Think Local, Act Local

Brian Brown: Learn the lessons of Facebook and Twitter: people don’t make friends, buy products, or vote because it’s good for humanity.

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“Think globally. Act locally.” The phrase has been chic for a while now. I’m not sure where it originated, but it’s often used in environmentalist or city planning campaigns. The funny thing is, the concept (if not the phrase) has a long history of almost two centuries, and it has never worked. It’s a relic of a bygone age, and it didn’t work in the bygone age for the bygone people either. In fact, its opposite is more true, because oddly enough, the more the world gets connected via social media, the more the local matters.

Thinking Global: The Oversized Past

If you think about it, “think global/act local” is based on a pretty awful assumption: that we can only get you to care about your own neighborhood if we appeal to the fact that you care about people far away. That’s nauseating. What kind of people can only be bothered to care about actual human beings if they’re convinced it’s generically good for Humanity (or Earth) in the abstract?

The answer is people whose lives are characterized by centralized institutions—big governments, big businesses, and so on. Social innovators for 400 years have believed that the future of solving social problems would come through huge centralized programs. Cardinal Richelieu (of Three Musketeers fame) and the French kings tried it in the 1600s. It caught fire in Europe (which had large-scale social welfare by the 1700s), and was made famous in the mid-1800s by the Prussians under Bismarck. Despite endemic failure in Europe, the early Progressives got America into the act, and the GOP and the Dems have tried to keep us interested ever since with wars (usually “social wars” against ills like poverty, but hey, Kruschev and Saddam sure helped). People tend to lose interest when their caring is done for them by professionals, so “think global/act local” was crucial, because act local didn’t even work on its own any more.

“Think global/act local” didn’t really work either, of course; even wars only capture our imagination for a year or two, and we lose interest in “social wars” even before the end of the headlines the new program gets (No Child Left Behind, anyone?).

Hannah Arendt was a woman who escaped the Nazis and ended up teaching philosophy in a number of Ivy League schools. She knew a lot about nationalism and big programs from firsthand experience. She wrote in 1963 that the reason social wars are no replacement for local commitments is that compassion—the virtue assumed in all those social wars—doesn’t work in the abstract. The word literally means feeling with someone, which can only be done for a person, not for an idea or group.

The American system of government was designed with similar things in mind—Thomas Jefferson thought people would care about their far-off federal government only because they understood and participated in their local governments. They would understand the economy because they ran their own farms and businesses. Jefferson would have said “Think local, act local.” People should relate to the big through the lens of the small, which could only be done if the small mattered to us for its own sake.

In the 20th century, we ditched this idea and flipped it on its head, relating to the small through the lens of the big. We followed Europe. It was the century of mass politics (communism, fascism, progressivism, etc.), of mass business (trusting the local McDonald’s because you trusted the big brand), and of mass media (one-way news blasting like billboards, radios, and televisions). It was the century of “think global/act local,” or maybe “think global/act global.”

Acting Local: Social Media and the Future

The 21st century is shaping up differently. More and more social science is stressing the importance of local activity (for more on the importance of local people and institutions to how we think and succeed, read David Brooks’ “The Social Animal”). More and more technology, business, and city planning is designed to make us more connected at individual and small group levels. It seems in all that 20th century bigness, we lost a lot of the connections that made us better at being human.

A prime example: social media, still heralded by some ignorant professors as an instrument of more globalization, is actually an attempt to fix that (in a partial way). It re-teaches acting local, and applies it to the globalized world.

In Jefferson’s day, you had a lot of spontaneous interaction with your neighbors—in the tavern, in the town square, at church, and so on. They’d see the new shoes you were wearing. They’d hear a lot of your conversations and ideas. They’d know if you were sick. Tony Tanner, a Cambridge professor, wrote of the time period: “It should be remembered how difficult it was, or could be, to find a space or place to engage in sincere, private conversation. [It was] a society in which everything–and every word–was more or less ‘public.’ Privacy was hard to come by.” That spontaneous interaction offends our modern notions of privacy, which in fact we’ve been told is a constitutional right, and which we maintain through car travel, anonymous big box stores, and infrequent dinner parties in the seclusion of our homes.

But we’re social animals: spontaneous interaction is part of being human. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and company were invented by young people who (whether they could articulate it or not) had largely missed that part of being human when growing up. Social media is an attempt to allow people to act local again, both through direct digital interaction and through fostering in-person interaction (for example, I’m better plugged into my local news and government by following and interacting with reporters and city officials on Twitter; another good example is El Pomar Foundation, which I helped build a good local social media presence).

This is just as true in business as in one’s personal life. Dan Rather lost his job because of bloggers. Barack Obama got elected with a huge, heavily localized social media presence. Even many large businesses are starting to get this; Burger King’s Facebook presence is very strong, and some large companies have switched their TV marketing budgets entirely over to social media spending. They understand what federal officials (including, stunningly, Obama) don’t: that the future is about connecting people to the small, not controlling them with the big.

David Meerman Scott, in his book “The New Rules of Marketing and PR,” says to understand Twitter, for example, you have to think of it like a cocktail party. At a cocktail party, you wouldn’t walk in and yell, “Buy my product!” You’d head for the people you knew, get introduced to other people, and have conversations in which you’d find areas of mutual interest and perhaps provide advice or help to each other. You’d act like you actually cared about the other person; what he wanted, what he was saying. You might get a client, but first, you’d get a friend.

That’s how spontaneous interaction works. It’s how acting local works. And you can’t motivate yourself to do it–online or in person–by thinking, “Okay, I’ll go talk to that guy because it’ll be good for humanity.”


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  • March 29, 2012


    The thing that caught my eye most on this article was when it stated that “think global/act local” is based on a pretty awful assumption: that we can only get you to care about your own neighborhood if we appeal to the fact that you care about people far away. That’s nauseating.I think people are taking this saying into a different perspective honestly, I don’t think people would take it in the way that your saying ” only care about people in your neighborhood if your going to care for people that are far away. I think the term ” think global/actglobal” means that if you make changes make them so they would impact people around the globe, i mean the word global is right in the saying. What im trying to say is that you can’t assume that people will take it that way. You never know what heights people might take, with a little effort.

  • […] This post is excerpted from an article originally published in Humane Pursuits. Read it here. […]