Network Lessons from the Pink Ribbon Rebellion

Watching the unfolding events related to the Susan B. Komen for the Cure’s decision (and subsequent reversal) to stop funding Planned Parenthood, one couldn’t help but realize that we were watching our own revolution of the masses.

Unlike Tahrir Square and the Occupy movement, however, this latest chapter in our era of mass mobilization never really moved from cyberspace to the streets. It didn’t have to. As the nation of pink ribbons turned into a sea of red faces, Komen realized the rebellion in its midst and decided to change course.

There is no question that there are many lessons to be learned from Komen’s unplanned Planned Parenthood experience. Politics aside, even while assessing all of the steps and missteps Komen has made (and, we hope, continues to learn from), the Pink Ribbon Rebellion demonstrated one thing Komen actually did right: it built a social network of activists bound together by a collective identity built on education, empowerment and interconnectedness. And this network, as we saw, doesn’t need Komen at its center – it is quite capable of taking on a life all its own.

Indeed, the Pink Ribbon Rebellion’s unique facts and storyline shed deep insight on the power of pink and the network of individuals who wear it. Herewith, I offer four key lessons we can derive from network deployment in the Pink Ribbon Rebellion and what its recent success teaches us about network-building for the future.

  1. Network success requires knowledge and empowerment. In his seminal book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, social network expert Clay Shirky writes:“Information sharing produces shared awareness among the participants, and collaborative production relies on shared creation, but collective action creates shared responsibility, by tying the user’s identity to the identity of the group.”In many ways, the Pink Ribbon Rebellion reflects Shirky’s observation almost perfectly. On one hand, pink ribbon activists have a substantial amount of shared awareness about the fight against breast cancer and the importance of early assessment and prevention. On the other hand, by participating in the Susan B. Komen Races for the Cure, the associated fundraising and planning activities that are involved in the races, activists are also deeply familiar with collaborative production and collective responsibility.Combining the two in a network where a deeply personal tapestry of stories are inextricably bound up in the narrative of the whole, and you get a pink-ribbon nation well resourced to collaboratively respond to a decision with which it also had enough knowledge to disagree. In essence, a perfect combination for a perfect storm of protest.
  2. Creating a network doesn’t mean you own the network. Komen has long been known for its careful cultivation, deployment and protection of its brand. It’s not every organization, after all, that has NFL players dressed in pink. But while Komen is often able to exercise control over how the pink ribbon is licensed, it does not have the same ability to control the passion and participation of the people that wear the pink ribbon. It is exactly the empowerment of that group that makes them so unpredictable. So while networks can be animated intentionally by carefully scripting campaigns, they can also be enflamed unintentionally. In fact, rather than Komen owning the pink-ribbon nation, in the mind of the activists, the opposite is true: the pink-ribbon nation feels a deep sense of collective ownership over the policies and decisions of Komen. This sense of ownership is, in no small measure, the purest catalyst of the Pink Ribbon Rebellion. The network stood up to say, “This decision does not represent me.”
  3. Individuals spanning multiple networks can serve as powerful network-weavers. Even though it was Komen’s policy change that inspired the strong reaction by the pink-ribbon nation, it wasn’t Komen that initially lit the spark that spread the wildfire. It was Planned Parenthood. In fact, all Planned Parenthood had to do was simply send out a few emails, and its network of supporters took it from there. Komen Did What?! Komen Can Kiss My Mammogram! read just some of the headlines and petitions.But the conversations didn’t stay within the Planned Parenthood network for long. Boundary-spanning activists – or those who crossover activist bases of both Planned Parenthood and Komen – played a significant role in cross-pollinating information across various networks, many of which included Komen supporters. Using Twitter, Facebook and good old-fashioned email, they stitched together a patchwork network of activists with common interests but different circles of friends and inspired them to act. The crescendo (or perhaps the dénouement) of this network-weaving narrative was on the night of the Super Bowl, when individuals across both social networks used the twitter hashtag #TakeBackThePink, coupled with the Komen-marketed #SuperCure hashtag, as well as other Super Bowl-related tags, weaving the message into broader social networks. (For more, check out,
  4. Networks don’t just “Like;” they can “Dislike” too. As noted above, one of the biggest stories related to the success of the revolt of the pink ribbon nation is its powerful use of social media to express its displeasure at the Komen decision. In many ways, the use of social media by the pink-ribbon nation is nothing new – with over 540,000 “likes” on its Facebook page (as opposed to the approximately 235,000 “likes” for Planned Parenthood), and thousands of active tweeters, Komen has long harnessed the power of social media to advance its message.Nevertheless, the same medium that can create legions of support also can be a powerful transmitter of criticism. Which is what makes the social media usage in the Pink Ribbon Rebellion so interesting; it was more than a reaction, it was a reversal. For many of the online evangelists of Komen, this was an essential redirection; they had long been leveraging their social capital individually and collectively on behalf of Komen and, accordingly, their feeling of betrayal instigated a personal imperative to exercise their social capital in a critical manner as well. So, in many ways, the social media storm was not just about the credibility of Komen, but the credibility of the network as well, and the challenge to that credibility was something the pink-ribbon nation definitely did not like.

As we continue to experience an era of social change inspired by the masses, the Pink Ribbon Rebellion is another case study as to how personal passion, network-thinking and dynamic communication mediums can come together in explosive and unpredictable ways.

The lessons from these case studies may be as fluid as the networks from which they are derived, but they hold valuable insights into how we can empower individuals, instigate change and address what we individually or collectively perceive as wrong. They are an especially powerful reflection on what can happen when a network of individuals feel so intimately tied to the wrong that they believe it to be a reflection on their personal integrity and are thus driven to act. Most of all, they help us understand that the power of a movement is more than the ribbon we wear, but the passion with which we collectively wear it, regardless of its color.

Seth Cohen is the Director of Network Initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and can be found on Twitter at @sethacohen33.

Cross-posted at Working Wikily (Monitor Institute).