Crafting a Citizen Story (Jon Alexander)

Show Description

The stories we’re told & tell about ourselves shape the ways we act and how we citizen. And the story we’ve been living in for decades now is one of consumerism and self-interest. Baratunde talks with reformed ad-man and author of CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us Jon Alexander about how we can tell a new story rooted in community and interdependence. 

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Jon Alexander  0:02

We just can't solve the challenges we face from within the story that created them, right? We can't solve a crisis of loneliness and mental ill health from within a story that says we're independent, isolated individuals. You can't solve a crisis of inequality from a story that says that this society is a ladder you climb. And most important, most viscerally to me, you can't solve an ecological crisis from a story that says we're separate from nature.

Baratunde Thurston  0:33

Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagines citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about how we practice democracy. What can we get rid of, what can we invent, and how do we change the culture of democracy itself, relieving the theoretical clouds and hitting the ground with inspiring examples of people and institutions that are showing us new ways to govern ourselves. If you are new to this podcast, welcome. Make sure you check out the first episode of this season with Adrienne Maree Brown, the organizer, facilitator, and artist who shared ways we can deepen our citizen practice and bring it home. In this episode, I'm joined by someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about stories. How they come into being, what they mean, and how they informed the way we live with each other. The first time I met Jon Alexander, we were both guests on a podcast called From What If to What Next with Rob Hopkins. Like me, Jon was also using citizen in this inclusive participatory sense, and we just clicked. He's the author of Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us, and he's also the founder of the New Citizenship Project, a social innovation lab that works with organizations to shift their culture and practice by helping them think of people as citizens first. It's one thing to catalog projects. His book does that and so do we with this podcast, but it's a completely different thing to have a staff, facilitators, workshops, and clients who are really trying to implement things. I mean, there's no How to Citizen institute, not yet. I respect that while Jon is talking and writing about making citizenship a practice, he's also practicing it himself, and it's a far cry from the work he was doing before this.

Jon Alexander is a former ad man. During his time in that world, he won awards for telling the consumers' story until it made him sick, actually physically sick, and he couldn't continue selling a narrative he didn't believe in. So he decided to fight for a different story. Jon is helping us take a narrative turn toward the citizens' story. One where we're not simply independent, but interdependent. We don't just compete, we collaborate. And our leaders don't just serve, they facilitate our participation in democracy. How would we show up? What would we build together if we told ourselves we were citizens, not consumers? To find out, I met up with Jon in Los Angeles along with our live studio audience via Zoom, who you'll hear from at the end of the episode. After the break, Jon Alexander on why being a conscious consumer is not the same as being a citizen.

Y'all, Jon Alexander is the author of Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. He's the co-founder of the New Citizenship Project, a book and a company that works to shift the dominant story of the individual and society from consumer to citizen. He began his career with a decade in the advertising industry, so he knows exactly what's wrong. And I'm so excited to have him on How To Citizen. Welcome Jon.

Jon Alexander  4:11

Thank you so much for having me.

Baratunde Thurston  4:13

Let's start here. Your work is about analyzing and reimagining the narratives that inform how we live and relate to the world around us. And you identified three stories. The story of the subject, the story of the consumer, and the story of the citizen. I want to start with a focus on the first two. What is the subject story and where did it begin?

Jon Alexander  4:35

The subject story begins all the way back with the first known king in Sumeria in 2,500 of BC. And with the first king came the first walls, came the first writing that was initially used to kind of track how much people owed tax and these kinds of things. And that story started with this idea that the God-given few know best, and if the rest of us keep our heads down, do as we're told, get what we're given, and do as the God-given few tell us, then that is how the best society will result. The best benevolent dictator idea. But we all know where that usually ends up. Ultimately, this is the story that leads you into colonialism and patriarchy and all those big things. And it goes a long way back and it was dominant for an awful long time. And when we are in times of uncertainty, in times of chaos, in times when we don't know exactly what to do, then the subject story has a powerful attraction, right?

Baratunde Thurston  5:29

Because we want to find some safety, we want to find some security, some certainty.

Jon Alexander  5:33

Well, we might think we want someone to tell us what to do. And in those moments, the promise of the kind of strong-man leader vibe is really strong. And I think that's a big part of what we're seeing in this moment in time. So the subject story lasted an awful long time. Intensified around the world, really only became properly dominant in the kind of 1600s with the Age of Discovery. And then after the industrial revolution, the rise of the middle class, the idea that there were a God-given few who knew best and they would tell us what to do, fell in on itself. And in many ways, I believe that the two world wars resulted from that breakdown of story, resulted from that kind of collapse of the systems and structures by which we organized ourselves. And out of them, we stepped into what was a better story, right? From the subject story, the consumer story is a liberating shift.

Baratunde Thurston  6:20

So the subject story and the fact that it goes to a made up sounding king and a made up sounding place, Argon of Sarkad, or something like that?

Jon Alexander  6:29

Sargon of Akkad. Close, close my friend.

Baratunde Thurston  6:30

What is this consumer story then, and then when does it emerge?

Jon Alexander  6:33

The consumer story is the story that's I think still dominant in our world today. The consumer story is the story that says that actually the right thing to do is to pursue self-interest on the basis that if everyone pursues self-interest, if everyone chooses the option that suits them best from those that are offered, that will add up to the collective interest. That by pursuing self-interest, we will create the best society that's possible as a whole. I mean the famous Milton Friedman as in the social responsibility of business is to maximize its profits, is a perfect articulation of consumer morality actually. It's saying really explicitly the right thing to do is to pursue self-interest on the behalf of the corporation, on the behalf of the individual, because that is what will add up to the best society.

Baratunde Thurston  7:17

Yeah. So it's not just an economic incentive, it's a patriotic incentive.

Jon Alexander  7:20


Baratunde Thurston  7:21

You serve best, you support your nation best by buying stuff.

Jon Alexander  7:24

I mean, you could even say it's a kind of human incentive. The reason why I went into the advertising industry in the first place, I was 19 at university trying to figure out what to do with my life when the World Trade Center came down. And the leaders of the free world came out and told us to go shopping, right? And at some level, I think I went into the advertising industry thinking unconsciously that I was making a contribution.

Baratunde Thurston  7:48


Jon Alexander  7:50

The key moment actually was my first boss described my job to me by saying, "What you've got to remember is the average consumer sees something like 3000 commercial messages a day." This was back in 2003, and he said, "Your job is to cut through that, you've got to make yours the best."

Baratunde Thurston  8:05

And did you feel motivated by that? Was it fun to do that?

Jon Alexander  8:08

For a while. Yeah, I mean it's hugely intellectually stimulating, right? You're like, "Ah, there's all this stuff out there, there's so much noise and I'm going to make mine the thing." I mean look, I'm a six-foot athletic white guy. That's what I like to do, right?

Baratunde Thurston  8:21

Another conquest.

Jon Alexander  8:22

Oh man.

Baratunde Thurston  8:22

An attention conquest.

Jon Alexander  8:25

Amen. And then over time, and probably it took me longer than it should have in retrospect, I started to ask, what are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we're consumers 3000 odd times a day? What does that do to us? What does it do to our relationships with one another? What does it do to what we think is possible, what we think humans are capable of?

Baratunde Thurston  8:42

Yeah. What are the sort of products and services you were advertising?

Jon Alexander  8:46

All sorts of stuff, man. I mean, I worked on big brands in the UK particularly like Cadbury and Orange, a big phone company. I was at the agency where we produced the Cadbury Gorilla, which was a big moment, a gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins. That was...

Baratunde Thurston  9:02

Life changing.

Jon Alexander  9:02

There we go, my friend.

Baratunde Thurston  9:03

Yeah, man.

Jon Alexander  9:05

I worked on Sony. We were agency of the year, a couple of years that I was there. These were the big brands. This was the big stuff.

Baratunde Thurston  9:11

In the consumer story, you point out that 1984 was a key moment. What was it about 1984?

Jon Alexander  9:18

It starts with the launch of the Apple Macintosh with the most famous ad in history, which is a take off of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Troops draining down a corridor, and big Brothers voice, and then a woman in glorious technicolor runs onto the screen, smashes the screen big brother is talking from. And you get this voiceover that concludes, and I'm going to do a horrendous American accent in the US.

Baratunde Thurston  9:38

Yes, please.

Jon Alexander  9:39

Here it comes. On January 24th, Apple will release Macintosh, and you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984.

Baratunde Thurston  9:47

Chills, yeah.

Jon Alexander  9:47

It's this moment, right? But also that year you had two other of the great super brands arrived. So Nike sold the first pair of Air Jordans that year. Virgin Atlantic launched the Virgin brand arrived on the global stage. But then the picture thickens, because you get Body Shop floated on the stock exchange bringing the idea you can buy stuff to save the planet. You get Band-Aid that year, the idea you can buy stuff to solve global poverty. You get the miners strike and the first privatization in the UK, so politics shifting in this consumer direction. And my favorite actually of all of them, the LA Olympics 1984, which were the first Olympics ever to be funded by commercial sponsorship. LA was the only city to apply to host the 84 Olympics because other cities had made such a financial loss, and they had the IOC over a barrel. And the rules changed, and suddenly you could buy stuff to fund global sporting culture.

Baratunde Thurston  10:38

So that consumer story is winding its way into so many different areas of our lives. We're liberating so many of our activities allegedly through this, and you're involved in it.

Jon Alexander  10:49


Baratunde Thurston  10:49

Later in this timeline, you're involved in crafting these stories and selling these products, and there's an adrenaline rush and there's excitement and there's true creativity, and it's exciting until it isn't. So when did your excitement to get involved and serve in some way through advertising start to crack?

Jon Alexander  11:08

I remember being in a meeting talking through hero products for a big retailer's Christmas advertising, in May, which was a bad start. And we got to the one pound Christmas tree.

Baratunde Thurston  11:22

Baratunde here with a very quick explainer-tunde. We're talking about pounds as in the British currency, not the weight. Now back to Jon's story.

Jon Alexander  11:31

And we got to the one pound Christmas tree and someone at the table said, "The one pound Christmas tree, you can almost smell the exploitation." And everyone laughed. And it was just this moment of feeling the flame inside you turn down. It was really a series of investigations. I worked on a report on ethics in advertising. I pretty much got sacked off the back of that. But really interrogating this question ultimately of what we doing to ourselves when we're surrounded with this story? And coming to the understanding that actually, I was essentially kind of preaching almost the religion that I didn't believe in, not championing values that I did. And I went through a super dark period at this time. I wasn't the most constructive individual around this period. I sometimes think if I started a company at this point, it would've been called the Consumer Doom Project, not the New Citizenship Project, right. I was staring into the chasm, which I think so many of us are trapped doing now.

Baratunde Thurston  12:29

In these darker periods, was this physical?

Jon Alexander  12:31


Baratunde Thurston  12:32

We're you ill? Was it behavior that you weren't proud of? How did that manifest?

Jon Alexander  12:39

Well, there was a week actually, a week I ended up resigning where I stood on the platform of Oxford Circus tube station and in my office and just watched tubes come and go and felt this revulsion inside me. I honestly don't remember what exactly I was... And then I was physically sick. I threw up on the platform. And it was just this feeling of just, I guess self-hatred. Actually a real kind of rejection of the role I was playing and what I was doing. And I had to get out of that point.

Baratunde Thurston  13:10

It sounds like an overdose almost, like you OD'd on the consumer story.

Jon Alexander  13:15

Maybe, yeah.

Baratunde Thurston  13:15

You got high on your own supply and some part of your body maybe knew, this isn't for me anymore.

Jon Alexander  13:22

Yeah. I can't separate the intellectual journey from the physical, right. You're asking deep enough questions, I just got to a point where I was overwhelming. But yeah, I was a difficult guy to be around at that time.

Baratunde Thurston  13:34

Can I talk to those people?

Jon Alexander  13:37

Yeah. Well, some of the best of them are still closest friends now and some of them are still working in the ad industry. And look, I'm not trying to demonize all of those guys. I think the important thing to recognize when you start to see these as stories, when you start to see it in this way, is that you're not just talking about the problem is consumption, the problem is advertising. It's much more about the storytelling of our society. It's the fact that what I would describe what we live in today as a consumer democracy where our only agency is to choose between a fixed set of options that are offered to us, where we're actually encouraged to make that choice on the basis of our own individual self-interest. It's infused that. That story has pervaded everything. And I guess I focus on advertising because it was the part I played.

Baratunde Thurston  14:23

And your focus on advertising, it resonates with me because I spent a lot of time in media and in advertising, which is inseparable. And I remember realizing at a certain point that the folks who were making the ads felt as legitimate as storytellers as the content they were sitting next to. And it's true. I mean, they're selling and telling a story of who we can be through our purchases. And there's so much more money in that than just the art world. So you were, I think, at the eye of the storm for this story because ads are little stories that try to nudge us into thinking differently or behaving differently.

Jon Alexander  15:01

And all of them have that underlying or overarching MetaFrame that you are a consumer. You are an individual, your agency has to choose between things.

Baratunde Thurston  15:12

And these choices. In one meeting years ago, I remember stopping and saying, "Can we just call them people?" On the slides, on the wall, it was just like "Consumers, consumers, and the consumer wants this, and the consumer wants that." And when I repeat that word, it consumes me. It makes me think of consumption, not the active eating food, but the disease, as we used to refer to it. And so we will devour ourselves by referring to ourselves in that way.

Jon Alexander  15:42

And there's actually a heap of evidence that even the word is damaging. So there's a couple of different studies. One we were involved in replicating where, so you give 2000 people a resource dilemma scenario. You say you're one of four households depending on a single well for water supply and the well is starting to run dry, so you need to use less water. So you're asked two questions, to what extent are you prepared to use less water? And to what extent do you trust the other three households to use less water?

Clever bit is for half the sample, the word household is replaced with the word consumer. And for people for whom the word is consumer, to what extent are you prepared to compromise? To what extent do you trust the other three consumers? That's lower, significantly lower. So when we use that language, even the word, and again, it's not just the word, it's the story. But the word carries the story, right? When we use that word inside organizations, I think of it as the scaffolding or the train tracks or something. We start to limit to our thinking, right?

Baratunde Thurston  16:45

Yeah, we box ourselves in. That's right. We limit our imaginations and we can only see a person as this subset of themselves, this function.

Jon Alexander  16:52

And the only path we can imagine to a better society is channeling peoples self-interest in the service of that, because we assume people are only capable of that. I've come to think of consumerism essentially as a kind of species-level self-hatred complex. It's like we're telling ourselves we're not good enough to deal with this stuff.

Baratunde Thurston  17:12

Yeah. It's giving away some power. It's like all I have is this. So I'm going to lean into this, I'm going to be the best version of this I can, but I'm not going to think about of all the other things I could be because I don't have the language for it. Language. Ah, third story. We've talked subject, we've talked consumer. The citizen story. When does this as an alternate frame occur to you? The citizen story.

Jon Alexander  17:37

Occur to me personally?

Baratunde Thurston  17:38

Yeah, and what does it mean? Give me a brief overview and then tell me when it enters your mind.

Jon Alexander  17:44

So in the subject story, people are dependent. They have stuff done to them. The role of organizations and leaders is to command them. And the role of subjects is to obey and receive. In the consumer story, people are independent, they have stuff done for them. They demand and choose. And the role of organizations and leaders is to serve them. In the citizen story, we are interdependent.

Jon Alexander  18:03

... is to serve them. In the Citizens Story, we are interdependent. We do stuff together with and through organizations. The role of organizations and leaders is to facilitate and hold the space for that. What we most deeply want to do and are capable of doing is participate and create. That structure, when you start to see that and think like that, I think you start to see this story everywhere just beneath the surface. But to your question, before living and working in the ad industry, I couldn't really see it because I was so in frame. So the first place I came across it was weirdly like an idea we came up with, and I'm still not sure quite how we did. This is the idea that won that Creative Idea of the Year Award, which is an idea called My Farm, where we tried to hand over decision making on a real working farm to the public by online vote and debate.

This was back in 2011, nearly killed me and several animals. Maybe what's interesting about this is it did actually come out of trying to think of ways to build an organization, ways to sell an organization oddly. I was working on the National Trust, which is a big conservation organization in the UK. They own and run 500 odd places of historic interest and natural beauty all over the country. We were going, "How do we get people to understand and value this organization?" And accidentally stumbled into this idea. Before I had this language of consumer and citizen that was like, "What if we involve people in it rather than just do it for them? Let's not just sell people sustainable food, let's involve them in sustainable food production."

Baratunde Thurston  19:38

The model and the approach, we've had crowdfunding, crowdsourced ideas, we've had participatory all kinds of things. But in that world, inside the consumer story, that's a very radical approach, 'cause you're seeing people as something other than purchasers. You're seeing them as producers and contributors and creators and collaborators, not just competitors.

Jon Alexander  19:58


Baratunde Thurston  19:59

Yeah. Interesting. Are there villains and heroes in the Citizens Story?

Jon Alexander  20:07

I think are, but I think there are more people who are an organizations who co-opting the modes of the Citizens Story in service of something else.

Baratunde Thurston  20:21

Example, what does that mean?

Jon Alexander  20:23

So one of the craziest experiences of the research for the book was I went not very deep, but deep enough into the Q-Anon world and the starting point of that journey is we need you, come help. We need your energy, we need your resources, we need your ideas. That's coming from subject story world. It's coming from a desire to take charge and create tribe and tell people what to do, but it's wearing the clothes of participation. I think that speaks a lot to the moment in time we find ourselves in, right?

Baratunde Thurston  21:04


Jon Alexander  21:06

The way I would describe it, I've already mentioned this idea of consumer democracy. I think too many of those in positions of power influence in our society today can only see two stories. They can see the consumer story as the status quo and they can see the subject story rising and they see

Baratunde Thurston  21:25

The authoritarianism.

Jon Alexander  21:26


Baratunde Thurston  21:26


Jon Alexander  21:27

But as a result, they see their role as being to defend the consumer story. The danger of that is that we just can't solve the challenges we face from within the story that created them. We can't solve a crisis of loneliness and mental ill health from within a story that says we're independent, isolated individuals. You can't solve a crisis of inequality from a story that says the society is a ladder you climb. Most important, most viscerally to me, you can't solve an ecological crisis from a story that says we're separate from nature.

Baratunde Thurston  22:03

Our only way forward is to destroy the thing we depend on most.

Jon Alexander  22:06


Baratunde Thurston  22:07


Jon Alexander  22:08

So that story, the consumer story is crumbling. It's falling apart and ultimately, we're going to have to shift. So the danger of this moment, I think is that these tools and approaches of the citizen world are emerging and they're so powerful and so exciting and so creative. If we don't adopt them, then those who would actually create a subject world will co-opt them, will steal those clothes.

Baratunde Thurston  22:38

When you told the story of Q-Anon on, I think you started hinting at what some of these tools of the Citizens Story are.

Jon Alexander  22:45


Baratunde Thurston  22:46

Can you be a bit more specific about it? If we don't pick these up, someone else will. What are the tools of the Citizens Story?

Jon Alexander  22:52

Well, it's the stuff you talk to. It's like crowdsourcing, crowdfunding. It's like inviting people in. You've talked to Audrey Tang, I know on this podcast-

Baratunde Thurston  23:02


Jon Alexander  23:02

... and what the Taiwanese government did in their response to COVID that fast, fun, fair thing. Listen to that episode, my friends, but-

Baratunde Thurston  23:09

Thanks, Jon.

Jon Alexander  23:10

... the tools begin with asking people a question and saying, so in the Taiwanese example it was, "We don't know how to get through this challenge of the pandemic. What we do know is that we'll get through it best if we tap into the ideas and energy and resource of everyone. We know we'll do it best together." That's the starting point.

Baratunde Thurston  23:26


Jon Alexander  23:27

Then the challenge is, how do you create the structures and processes that enable people to contribute and make it meaningful and joyful for people to get involved? In Taiwan, they did some lovely stuff, high-tech stuff like challenge prizes and these sorts of things, but they also, my favorite story was they created a phone line where any citizen could ring in with ideas on how the country-

Baratunde Thurston  23:46

With a suggestion-

Jon Alexander  23:47


Baratunde Thurston  23:47

Yeah, like a working suggestion box, and then they actually listened to the messages-

Jon Alexander  23:51

And adopted them.

Baratunde Thurston  23:51


Jon Alexander  23:53

So this stuff is not rocket science, a lot of it, right?

Baratunde Thurston  23:56


Jon Alexander  23:56

But it's most fundamentally that shift in mindset and then the shift in tools follows from that.

Baratunde Thurston  24:01

The other example I'm thinking of when I think about the framework that we've tried to hold to with our principles which overlap so much, participation, investing in relationships, understanding power, valuing the collective, and I look at our school board meetings in the U.S., which have become so violent in this sight of intimidation physically. I look at who's showing up to political rallies and it's armed people.

Jon Alexander  24:24


Baratunde Thurston  24:25

I'm like, "Well, they're showing up and participating. They're invested in relationships." People go to Trump rallies over and over again and know each other and build friendships out of that.

Jon Alexander  24:33


Baratunde Thurston  24:34

They're understanding their power. The attacks on education in our country in terms of not teaching our real history is well-funded and distributed to the very edges of society. It doesn't just live inside of our beltway, it's my friends who live in the suburbs and somewhere in Texas are getting mailings at home-

Jon Alexander  24:50


Baratunde Thurston  24:50

... scaring them, and then telling them who to harass.

Jon Alexander  24:54


Baratunde Thurston  24:55

So that's been a very effective model, but in service in your words of a subject model.

Jon Alexander  25:00


Baratunde Thurston  25:01

So it is in sheep's clothing, and the sheep is the Citizens Story.

Jon Alexander  25:06

This is where the process design of this stuff is so crucial, and particularly to those who fear that in the U.S. maybe things are too polarized for this sort of approach to work. My favorite example of really clear process design and doing this really powerfully, November 2019, just before the impeachment proceedings began, the U.S. was super polarized.

Baratunde Thurston  25:29

Oh, right, the first impeachment.

Jon Alexander  25:31

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  25:33

I forgot about that.

Jon Alexander  25:34

I know.

Baratunde Thurston  25:34

Go for it. November 2019. You're back 50 years ago.

Jon Alexander  25:37

I know, but there was a project called America in a Room.

Baratunde Thurston  25:41


Jon Alexander  25:41

You heard about this?

Baratunde Thurston  25:42


Jon Alexander  25:42

So they got 526 American citizens represented in the national population on all key demographics, including political affiliations.

Baratunde Thurston  25:50


Jon Alexander  25:51

30 self-identified as extremely liberal, 30 odd self-identified as extremely conservative.

Baratunde Thurston  25:57


Jon Alexander  25:57

Came together in a conference suite in Dallas for four days, split into small groups, deliberated on all the issues of the day, basically. A whole load of consensus emerged like lightly. There were shifts away a little bit from a high federal minimum wage because people were engaging with the diversity of the economic conditions across America. But the critical finding, the most powerful thing, so in the literature on polarization, there are two different types of polarization. There's issue polarization where I disagree with you, Baratunde.

Baratunde Thurston  26:30


Jon Alexander  26:31

Then there's affective polarization, which is, "You're evil, Baratunde."

Baratunde Thurston  26:36


Jon Alexander  26:37

What they found in this process was that affective polarization went through the floor.

Baratunde Thurston  26:41


Jon Alexander  26:41


Baratunde Thurston  26:43

They re-humanized each other, yeah.

Jon Alexander  26:45

Even to the extent where I was told that in some of the communities that people were going back to, these individual participants, they saw affective polarization drop. There's a great New York Times piece on it, actually-

Baratunde Thurston  26:55


Jon Alexander  26:55

So if you want to check it out there, it was run by a gang called the Helena Projects, Stanford University and James Fishkin was involved in it. It was in the process that's called Deliberative Polling was the methodology underpinning it.

Baratunde Thurston  27:08

When I think about corporations, most governments, it seems to me there'd be a lot of risk to them in embracing a Citizens Story that tries to facilitate and not dominate, that tries to encourage participation, wrangle so many different opinions, herd cats. What reasons do they have to make the shift into this different story and potentially, at least in a short term view, give up some power?

Jon Alexander  27:37

Well, look, there's two things I would say to this. The first is just to set the premise a little bit.

Baratunde Thurston  27:42


Jon Alexander  27:43

So I think we talk a lot about people trusting government, right?

Baratunde Thurston  27:46


Jon Alexander  27:47

And trying to get people to trust government more and this sort of thing. Ultimately, I think that's a flawed premise. What we have to understand is that what we're trapped in at the moment is a vicious circle. We're trapped in a state where people, because our institutions are trapped within the consumer story, they're trying to solve the problems of our time from within that story and you can't. People are seeing that our institutions aren't up to the tasks, and that's why they're losing trust in them. Then they're behaving a little angrily. Institutions again, understandably, see that and respond by withdrawing, by bringing power in. Then people get angrier because ... right?

Baratunde Thurston  28:30


Jon Alexander  28:30

And then you're in a loop.

Baratunde Thurston  28:31


Jon Alexander  28:32

And that is the way I think we need to understand the moment in time we're in. Audrey says this, again, this idea that actually it's not about people trusting government so much that is about government trusting people. It's about institutions trusting people, which is difficult, and that needs to be acknowledged.

Baratunde Thurston  28:54

Because I've met people, and some of them are the worst.

Jon Alexander  28:58

Right, but understanding that that anger and frustration comes from some, and I really want to be clear, it's easy for me to say, right? I don't want to be that guy, but there is a reason why that's happening and we're certainly way down that cycle. So a part of the answer to your question is I think we have to break the cycle somehow, and that, I think, is the intervention point. The second part, and maybe the more hopeful and joyful part is to say it just works, right?

Baratunde Thurston  29:30

If you're into things that work, try this.

Jon Alexander  29:32


Baratunde Thurston  29:32


Jon Alexander  29:33

There's a reason why the business world is going in this direction, actually. We're seeing big corporations like GE use crowdsourcing processes. We're seeing NASA use it. We're seeing some of the fastest-growing businesses in the world. I talk in the book about a company called BrewDog, which has started in Scotland with two guys and a dog brewing their own beer, and now was the only company to be in The Sunday Times' 100 Fastest Growing Companies eight years in a row, I think it was.

Baratunde Thurston  29:58


Jon Alexander  29:59

What they're doing is crowdsourcing their recipes. They have a thing called DIY Dog where they open source those recipes once they've crowdsourced them, and then sell brewing kits as well as beer and even train people to be a sommelier, but for beer. Again, what that's doing is powering that organization because people are buying into a cause in the world, buying into something that can drive energy, build energy. Then look at Taiwan. It's the most successful COVID response in the world, right? Fast fund, fair. Second lowest death rate, never went into lockdown.

Baratunde Thurston  30:30

Do you see examples of the Citizens Story masquerading as a consumer story maybe for increased palatability or comprehension?

Jon Alexander  30:42

I think we can and should make The Citizens Story appealing and joyful and creative. That's not a bad thing to do.

Baratunde Thurston  30:51


Jon Alexander  30:51

I think there is a line where the consumer story maybe can co-op the Citizens Story. Could we end up with something like citizen washing happening? We could, and I think BrewDog is an interesting case in point because actually, they've behaved pretty badly in some ways recently. What they've found is that the energy of this has grown the company so fast. Then the founders started to kind of believe their own hype is how I understand it. They effectively invented equity crowdfunding back in 2009. They sold a load of the company to their customers.

Baratunde Thurston  31:21


Jon Alexander  31:21

They've now got something like 200,000 equity punks they call them.

Baratunde Thurston  31:25


Jon Alexander  31:25

So again, really creative, cool way of doing it. But then they sold and they said they would never sell out, and they sold a big portion of the company to a VC firm. Then there's been accusation from within the company of them treating employees pretty badly. But what's so interesting is the group of employees who are starting to fight back and hold them to account and push them are calling themselves Punks With Purpose. So they're naming themselves from within the idea of the organization and challenging the founders from that place.

Baratunde Thurston  31:54


Jon Alexander  31:55

So the really interesting question in that organization is, who's co-opting whom, right?

Baratunde Thurston  31:59

Yeah. Yeah.

Jon Alexander  32:00

Once you start to authentically build a Citizens Story-

Baratunde Thurston  32:03

You can't stop it.

Jon Alexander  32:04


Baratunde Thurston  32:05

Yeah, and it'll find a way.

Jon Alexander  32:07


Baratunde Thurston  32:07

It may be delayed, but it may not be indefinitely deferred. One of the things that I really admire about you is that you're not just writing about these things, you're helping put them in the practice. You've got the new citizenship project, you do reports, but you also do activations to take a word from the brand in the advertising world, workshops, toolkits.

Jon Alexander  32:28


Baratunde Thurston  32:28

You got boot camps. How do you go about helping folks embrace and implement the Citizens Story? Can you walk me through your design process to help folks take idea into action and build a new story?

Jon Alexander  32:42

Sure. So there's basically one of the tools, the key tool really, that we've created, The Three Principles of Participatory Organizations. You can take the boy out of advertising, but you can't take the alliteration out of the boy. So the three principles are Purpose, Platform, and Prototype.

Baratunde Thurston  32:56


Jon Alexander  32:57

Actually, this is actually a hack on one of the key mental models of The Consumer Story. So the first edition of a marketing textbook was written that talked about The Four Principles of the Marketing Mix: Product, Price, Promotion and Placement-

Baratunde Thurston  33:09

The Four Ps, yeah.

Jon Alexander  33:09

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  33:09


Jon Alexander  33:13

The textbooks that that's in is still taught in every MBA course anywhere in the world. So the problem is even organizations that are trying to think differently are pulled back into that story because the-

Baratunde Thurston  33:24

The four boxes, yeah.

Jon Alexander  33:25

So the Three Principles, the Three Ps: Purpose, Platform, Prototype is an attempt to sort of offer a different framework.

Baratunde Thurston  33:32

An alternative, yeah.

Jon Alexander  33:32

So the question for each, so purpose is, what are you trying to do in the world that's so big you actually need people to do it with you? You can't do it for them.

Baratunde Thurston  33:42

I just want to pause you on that. What's an idea that's so big that you need other people?

Jon Alexander  33:47


Baratunde Thurston  33:48

What's something you can ask of people?

Jon Alexander  33:51


Baratunde Thurston  33:51

One of the things I feel is that we haven't been asked to do very much, maybe come and vote every couple of years.

Jon Alexander  33:59


Baratunde Thurston  33:59

Definitely spend some money, take on debt-

Jon Alexander  34:02


Baratunde Thurston  34:02

... and otherwise kind of keep your head down, protect yourself in your little homestead, and that's all. That's all we got. Our list of requests and demands and opportunities for your participation is very low. So already starting with a big enough purpose that you need other people is just a very dynamic shift from what most of us experience, I think.

Jon Alexander  34:23


Baratunde Thurston  34:23

Keep going.

Jon Alexander  34:24

The power of a question in that space is really huge as well. How can we do this? We don't have the answers. We're not going to be able to do it for you, but we can frame the question that we can answer together.

Baratunde Thurston  34:33

Okay, purpose.

Jon Alexander  34:35

Platform, what are the structures and processes that you create to make it meaningful and joyful for people to get involved in that? Not easy and convenient. Not like-

Baratunde Thurston  34:43

Meaningful and joyful.

Jon Alexander  34:44

Meaningful and joyful.

Baratunde Thurston  34:45


Jon Alexander  34:45

So again, like the Taiwan stuff, the BrewDog stuff, those are examples that speak to that thing. So we walk through with organizations helping them develop their ideas to offer those opportunities. Then the prototype one is really just how do you build the energy for this? Because you can't flip a utopian switch and become a completely different thing overnight, so how do you build the energy is the third?

Baratunde Thurston  35:04

Are you generally working with young institutions, old institutions, large or small?

Jon Alexander  35:12

All of the above.

Baratunde Thurston  35:13


Jon Alexander  35:13

It all figures across every sector. The only thing you can't do this stuff with is something that doesn't really have a purpose that without which nothing is something that people want to participate in.

Baratunde Thurston  35:24

Without which-

Jon Alexander  35:25


Baratunde Thurston  35:26

Oh, you were using real English on me. Look at this guy.

Jon Alexander  35:28

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  35:30

I've caught up to you. I'm like the without, which, this is the problem.

Jon Alexander  35:32


Baratunde Thurston  35:33

We're talking to a British guy.

Jon Alexander  35:34


Baratunde Thurston  35:34

He uses the language purposefully

Jon Alexander  35:37

Overly posh moment. There it goes. I sometimes like to think of myself as the anti-Boris Johnson. His name's name's actually Alexander Johnson. I'm John Alexander. We both did degrees in ancient Greek and Latin-

Baratunde Thurston  35:50

Yeah, but you use yours publicly.

Jon Alexander  35:51

I can posh it with the best of them. So maybe what I'll say is 'cause the last four-and-a-half weeks, like I'm in LA because I'm going around the world right now, literally around the world. I've been in Athens, Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand, and there's a couple of things I'm learning through that and thinking about as a result. The first is, this is not a new story. Spending time with First Nations philosophers, particularly in Australia and New Zealand and going, actually the citizens' story is not like a new creation. It's deep in us. A guy called Tyson Yunkaporta, who you need to get on this, you would love Tyson.

Baratunde Thurston  36:27


Jon Alexander  36:27

Wrote a book called Sand Talk, How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. He basically speaks and sits in a 60,000-year world view just by default. The thing he said to me was like, "Don't worry, Jon," I was getting a little stressed.

Baratunde Thurston  36:41


Jon Alexander  36:41

He goes, "Don't worry Jon. It's going to take humans a good bit longer to forget how to be human, how to be the custodian species," is the way he called it.

Baratunde Thurston  36:49

Yeah. Thank you for that acknowledgement too, because I think we're both pretty young, certainly relative to the human experience. We're Nats, but it can be very tempting to think we need something new to get us out of this new challenge. The challenges really aren't that new. They're repackaged, they're rebranded, and many of the solutions and the pathways forward involve something we've lost or forgotten, but not entirely new, is it? There's my Yoda for you. After the break, more on making the shift to the citizen story. For years a lot of us have heard this message that we should vote with our wallets. Become a conscious consumer, right? That's a better way for, what's the difference between conscious consumption and a full-blown citizen story? How close can they get to one another?

Jon Alexander  37:48

Oh look. I mean, they're kind of close. The way I would put it is that we are what we are told to be.

Baratunde Thurston  37:57

We are what we are told to be.

Jon Alexander  37:59

That is consumers who occasionally vote and bring the identity construct and the mode of the consumer to bear on the act of voting. What we are becoming, I think, or re-becoming, remembering into the future, is citizens who sometimes consume and might bring the citizen orientation to bear on the act of consumption. It's not like consumption is over. The problem is the story, not the act. The problem is consumerism, not consumption. That's-

Baratunde Thurston  38:35

It's a matter of degree.

Jon Alexander  38:36

Right. Then, the other difference is it's just much more fun, man. Trying to be good within the consumer story is hard and guilt inducing. To be good within the consumer story, you have to never use a disposable cup, never fly, never eat. That stuff's important, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying individual behavior change doesn't matter, but actually, our true agency is collective. If individual behavior change is one plus one plus, collective change is multiplied.

Baratunde Thurston  39:08

It's multiplied and it's raised to something. We're in the exponential realm now.

Jon Alexander  39:12

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  39:13


Jon Alexander  39:14

It's just joyful, right? It's just good to do stuff together.

Baratunde Thurston  39:17


Jon Alexander  39:18

Maybe if I could, because I'd love your view on this. One of the things I'm thinking about as a result of this trip is, I think, increasingly I'm like, this is us. We are citizens by nature. People are doing it everywhere. It's underneath the surface, but it's happening. We saw it in COVID in particular, right? It's mutual aid. All that.

Baratunde Thurston  39:40

All that. Yeah. Yeah.

Jon Alexander  39:42

What is it that flips the story? There is work of muscle building. I love the phrase. I think, did you use this, citizenship is a muscle you build?

Baratunde Thurston  39:51

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, maybe when we talked on the other show, I brought it up cause the gym metaphor was strong in me.

Jon Alexander  39:57

There you go, man. The other part of the work I think is what I'm increasingly thinking about is these critical moments when the story can shift at a societal level. What does it look like to more intentionally find or even create and curate those moments? How might we spot the opportunities for that? In Australia, I ended up talking to loads of people about the new government has committed to holding a referendum on the indigenous voice to parliament.

Baratunde Thurston  40:24

The indigenous voice to parliament. What is that?

Jon Alexander  40:27

There was a statement, what's called the statement from the heart, a gathering of First Nation's leaders came together in Uluru, in the center of Australia and produced a set of recommendations for how the voice of indigenous peoples could be better heard in Australian government. They put that forward. The then government rejected it out of hand. The new government has said, "We want to do this. It's a constitutional shift, so it requires referendum." Some time in the next few years, there will be a referendum on this.

Baratunde Thurston  40:57

Yeah. That's a moment.

Jon Alexander  40:59

That's a moment.

Baratunde Thurston  41:00


Jon Alexander  41:00

How do you design for that because a referendum, trust me, I'm British, can take a country in a dark direction, right?

Baratunde Thurston  41:06

Oh, I'm a Californian.

Jon Alexander  41:07

There we go, my friend. You know.

Baratunde Thurston  41:09

We have so many referendum out here. Yeah.

Jon Alexander  41:11

A referendum in and of itself is a consumer moment, right?

Baratunde Thurston  41:14


Jon Alexander  41:14

It's just pick.

Baratunde Thurston  41:15

Yes. How you lead up to that moment.

Jon Alexander  41:17

How you build for that.

Baratunde Thurston  41:18

How you have conversations and deliberate.

Jon Alexander  41:20

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  41:20

Over that moment could really shift the outcome and the feeling you have about the outcome.

Jon Alexander  41:25

Right. Then, I arrive in New Zealand and I'd look at the conversation about climate there is really ripening. How might we bring into that some of these ideas, but also draw on the depth of the Maori wisdoms and even their process. One of the lovely things I came across on this trip was the Maori concept of [foreign language 00:41:45], which is the word for the joining space between the two holes of an ocean going canoe. When they had a moment of uncertainty, they were gathering in these space and draw on the wisdom of the people who read the stars best and the people who read the currents best and figure out what to do together in a process of storytelling and story sharing and wisdom sharing. How might we draw on that? Then, here in LA, I mean, this is the place of story, right?

Baratunde Thurston  42:11

Yes it is.

Jon Alexander  42:12

This is the global hub. Remember what we said about the Olympics in 1984?

Baratunde Thurston  42:17


Jon Alexander  42:18

Then, 28.

Baratunde Thurston  42:20

We could have a do-over and do something different. If LA helped accelerate the consumer story by bringing brands to the Olympics, could it help accelerate the citizen story by bringing people to it in a different way?

Jon Alexander  42:29

How might we do that?

Baratunde Thurston  42:30


Jon Alexander  42:31

Wouldn't it be great to ask that question?

Baratunde Thurston  42:32

Now, you got me all excited to get all local, man.

Jon Alexander  42:35

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  42:36

What are some other ways, sadly, our listeners do not all reside in LA or New Zealand, which would be really, really perfect, ways to help us make that mental shift into the citizen story? Somebody is hearing this now and they're fired up, they're ready to go. How do we help tell the story? How do we help join in it from where we are at right now? What are some of the on ramps you've seen?

Jon Alexander  42:59

Right. I mean, I have a pretty simple three step thing which I broadly stole from you. I think.

Baratunde Thurston  43:04

All right. Here it comes.

Jon Alexander  43:08

From my way of languages. See what you make of this one.

Baratunde Thurston  43:10


Jon Alexander  43:11

It's basically, step one, find home, decide what the realm, whether it's your workplace, your local place or something bigger or something.

Baratunde Thurston  43:22

You have to call it a realm though. It just, it's more powerful when you refer to it as a realm as opposed to a workplace or a neighborhood.

Jon Alexander  43:28


Baratunde Thurston  43:28

Okay. Find your home.

Jon Alexander  43:30

Find home.

Baratunde Thurston  43:31

Find home.

Jon Alexander  43:32

Step two, find the others. Put up the bat signal, right? Who else wants to make this realm better? Then, step three, own only step three. Decide what the first thing to do is together.

Baratunde Thurston (00:43:47):

Right? Well, I mean that sequencing actually feels very important. It's not, I have an idea to fix X. I need you to help me get it done. It's, hi, I'm here. You're here too. We're a we now. What do we want to do?

Jon Alexander  44:04

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  44:05

What's important to us, not just to me, and just establishing that shared reality, that shared narrative.

Jon Alexander  44:12

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  44:12

That shared story with the sequencing of that just, it actually feels really important because I know so many people, including myself, who are like, that's wrong. I got an idea. Let's go. Here's my petition, here's my signup sheet to join me in my thing. Hopefully, you'll feel like it's your thing too. Whereas, if you develop it in community, then it has a different potency and a different sense of co-investment.

Jon Alexander  44:34


Baratunde Thurston  44:35

Okay. When you think about, because so much of the new citizenship project work that I've seen is institutional. Let's say my realm is my neighborhood.

Jon Alexander  44:46


Baratunde Thurston  44:48

Okay, so I've chosen my home, find others. Am I calling a meeting? Am I inviting people over for cupcakes? How specific is my invitation to these others before we decide what it is we might want to affect or change?

Jon Alexander  45:06

It really varies. It's what feels right to the group, I guess. I mean, I think maybe a couple of examples from my story gathering that speak most powerfully to this. One of my favorites is the story of a place called Grimsby on the northeast coast of England. That's the place that's been most screwed over the last 50 years or so. What happened there was the council called a meeting and there's this guy Billy who wasn't going to go because he said, "It'll just be people complaining and the council saying they can't do anything, so what's the point?"

Baratunde Thurston  45:41

You've all seen that meeting.

Jon Alexander  45:42

We've all seen that meeting. A friend of his said, "Our moms would've gone," and guilt tripped him into it. He went to the meeting and got so frustrated that he stood up in the meeting and said, "Look, I'm just going to go clear one street tomorrow. Anyone who wants to join me, I'd love you to join me, and then we'll just see what we do from there because this is too much dwelling in the pain." I think it was like, I'm going to get the numbers wrong, but let's say it was like 15 people turned up the next day. They agreed to do it again two weeks later on a different street, 30 came.

Fast-forward four years, these guys now have a magazine called the Proud East Martian. This is in the East Marsh in Grimsby. They have a six monthly arts festival called the Sun and Moon Arts Festival, and they've just closed pretty recently, a half million pound community share offer raising money. That amount of money in Grimsby will buy 10 houses, refit them using good local jobs and let them out as a social landlord creating a sustainable revenue stream for the rest of the organization. Started with a litter pick.

Baratunde Thurston (00:46:41):

That's inspiring.

Jon Alexander  46:42

In a totally different realm, there's a thing that I believe is still live right now, last time I checked, so a group of McKinsey consultants.

Baratunde Thurston  46:52


Jon Alexander  46:52

Yeah, man. See this is the range.

Baratunde Thurston  46:54

From East Martians to McKinsey Consultants.

Jon Alexander  46:58

There we go. A group of, I think it was 11 of them originally wrote an open letter to the partners calling them to discuss their fossil fuel relationships. Ignored to start with. Last time I heard, 1100 McKinsey consultants had signed up to this letter.

Baratunde Thurston  47:14

Yeah, that's great.

Jon Alexander  47:15

Great. To your thing, those 11 might be enough, 15 might be enough. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to find all of the others. Find some others.

Baratunde Thurston  47:28

You're such a storyteller and a story gatherer, as you just called yourself. Are there certain phrases, certain narrative bullet points, certain language choices that you've seen people using consistently across these examples when they make that invitation, when they try to show up, when they try to establish the we, that tends to be successful more than a different set of language choices? I'm literally thinking about the sign on Facebook or Mastodon, not Twitter, or on the posts. The power line. The power pole in my neighborhood.

Jon Alexander  48:07

That's a great question and one I want to think about more, but my immediate reaction is that spirit of question and that language of being needed. Briefly to theory this. There's this really powerful concept called safe uncertainty. The idea here, so it comes from therapy originally, a guy called Barry Mace. The idea essentially is that anyone who comes for therapy is in one or two places. They're either unsafe uncertain, I don't know what to do, or unsafe certain, I'm bad and I know I am. What they think they want is safe certainty. Tell me what to do to fix it. You can see this, right? This is the subject story, the consumer story, both play in that space by this or do this. What this guy says is safe uncertainty is about holding the space, standing beside rather than in front of and saying, "We don't know exactly what's going to happen and I'm not going to pretend to you that we do." Billy in Grimsby didn't stand up and say, "If we go and pick the litter off one street, we'll have solved Grimsby. In four years time, we'll have bought some houses and we'll be a social landlord and we'll be breaking it down." He said, "There are some things we can do."

Baratunde Thurston  49:17

Oh, man. Yeah. You're blowing my mind a bit. Just connecting to the consumer stories, infiltration of philanthropy and the need for returns and business plans and projections and scale, and people with significant resources only funding things that can prove all these other downstream effects, whereas they wouldn't have ignored the guy in Grimsby.

Jon Alexander  49:43


Baratunde Thurston  49:43

You don't have a plan. Show me your metrics. Show me your projections. I need to see your deck, and the intention of just gathering, which we have Priya Parker in this season as well.

Jon Alexander  49:55

There you go.

Baratunde Thurston  49:55

There's a beautiful overlap with some of these thoughts to find their way into a person who's like, all right, I think I know how I might start this. What do you think the world would look like if we made the transition to living in the citizens' story? What would be practically different? What would our experience feel like?

Jon Alexander  50:14

I find this question kind of hard because it's like-

Baratunde Thurston (00:50:17):

Good. Welcome to the table.

Jon Alexander  50:21

You're testing me. No, but I'm at a level where I'm like, some of it is that I don't think we exactly know.

Baratunde Thurston  50:26

Are you practicing safe uncertainty with me right now?

Jon Alexander  50:29

Working on you. I'm kind of serious, right?

Baratunde Thurston  50:33


Jon Alexander  50:33

A big part of the joy of this whole thing is the act of creating it.

Baratunde Thurston  50:37

Yeah. I hear you truly on the safe uncertainty. You're also kind of practicing what you just described, which is you're not over-promising a specific outcome when I ask you that question. I have one last question for you and then we'll go to our live, not in studio audience.

Jon Alexander  50:53

There we go.

Baratunde Thurston  50:54

We embrace citizen as a verb here at How To Citizen. Mr. Storyteller, wordsmith, if you are interpreting citizen as a verb, how do you define it? What does it mean to citizen?

Jon Alexander  51:06

I mean, I listen to your first episodes.

Baratunde Thurston  51:09

Valerie Core. Eric Lu. Yeah.

Jon Alexander  51:12

When I was writing the book, and honestly, I've been like fanboying you, but where I got to the way I do it is I talk about, because nouns are important to me as well, because nouns become identity constructs. That's why it's important to understand the consumer, not just the act of consumption. The way I talk about it is I make the distinction between citizenship as status, which has become consumerized. It's become a product.

Baratunde Thurston  51:43

You can buy it.

Jon Alexander (00:51:44):

You can buy it, right?

Baratunde Thurston  51:44

Yeah, the golden visa.

Jon Alexander  51:46

Versus citizenship as practice.

Baratunde Thurston  51:48


Jon Alexander  51:49

That's basically you, this stuff. Yeah, it's this part, right? The citizenship has practiced as citizen as verb.

Baratunde Thurston  51:56

Yeah. Yeah. Jon Alexander, it's been so good to see you in person here in the same room. Welcome belatedly to Los Angeles.

Jon Alexander  52:08

Thank you, my friend.

Baratunde Thurston  52:09

At this point, I want to turn it over to our guests to see what's on their minds. Let's see what magic we might have been missing. Janine de Novais, come on down.

Janine de Novais  52:21

This is Janine from Philadelphia. Jon, you were talking about your origin story more or lesson, you said something like about 2003 and you said how much noise it is to have to go through 3000 ads to get your ad out. I was like, wow. Remember when we thought 2003 was noisy? Imagine. You know what I mean? That was really quaint. That was before Facebook really took over. My question is, what do you think as a storyteller, a professional storyteller, what do you see as the impact social media has had on the relationship between all of us civilians, public and storytelling, meaning making, and I guess, story choosing, right, because you're talking about our ability to choose our stories and make stories and opt in and out. I just want you to reflect on what these technologies are doing to that.

Baratunde Thurston  53:15

Thank you, Janine.

Jon Alexander  53:16

The first thing I would say is to your charting back through time, I think we also need to remember 2011 and what we thought the promise of these things were. A good friend of mine is a woman called Amazine Khalifa, who you again should have on here. She was one of the organizers of the Tunisian Revolution and using social media in beautiful ways, when we all thought Facebook was the answer. I think, I do believe that social media have that potential and I do see everything through the lens of these stories. The way I would frame it is that we build our technologies from within stories. When we build them from within a consumer story, they then speak back to us as consumers.

Baratunde Thurston  54:01


Jon Alexander  54:02

Facebook and Twitter and so on, they're designed for us as consumers. I think the most powerful analogy, really, is actually more like what was originally called the sharing economy, like the Airbnbs and Ubers of this world, where we were like ... These were out just forming when I was starting to really develop this language. And I was like, "Maybe I don't need to do this because we're just going to share everything," and the whole dream was that every transaction would become a relationship.

But because they were built from within the consumer story, what's actually happened is that every relationship becomes a transaction. We just become consumers of each other. It's the story that I would look to, and maybe to this thing about critical intervention points. Twitter right now is super fascinating. What might happen in that space or what might Mastodon become? Or if in this moment we can seize on the collapse in that space and build something from within the citizen story, maybe we could have genuinely social media.

Baratunde Thurston  54:58

Absolutely. I love that. I have too many thoughts on that, myself, Janine, as well. They align largely with what you've shared, Jon. What social media has done to us is turn the consumer story up to 11,000 and atomize us and chop us up and sell us off for parts. And so it's much, much more violent than what we've experienced with traditional media and advertising, et cetera. So let's go to the next question. We've got Ray.

Ray Kennedy  55:29

I'm Ray Kennedy. I'm here in the Coachella Valley in Southern California. I had the pleasure of driving into LA last night to see Jon at the book tour event and just wanted to ask, one of the things that I remember reading years ago, I think 2005 it was, is the book The Wisdom of Crowds. And I was wondering if that was something that had played a role in your thinking as it evolved.

Baratunde Thurston  55:59

Thank you, Ray.

Jon Alexander  56:01

I'm trying to think of a way to make a longer answer than yes.

Baratunde Thurston  56:05

You don't have to. It gives us time for more questions questions-

Jon Alexander  56:07

Well, yeah. Maybe I'll just say that. It was off the back of The Wisdom of Crowds, actually, that the original concept of MyFarm developed because we were like, "Actually, we might get different intelligences into the space." Maybe one thing I will say on this, actually, I think this is where the corruption of voting is a really good way to understand the corruption of voting. So voting, if it's an act of collective intelligence, can be a decent methodology. But to do that, we all have to be asking the same collective question. This is one of the points that Surowiecki makes in Wisdom of Crowds. Everyone has to be asking, what's the option here that's in the best interest, in the best collective interest? But one of the things that's happened through the consumerization of our politics is that we're no longer all asking what's in our collective interest. Instead, we're individually asking, what's in my interest?

Baratunde Thurston  57:00

The way we ask the question.

Jon Alexander  57:01

And what question we ask.

Baratunde Thurston  57:03

And also, are bots answering the questions or are they real humans? There was a simplicity to just put it up for a crowd vote and that'll solve it, and the process design was weak when it came to defending against actors, information warfare artists, and all of this that could corrupt such a process. Thank you so much, Ray, for that question. Let's see. I'm going to ask this on behalf, a listener submitted question from Jonathan asks, "What do you think about using behavioral economic insights to encourage citizen-like behavior over consumer-like behavior? Basically, can you use the master's tools to free the enslaved? Can you use the tools of the consumer story in service of a citizen story?"

Jon Alexander  57:47

Look, I think using good design, using creativity, framing things carefully is all part of this. I do worry about the phenomenon of nudge because I think the underlying premise of that so often is-

Baratunde Thurston  58:03

Can you define that briefly?

Jon Alexander  58:04

Nudging is this idea that you unconsciously prompt someone to behave in a certain way. So you get people to keep their towels in a hotel room because you say most people do that-

Baratunde Thurston  58:16

Okay, got it.

Jon Alexander (00:58:17):

... rather than appealing to the moral argument, which motivates fewer people. So you're like ... And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. My worry, though, is there's two things. The first is that we underappreciate what's actually the biggest nudge in history, which is the fact that we've got this story 3,000 times a day, plus. To Janine's question, the latest estimates are anything up to 10,000 times a day for certain cohorts. And so that's behavioral economics right there. The other thing is that I think what results from that, and so often these approaches come from here, is you actually ... some people call it sustainability by stealth, and it's tricking people into doing the greener thing, essentially, because that's the only way we can possibly imagine them doing it.

Baratunde Thurston  59:05

Because we can't trust them to just do the better thing for our collective selves.

Jon Alexander  59:10

Right. And in a way, I think the towels thing is interesting because, when you see that as a grand victory, you're starting so far down the food chain because you're not sharing the big question that goes, how might we make our society sustainable? How might we make this city regenerative? If you hold that question, this question I was talking about with Wellington City Council in New Zealand, how might Wellington become the first regenerative city in the world?

Baratunde Thurston  59:40

That's a great question. Requires a lot of people.

Jon Alexander  59:42

Right. Rather than, "Okay, we need to decrease the water footprint of Wellington's hotels. Let's-"

Baratunde Thurston  59:49

By this percentage point with this little nudge.

Jon Alexander  59:52

So I don't want to be too black and white about it, but-

Baratunde Thurston  59:56

There's nuance to it and I think it is ... I have a temptation often of we're at war and the other side is deploying all of these advanced weapons, and are we going to unilaterally disarm? So I'm already choosing the language of combat and war, but it sometimes feels like that, truly. And so are we being naive in saying, "Well, no, we'll just tell people the truth and they'll figure it out," when they're being lied to 10,000 times a day? Is that a fair way to show up to a battle for a home planet that we could all live on or justice and access to resources for many people who've never had it before?

I don't think there's a simple answer to it. I'm pretty sure a war metaphor isn't going to get us to peace sustainably, but there's also a reality check on what tools, what time, for what duration, and being cleared with ... I'm spending more time on this than I intended, but I think it's just so fascinating. What rubs me mostly the wrong way is the lack of transparency when these techniques are used on us, and then I find out later and that weakens trust even more. I'm like, "Oh, so I'm a subject to your experiment and you couldn't just tell me why and how and still give me incentives." Incentives are fine, but the manipulation without consent or transparency, that feels like a real problem.

Jon Alexander  1:01:19

That's really interesting. And it's like, and then what are we validating-

Baratunde Thurston  1:01:23

Right. And if we're becoming the thing-

Jon Alexander  1:01:27

... for the tools the others-

Baratunde Thurston  1:01:27

Exactly. If we're becoming the thing, then we're citizen washing. All right. We have Martha Ture with our last question and, if we have time left, some closing remarks. Hello, Martha.

Martha Ture  1:01:38

Thank you very kindly, Jon Alexander. This has been most thought-provoking. I think we're in a situation which is comparable to the end of the Bronze Age. We are, in many ways, really at mercy of individuals, authorities, and et cetera, over which we have no power and with whom we have no community. And it strikes me as crucial that we develop community with the people on whom we depend. Thoughts?

Baratunde Thurston  1:02:14

Thank you so much, Martha. Jon?

Jon Alexander  1:02:17

I think I hear a lot of what you are bringing to this in the sense that we're in it now. These challenges are not things that are-

Baratunde Thurston  1:02:26

It's not scenario planning exercise for a distant possibly dystopic future.

Jon Alexander  1:02:30

There's 33 million people displaced in Pakistan. There's bush fires and wildfires. We're in it. And the likelihood is that there is some collapses. That said, I am also like ... There's a lovely Bayo Akomolafe, amazing Nigerian philosopher, says a couple of remarkable things, well, many remarkable things, but one of them is, "Times are urgent. We must slow down." Some of this work is like, let us take the opportunity to come together because, if we rush, that is precisely what will force us into the arms of the subjects story again. And maybe in that light, I'll put forward my preferred historical analogy, which is the aftermath of World War II, which was a moment of incredible institutional innovation. You think what was created in those years, the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Coal and Steel community that became the EEU, the IMF and the World Bank, in the UK the National Health Service, and all of it really from within the consumer story, all with the best intentions, but all with this frame of service and with the idea that trade brings peace. And that's because we are consumers and so, if we fulfill our material needs, then we won't fight.

In this moment in time, we need an institutional innovation on the same scale, but what we need is it to be the ideas and energy and resources of everyone. We need to run those processes in a way that genuinely taps into all the wisdoms and probably, frankly, the people who look and sound like me, getting quite seriously out of the way of that, and if anything, helping hold the space rather than dominating that space. And that, I think, is totally possible, and I think it can still be in time that we need a new universal declaration, we need new institutions at that scale, but we need to do it really differently.

Baratunde Thurston  1:04:24

The good news, I think, is that we can only do it really differently now. There's no going back. Jon, thank you for doing this podcast with me live, in-person with our virtual audience. I so appreciate everything you're up to.

Jon Alexander  1:04:40

Thank you, my friend. It's been great to be here.

Baratunde Thurston  1:04:47

There's so much that we've built in our society that is about empowering the individual to essentially live alone. We've got automated voice assistance across every device, enough delivery and service apps to never leave our homes, and so many TV shows and podcasts that we can just observe conversations instead of having them. Now, for the record, this podcast is obviously part of the solution, not the problem, but you get my drift. We're supposed to be these rugged individualistic armies of one, and for what? Who benefits from that? Who benefits from us feeling alone and trying to satisfy that loneliness with purchases. It's those who profit from the consumer story. And listen, I don't see all advertising as evil. Some of my best friends work in advertising. I'm just saying, I think, if we were hit with thousands of messages a day telling us we are citizens, agents of our own future, members of a collective who have the power to shape our communities through collaboration instead of messages telling us to buy shit all the time, I just think we'd live in a better world.

And now, it's time for some actions. We've grouped these into three categories. First, try this as an internal reflection. You can do this all by yourself. Think about the three stories; subject, consumer, and citizen. Where do those stories show up in your life? Maybe you're a subject with your parents or a consumer in your neighborhood. In what spaces, communities, or realms, oh, I love the word realms, in what spaces are you already living the citizen story? Where else could you show up that way? Second, become more informed by reading about Jon's citizen work. Yes, you should read his book, but a shorter way in is the BBC Future article, Citizen Future: Why We Need a New Story of Self and Society. Also, just visit the New Citizenship Project online. They've got a number of resources to help you or your organization shift into that citizen story. We've linked to both in the show notes. Finally, here's something you can do to publicly participate. I keep thinking about Jon's question, what are you trying to do in the world that's so big, you actually need other people to do it with you? So I want you to think of something like that. It can actually be small, it just has to be too big for you to do alone, because we're done doing things alone. Maybe it's fixing the fence around your yard, organizing a fundraiser at your school, or envisioning a future for your company. Ask someone to help you do it.

Now, I know some of us have a harder time asking for help than others, so I also want you to offer help to someone you're connected to. Just ask them, "Is there something you're trying to do that I can help you with?" I promise you'll feel better and you'll make your community better. If you take any of these actions, please brag about it online and use the hashtag, #howtocitizen. Also, tag our Instagram @howtocitizen. I am always online and I really do see your messages, so send them. You can also visit our website,, which has all of our shows, full transcripts, actions, and more. Finally, see this episode show notes for resources, actions, and more ways to connect. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio Podcasts and Rowhome Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya AbdelHameid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer and John Myers is our executive editor. Our mix engineer is Justin Berger. Our audience engagement fellow is Jasmine Lewis. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Layla Bina.

Jon is pushing the bounds of how we can practice democracy if we live in the citizen story, but even within the existing boundaries and models, we can do more. So we're going to talk about voting. Yeah, voting. How do we take this often uninspired, tedious practice and infuse it with a sense of community and culture?

Nsé Ufot  1:09:40

Fear is a powerful motivator. Anger is a powerful motivator. The problem is that it's not sustainable, that people burn out and tune out. And what I'm proposing is much more sustainable. I say that joy is a renewable resource that we can continue to tap back into, that people want to come and hang out with us, they want to come and volunteer with us, they want to come and donate to our efforts because there's a nine-foot person walking around and singing show tunes, keeping voters entertained and keeping people's spirits high.

Baratunde Thurston  1:10:17

Next episode, we do just that with Nsé Ufot. Rowhome Productions.


Go Deeper

Share Some Feedback

Let us know your thoughts about the episode. What did you learn or what surprised you or challenged you?

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Spread The Word

Share what you’ve learned. Knowledge is power! Tag #howtocitizen so we can reshare!