Some initiatives just never get off the ground. I wonder why not.
It seemed like a good idea. The problem was cyberharassment: people receiving abusive messages and images online, by email, text messages and other means. For some people, the abuse is constant and extreme. Prime targets are women and minorities, especially those in the public eye. What can be done about it?
I knew about cyberharassment and had studied research about it. I learned that the usual response from authorities is to dismiss it as not important or to say to get off the Internet, which is ridiculous. Formal complaints to officials, such as tech companies, almost never fix the problem.
I thought of something. How about trying to find out what sorts of responses to abuse are most likely to be effective? Ignoring it? Tracking down perpetrators and exposing them? Responding politely? Counter-abuse? Humour?
It wouldn’t be all that hard. Just set up some fake accounts to attract abuse, for example accounts expressing strong feminist views, and try out different responses. To do this sort of research, I wanted some collaborators to provide technical skills, insight and support. It would probably not be approved by a university ethics committee, so it would be a non-university project.
I tried for years to interest others. I contacted a leading researcher who said there was nothing like this at any Australian campus. I talked with several individuals who were sympathetic, but that was all. I organised a meeting with several of those who expressed interest, but none followed up. Eventually I gave up, deciding the time was not right.
What’s it all about?
This project was a non-starter. It’s just one example of an interest or initiative into which I put some energy, but which didn’t get very far. That’s okay. Most initiatives, like most small businesses, fail, and usually quickly.
Still, if most initiatives fail, is there something to be learned from the experiences? Nearly all attention is on successes. How many times have I read inspiring stories about the entrepreneurs who, from modest beginnings, built Microsoft, Google and Facebook? Whatever the number, it’s far more than I’ve read about failed tech efforts, or even small successes.
What counts as a non-starter? Does it include an idea that never led to action? Does it include a viable activity that fizzled out? There’s no easy answer. My purpose in reflecting on these sorts of non-successes is to learn what caused them to fall short of what they might have been. So for the moment I’ll include a selection of efforts that occupied me for a considerable amount of time, that seemed worthwhile but didn’t amount to much. For each initiative, I’ve written longer descriptions but here I’ll just give one-paragraph summaries.
A whistleblowers group In the 1990s, Whistleblowers Australia had branches in several states, but none in Western Australia. I and others tried for years to find someone in WA to convene regular meetings and create a branch, but were never successful. Assessment: the WA branch was a non-starter because there was no one who would be an organiser.
A network In the early 1990s in the small group Schweik Action Wollongong, we planned to launch a “network against repression,” with contacts around the world, for providing immediate support for opponents of military coups. We developed a leaflet and contacted quite a few people. There was some support, but not enough for us to proceed.
A local group A colleague and I set up a women-in-science group that worked well for a year. Then my colleague left the city and I had to leave the group after others decided it should be women-only. Without its two organisers, the group collapsed.
A writing group In 2008, I initiated a writing group for my colleagues, including PhD students, and we met weekly, and still do. A few years later, I started a similar group with several nonviolence researchers. Because we were in different countries, and it was before Zoom, we didn’t have meetings. I just sent a weekly email reminder about daily writing. This group never became active, so I discontinued it and tried a different approach, which worked better.
A simulation In the early 2000s, I designed a “communication simulation,” a type of drill for communicating in a crisis, such as a government crackdown on dissent. We ran one simulation, but that was all. I lost enthusiasm and no one else offered much encouragement to continue.
A dissent network In 1993, a friend and I contacted many individuals, inviting them to become contacts on a list called Dissent Network Australia. Each person provided their name, contact information, interests and things they were willing to do to help dissidents. The idea was that anyone needing advice or support could contact someone on the list. We got the list up and running, but it wasn’t used very often, and eventually we closed it down.
A dissent initiative In 2005, I was alarmed about Australian government laws that targeted dissent, put many documents on my website about resistance and notified everyone I could think of. Not much came of it. In 2021, I made a more concerted effort to find others who would collaborate in producing material for citizens to understand and oppose government threats to dissent. There was some interest but not, it seemed to me, in trying to build a grassroots movement.
It isn’t easy to promote a new idea, set up a group or launch a campaign. We read about successes far more often than failures, and hear about prominent failures more than low-key ones. My guess is that there are vastly more efforts that fizzle early: ideas that were never pursued, groups that barely got started or didn’t last, and campaigns that never took off. Reflecting on my own experiences with non-starters, one feature stands out: the need to persuade others to be involved. If no one else cares much, a good idea will remain just an idea, and a group or network will just be potential, not actual.
Does this mean it’s no use trying to innovate and that it’s better to stick with existing ideas, groups and campaigns? If it turns out to be difficult to find others who are interested, might it be better to try something else?
I know some individuals who never stop trying, raising the same issue for years, even decades, despite little interest from others. Should they be seen as misguided cranks or as tireless campaigners? It’s hard to know, because we so often judge efforts by their outcomes, not by their inherent value, assuming that can be assessed independently of outcomes.
Is it worth revisiting non-starters, to learn from initiatives that fizzled? One option is to see, years later, whether the issue turned out to have wider significance. Women-in-science groups across Australia continued for years but eventually closed down, so perhaps it didn’t matter whether one in Wollongong flourished. But this may be a cynical way to make an assessment, because initiatives can be worthwhile for the participants at the time, whatever their long-term prospects.
Another angle is to estimate the odds that an initiative might be successful. By joining an existing group or area of activity, the odds are better that it’s worthwhile but, on the other hand, one’s own added contribution is likely to be smaller. In the 1980s, joining the mass movement against nuclear weapons was of this sort. In contrast, supporting an original or unorthodox peace initiative can be likened to betting on a long shot in a race, with a tiny chance of becoming a big winner. There’s no easy way to compare these options.
A crucial part of the picture is reinforcement. Are you the sort of person who feels safer in a crowd, who looks to others to decide what’s worth doing? If so, you’re like most people, and you can play a valuable role in supporting causes whose time has come. Or are you the sort of person with the capacity to pursue a lonely path for years, with limited reinforcement? You might have the makings of a crank — or a prophet. But even prophets need followers at some stage. And even prophets may be able to learn from non-starters.
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Sharon Callaghan, Cynthia Kardell, Isla MacGregor and Yasmin Rittau for valuable comments and for sharing some of the journeys.