birds in a swarm at sunset

A Summary and Critique of Swarmwise by Rick Falkvinge

Bite The Bullets

  • A swarm is a new type of self-organizing structure to get a large group of motivated people to act together to accomplish a world-changing goal
  • The benefit of a swarm over a regular style of organization is the speed and [cheapness] that it can act
  • In order to start a swarm, you need to formulate your goal in a way that is “tangible, credible, inclusive and epic” otherwise “your swarm will fail”
  • In order for the people in a swarm to do things you need to have an initial action to point them towards, in the book the example is handing out flyers
  • Once the swarm begins to grow, it’s important to create a hierarchical structure so you—as the founder of the movement—can manage the growth
  • The sub-groups should be organized in 7s, 30s, and 150s. 
  • The most important theme of the book: Leadership is earned by inspiring others. This is done by standing up and doing what needs to be done without permission, and leading by example.

Savor the Summary

Swarmwise promotes a new concept of building an organization which the author, Rick Falkvinge, calls a swarm. A swarm is defined by its self organization and ability to allocate responsibility and authority to people who are capable of accomplishing tasks. The key difference between a swarm and a conventional organization is the way that authority is managed: it’s not. Rather, leadership emerges from people doing things without needing to ask permission, and therefore leading by example. This applies to the creator of the movement as well.

This is a counterintuitive form of governance, but allows for a larger organization to maintain agility because political bottlenecks [remain] at a minimum. The way to allow for this [chaotic-sounding] form of group action is by making values and targets very clear. For example, the entire concept of a swarm comes from the author winning 225,915 votes in the European elections in 2009, spending less than 1% of the budget of their competitors. 

The book covers many tactics, but reminds the reader of the most important mechanisms of a swarm:

  1. Creating a goal that is credible, tangible, inclusive and world-changing. 
  2. Making very clear that permission is not only needed, but discouraged for making important decisions and 
  3. Leadership from the top to the bottom of the swarm is derived from acting on good ideas consistently. 

Below I’ve summarized the sections of each chapter. I’ve purposefully excluded the specific tactical sections and templates such as how to create a swarm org chart. If you would like those specific pieces of the book, you can get them from the free online version. Or, if you’d like to support this site, you can buy the book on amazon through our referral links. 

Part I: Building the Swarm

Understanding The Swarm

The difference between a “swarm” and a conventional organization is that in a swarm emphasizes radical openness and inclusivity: “Perhaps most significantly, focus in the swarm is always on what everybody can do, and never what people cannot or must do.” This means that you encourage members to try things that they think are good ideas. If those ideas work, they attract more members of the swarm. The swarm is open and inclusive to the max, even including financial transactions. The goal here is to “provide trust and confidence” to the whole organization.

Leadership in a swarm stems from people stepping up and doing what they can do and communicating that to others. “I’m going to do X, because I think it will accomplish Y. Anybody who wants to join me doing X is more than welcome.”

There is a crucial point that’s mentioned throughout the book: “When you are setting a goal for the whole swarm, it must be credible, tangible, inclusive, and world-changing.” Don’t discuss the goal in abstract concepts, break it down into measurable outcomes and number of people needed. For instance, for the political movement it was a crucial number of votes to get a seat in parliament for the Swedish Pirate Party.

Launching Your Swarm

This section discusses the necessary elements to get off the ground. The most interesting part is taken directly from the text:

A goal should be:

  • Tangible. You should have an outline for the goals you want to meet that you post to the whole swarm.
  • Credible. You need to sell the goal as something that is achievable. 
  • Inclusive. Everyone who is interested is allowed to participate, and should know that as soon as they hear about it.
  • Epic. Set out to change the entire world for the better. It’S Got to have an impact. 
  • Bonus points if no one has ever done it before.

As soon as you announce the swarm, be prepared to create a focal point for self organization. This can be as simple as a sign up form. As people sign up, you need to have a direction for self organization. They should be divided into self-subsistent groups. The author recommends creating a forum or a wiki to help with this. Specifically, thirty groups max to start with, divided geographically. As people generate interest, the direction for them is to go to their specific sub-group, introduce themselves and select a leader for their group. How they select a leader is up to them.

Keep people motivated by making it clear what the achievable goal is, and updating progress every day. As the creator of the swarm, focus on creating opportunities for people to meet and being welcoming of new people. This is because, as the author mentions, “the organization consists only of relationships between people.

Getting Your Swarm Organized: Herding cats 

The author also advocates three important numbers: 7, 30 and 150. The argument is that 7 is the smallest “magical group size” and the largest is the Dunbar number, the maximum number of social connections a human has capacity for. 

The swarm grows through one conversation at a time. In this sections he also mentions that it’s Important as the figurehead of the organization to take care of yourself since people will copy you. It is also vital to communicate trust. “…even if they choose a different way of doing so than you would have chosen, and even if you can’t see how it could possibly work”

I found one interesting method for consensus on action within a swarm is the three-pirate rule: If three activists agree that something is good for the organization, you have a green light to act in the organizations name.

Control the Vision, But Never the Message 

The author poses that he does not believe in a leaderless organization. By the authors accounts, the point of leadership is to empower people to action not to restrict them from performing certain actions. The way to do this is to constantly communicate your vision and let people translate it into their own words and contexts. The golden rule of the swarm is: “If you see something you don’t like, contribute with something you do like.”

Part II: Leading the Swarm

Keep Everybody’s Eyes On Target, And Paint It Red Daily

The take home of swarmwise leadership: accountability and authority go hand-in-hand. From that stem three core values to communicate all the time:

  • We can do this.
  • We are going to change the world for the better.
  • This is going to be hard work for us, but totally worth it.

The vehicle for inspiring and motivating people to action in this way is to make targets visible and show progress on them. This can be reduces to: measure things that are important publicly. Things measured in public will be improved by people trying hard to improve it. So make sure you measure the right things.

Screw Democracy, We’re On A Mission From God

No person has a say over what any other person can do is part of any swarms core values. The way to make this work is to make it clear that each person should go where they feel they can have the most impact. Tell people in the swarm that they are expected to make mistakes. This is a high risk high reward environment. Crazy ideas should be rewarded.

Surviving Growth Unlike Anything The MBAs Have Seen

This section was filled with mostly highly specific tactical advice. One piece of this was how to create a values docuement. The core of this is to remind the swarm of organizational values regularly. This is to reinforce the message with old activists and introduce the message to new activist.

In addition: having fun is important! This is a way to grow the activist base. Another piece of growing rapidly is to communicate to leadership and take formal responsibility within the organization. And at the end of the day, “sometimes you just have to grind.” 

Part III: Delivering with the Swarm

Using Social Dynamics To Their Full Potential

Here, many concepts are explored such as sending a weekly letter that includes news from the organization, overcommunicating external news that is relevant with examples of rhetoric to use when talking about the swarm to others. He calls this the “heartbeat message.”

It’s also important to keep track of how people join the swarm and their path through the swarm. This is the “activation ladder:” the steps that each activist takes from first hearing about the swarm to participating. The important metric is the number of people that can be moved to take action in the swarm.

The author makes the point that optics are also important; even if you have a strong moral reason for existing. (Maybe, especially if you have this). That means you want to look and feel like the winning team. The argument here is built on the idea that ”perception is reality.” One trick here is to be distinct: wear the same color, or logo on the streets.

Respect anonymity of activists. This is for two reasons: 1) the more information you ask from people in the swarm, the less people in the swarm you’ll have. 2) You don’t need to know who the activists are, you just need them to talk about the swarm and do things as a part of it.

Reward people for discussing your topic. This includes positive and negative comments. For example, if a small blog mentions your topic, drive your audience to that blog. That is much more likely to get them to write about you again. “Attention is a reward, unexpected attention is a great reward.”

Managing Oldmedia

“Oldmedia” is anything that is not social media: radio, newspapers, and television. The best way to get featured in oldmedia is to be useful at the right time, rather than thinking of them “running your story” as a favor to you. For example, say there is a tweet about your swarm that is newsworthy. Giving the reporter comments and quotes about the story right at that time the tweet gets attention is valuable to the reporter. You have thirty minutes to get these quotes to them to be useful at the right time, since they will publish in an hour from the tweet being posted.

In addition, you need to be somewhat sensational for having strong opionions. “If you’re not making somebody angry, you’re probably not doing anything useful.”

When dealing with oldmedia you need to own the issue. This means that any time they come across a story on the topic, they will call you for comments. Chasing news and PR isn’t useful: oldmedia won’t mention a the swarm unless it does something significant. That means you should optimize for doing significant things and being useful to reporters when they get attention. “Just existing and having opinions is not interesting”

(This section comes with a template for press releases which I’ve converted to an editable document linked at the end)

Beyond Success

This section can be summarized simply in the final quote: “Don’t shoot for the moon! That’s been done already. Aim Higher. Go for Mars!”


Some of the core concepts are really interesting and I’m excited to try them out here at Sophonaut and with the blockchain startup I’m a part of. Some of the advice in the book seems specific to politics. For instance, the concept of activists and rallies doesn’t necessarily apply to a product or service directly. That being said, they map well to similar concepts. The idea that any organization is only as strong as the relationships that constitute it is very important and easily forgotten. 

I’m also torn about the idea of having and needing a figurehead for an organization. I don’t like the idolization and fetishism of heroes in society. Once a person becomes a legend in society, it seems that the person no longer exists. Only the idea of them exists and is owned by culture. I feel like it’s more interesting for an organization to exist without a figurehead. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t leaders.

I love the concept of leadership by action here. I think this is how leadership should be conducted in every organization: people who stand up and do the most right things should lead; the ones that people tend to copy because they’re chock full of good ideas. This comes from the ruthless dedication to enabling people to do the right thing without permission. It seems like this is the biggest mistake conventional organizations make. They fail to get the most out of their most motivated employees simply because they get in their way. This is the secret weapon I’m most excited to bring to my personal and professional projects.

Press Release Template Here

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