Here’s to Open Sourcing: Modern Acupuncture, Part One

It’s the time of year for retrospectives, and this from our friends at Acupuncture Today caught my eye: “Modern Acupuncture started a movement with the tagline, Let’s Tingle.”

Ah, Modern Acupuncture. I have such complicated feelings. On one hand, I  can’t argue with the POCA patient who quipped that they’re “co-opting capitalist copycats” or Elaine, who refers to them as “POCA for rich people”. On the other, I think MA is an inevitable consequence of our open source community/knowledge commons: we put everything we know out there for people to use, so we can’t be too surprised when people, well, use it. And if MA is providing acupuncture to patients who benefit from our knowledge, that’s what we intended when we made the decision to be an open source community.  Wikipedia says about open source culture, “Open-source code is meant to be a collaborative effort, where programmers improve upon the source code and share the changes within the community.” 

Obviously MA is using our source code. (Do I need to quote the POCA clinic owners who were approached to be consultants, or note that one of the founders signed up as a POCA member for just long enough to mine this website?) The part of open sourcing MA is not doing, though, is discussing their changes with the rest of us, who are naturally interested. But no worries — I’m happy to do some discussing on their behalf. (You’re welcome!)

So let’s look at their movement-starting marketing campaign, Let’s Tingle. And let’s be explicit about the movement they’re trying to start and how it’s different from the movement that was already here, by which I mean, ours. I can’t remember who first referred to “the community acupuncture movement” but the first related reference in print that I do remember, maybe because it was the best tagline we got (way back in 2008 in the days before hashtags) was “the calmest revolution ever staged”. I think that’s still a good tagline for us.

Since the Modern Acupuncture website says things like, “We all want to be connected. We crave a central truth and purpose fueled by belonging to something bigger. Something that makes a difference. Something that is life changing. And this movement will change lives. The two powerful words “Let’s Tingle” elevate the impact and accessibility of acupuncture for everyone” — there are clearly, um, significant similarities between our “movements”.

A notable difference between us, though, is that Acupuncture Today, which is enthusiastically endorsing “this outstanding public relations/education movement from Modern Acupuncture” was not nearly so excited when the source code for the community acupuncture movement emerged in its very own pages back in 2006. In fact, what Acupuncture Today had to say about it in 2007 was: “While the concept of social entrepreneurship, particularly the “pay according to what you can afford” aspect, is admirable, it has dangerous potential from the perspective of professional advancement.” Got that straight? The community acupuncture movement is bad for the profession, so bad that they fired me as a columnist before I could do any further damage, but the Let’s Tingle movement is good for the profession, so good that the NCCAOM is endorsing it and everyone else should too!


Besides all the unabashed love Modern Acupuncture gets from Acupuncture Today, here are some other differences between our movements that stand out to me, especially in their marketing. While using the same source code (including the same language around accessibility) they’re going for 1) a different target demographic, and 2) a different driving force. Movements have to be fueled by something, right?

Part of the different target demographic is obvious: they want customers who have more money than our patients do. Which explains why Acupuncture Today thinks they’re fabulous and we’re dangerous.  Looking at MA’s website and Instagram, the main way they’re illustrating the Let’s Tingle campaign is through models, who presumably are meant to represent community acupuncture patients, oops, I mean, Modern Acupuncture customers. Looking at those people, their faces especially, is super interesting to me. To wit: they’re all very pretty.

You might be thinking, of course they are, you dolt, they’re models. And at least they represent different races and genders and —

Yeah, but the fact remains, they’re all pretty. And the ones who get the most focus in the campaign are the prettiest in terms of conventional beauty standards. And so far, there’s only one older person (also very pretty), and only one person who isn’t thin (yup, same), in the lineup of Tinglers. This proportion is very different from our target demographic, which does not skew towards young, thin, and coiffed.

Before any of my current or former patients gets offended by this discussion, let me say that there are lots of photogenic people in POCA’s collective patient base! And yes, we treat models in community clinics — of course we do; modeling is a hard, physical job. But the prettiness of the Let’s Tingle faces can’t be separated from the message, which is aspirational, even if it’s relatively subtle about it. Be a Zen goddess. You want a face that says all positive vibes. Restore your natural glow.

Let’s Tingle presents acupuncture as a way to make yourself look good in other people’s eyes. To improve yourself. To quote MA’s website again, “Not only can beauty and wellness go hand in hand—they should.” That’s really, really different from one of the core messages of the community acupuncture movement, which is come as you are, you’re just fine.  I think a primary reason that community acupuncture works as well as it does is that there’s zero pressure to be better or different. There’s particularly no pressure to be more attractive. If you show up for your treatment in your pajamas because you just couldn’t get dressed, it’s fine! People who are in a lot of pain, and/or sick, are frequently not glamorous, and we’d rather they didn’t have to think about the bags under their eyes when they come into the clinic for, say, their autoimmune disease or their COPD or their panic attacks.  It’s really hard to imagine mixing beauty treatments with all the other things acupuncture is good for in the same messaging, and not have things get weird. (For example, this? Is weird.)

I’ll just say it: the Let’s Tingle campaign makes it seem like Modern Acupuncture’s target demographic is people who don’t have all that much wrong with them. People who aren’t suffering. 

And, well, that’s a big fucking difference between us, so big that it calls into question how using our source code is going to work out for Modern Acupuncture.

Our source code was written for suffering. It was written for people with limited resources and limited options, for people who are scared by how much pain they’re in. And the people in POCA clinics who are working on that shared source code every day, are either in the same boat as a lot of their patients, or they have so much empathy, they might as well be. We’re not particularly aspirational, we’re more about getting through the day. We’re about surviving, and yeah — it’s not pretty.

I get how that doesn’t make for the kind of marketing Modern Acupuncture wants. But for some reason, I feel like I have to explain that we have a movement because we have urgency behind what we do. In our experience, it takes urgency to get enough people through the doors, past the basic weirdness and unfamiliarity of acupuncture, to keep our clinics viable (side note: any POCA clinic’s overhead is vastly lower than any Modern Acupuncture’s).

Can you make an actual movement out of people wanting, say, to restore their natural glow –which sounds nice, but not particularly urgent? That’s the big question. Can you make an acupuncture movement out of people who have more money and more options than us, which means, people who maybe don’t need acupuncture so badly because they could try a dozen other things to restore their natural glow? I don’t know, maybe they can. It’ll be instructive for us to watch them try. A lot of people have bet a lot of money that they can succeed.

I hear that Modern Acupuncture has tried to appease the rest of the acupuncture profession by reassuring them they’ll refer all the “complicated cases” out to more expensive private room practitioners. Anyone who would buy that hasn’t treated enough actual humans to have a clue. Humans don’t fall into such neat binaries of complicated/simple in the real world, and also, that’s not how they use acupuncture when it’s available to them. If somebody has a good experience with acupuncture, odds are high they’ll tell their friends and relatives who have complicated problems and haven’t found relief with conventional medicine. And then they’ll want to bring them along the next time (especially if you're, ahem, treating people in groups).

Public service announcement for everyone in the profession who hasn’t figured it out: acupuncture attracts desperate, suffering people. Also, their families and friends.

But let’s say Modern Acupuncture is successful in weeding out the desperate, the suffering, and the complicated (spoiler: I hope they’re not, I hope they treat them anyway) and somehow they’re able to ensure that Modern Acupuncture members only have simple requests like enhancing their focus, relaxing their muscles, and reducing fine lines. I’m still not seeing where the driving force for their “movement” comes from. Personally, I’ll be super impressed if they can get people to the barricades with a call to arms of “Let’s Tingle” or “Be a Zen goddess!” Those will be some fancy (or questionable) barricades. My (admittedly) limited experience of Zen goddesses is that barricades are not their thing. While they might like acupuncture, they’ve got so many other things going on in their divinely blessed lives that they just don’t need acupuncture – even Modern Acupuncture — that badly, or care about it that much. Which is to say, enough to help Modern Acupuncture generate the contagious enthusiasm they’re going to need, especially with the kind of rents they’re paying.

But this is where Modern Acupuncture IS contributing to POCA’s open source community. From the beginning, our open source approach has allowed us to think of all our clinics like laboratories, trying different things, finding out what works. Modern Acupuncture is running a huge experiment that we couldn’t afford to run ourselves. What happens when you apply the source code to a really different target demographic? What happens when you try to cut out the source code’s heart — meaning, the desperate, the suffering, and the complicated, the people who need more acupuncture than they can afford? If you clean up the code and make it shiny and appealing to the likes of Marilyn Allen, will that clear the way for you to rake in piles of cash — or will it just, I don’t know, not work anymore? Even if you’re pumping millions of dollars into the effort?

I can’t wait to find out.

Deep questions about the source code are the most interesting questions in the world to me, so seriously, I’m grateful Modern Acupuncture is running their staggeringly expensive experiment. I know not all of my comrades feel the same way. But regardless of how you feel about it, I hope our community can see the value of taking the outcomes of this experiment (that we didn’t have to pay for), and putting it back into our knowledge commons. Because I’m pretty sure that in another 10 years, we’ll still be the calmest revolution ever staged, and we’ll still be working on our knowledge commons; I’m not so sure about Let’s Tingle, so let’s take advantage of this learning opportunity while it’s around. Stay tuned for more discussion.

Author: lisafer

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  1. The way the MA folks offer tea is a great example of how they’ve taken the source code and warped it into something really weird. All of POCA CA is about it not mattering where you are on the sliding scale, you get the same experience. With MA, it’s all, pay more, get more, in a way that is obvious to everyone/anyone else who is there.

    As for referring out difficult cases — even if there were a clear line, and even if their clients wanted to be referred out — a lot will depend on just how busy the franchise is. I don’t believe for one second that a practitioner sitting in a sea of open chairs is going to send away a client who wants treatment, or that an owner hurting for money would encourage them to do so.

  2. Calmest Revolution ever staged


    Let’s Tingle

    it’s like comparing soulful Aretha Franklin in all of her unconventional beauty wanting R-E-S-P-E-C-T versus The Spice Girls wanting a “zig a zig ah.”

  3. Nice comparison for sure! Allen’s response is similar to how boutiquers are so enamored with AWB (willing to go to another place and help people “in need”) yet fail to see how community acupuncture actually embeds itself with those in need and remains there day after day to help and be in it with people.

    I like the stance of watching and remaining curious about how MA will do in the long run.

  4. You know what I just realized? The #letstingle models don’t include any older guys. At least at WCA, older guys are a core demographic; our clinic would be a very different place without them.

    Also, there probably wouldn’t be a community acupuncture model without older guys, at least not in its current form; my self-employment mentor was an older guy, and the patient who made it clear that the model HAD to work, was also an older guy. Very weird to imagine the source code operating without them.