in on them a little bit to see how they’re distinct, and whether your work would enhance, undermine, or work in competition with their own.
If you really can’t find anything, do what I do — ask social media. Often when I have something floating around in my head I pop on Twitter and say: ‘Hey, does anyone know of a service that…’ or ‘I really wish there was a thing where you could…’ And invariably, someone responds to say ‘actually…’ Sometimes I end up with a whole list of cool things to investigate and support, as happened when I asked about trans-friendly tarot decks recently — I got real-world advice and experience from people who had actually handled given decks, rather than just canned lists on the internet from sources I didn’t know if I could trust. Social media can be a great way to both find out what’s out there and gauge interest. If you get a lot of ‘I haven’t heard of any but man I would totally use it if it existed,’ you’re on the right track.
Image: Wheel, Peter Roome, Flickr