Occupy Wall Street and Online Presence

What is the Occupy Wall Street Movement?

Even if you basically ignore politics and financial news, you’ve probably heard of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It has been described in a variety of different ways by many different news sources and media outlets.

A small encampment of mostly young activists with mostly inscrutable objectives that were mostly ignored by the media.  —The Week

A nationwide series of demonstrations drawing support from unions and mainstream liberal groups.  —The Week

A diffuse group of activists who say they stand against corporate greed, social inequality and the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process.  —The New York Times

An ongoing series of demonstrations in New York City based in Zuccotti Park in the Wall Street financial district protesting social and economic inequality, corporate greed, corporate power and influence over government (particularly from the financial services sector), and of lobbyists.  —Wikipedia

From looking at these definitions above, we can see that the movement has a lot of different, often general, objectives, and started as a small protest and has grown significantly as it continues.

While some think the mission of this movement should be intuitive and implied, I hoped to find a clear mission statement from an official site or organization behind this Occupy Wall Street movement. However, in looking around I realized finding a concrete statement of purpose is more challenging than it should be. First off, this movement is decentralized with a variety of participants from different organizations who are represent several (or no) affiliations. This introduction by the New York Times is a clear example of the variety of goals that are represented by the protesters: 

One protester, in an interview that Fox News has not aired, said he and others were calling for “more economic justice, social justice — Jesus stuff — as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.” Another protester, a former Marine who was elected by Occupy Wall Street participants to speak for them, told NPR that he wanted to overthrow the government and reconstruct it. 

Because this movement is so decentralized, you also see this chaotic disorganization on a variety of “official” web sites. When looking at occupywallst.org, I thought I was looking at the official site until I saw the first lines of their information page: “OccupyWallSt.org is the unofficial de facto online resource for the ongoing protests happening on Wall Street.” The site does mention Adbusters whose mission statement is as follows:

We are a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.

This mission statement is general and broad, and encompasses a variety of projects and general goals but does not clarify the purpose of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

OccupyWallSt.org also mentions the group Anonymous, whose blog and news sites hold lots of detailed information regarding up to date events and documentation, but lacks a clear, general mission statement or information about what exactly this community is trying to achieve. As their name indicates, there are no individuals leading the organization, further adding to the general confusion of specific goals and point people for the movement.

Satya Pattnayak writes for the New York Times, “demonstrators will have to develop an organization and leaders in order to have a lasting impact on politics and policy.” Stephen Zunes echoes this sentiment in his editorial for the New York Times, saying “protests alone — however impressive in their numbers or disruptive in effect — do not make a movement.” Citizens involved with the movement are following the Arab Spring model for protesting, which has proven to be effective in furthering their visibility and nationwide recognition. While the protests are a good start, it is important for the community to think carefully about how to proceed, especially with their online image, if they want their movement to be successful long-term.

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This movement started with a small number of protestors, and has grown into a national affair. I personally think that having a general demand or mission when starting a project can be a fine way to get many people with a broad range of interests and objectives on board. However, once your movement is off the ground and running, it’s important to focus and define some sort of leadership and point people (even if the organization is loose). 

As I mentioned before, there are many online sites that protesters can use to share information or receive updates about the movement (such as the aforementioned occupywallst.org, the General Assembly, the 99 blog, and the Occupy Together site), and I think in general this protest makes good use of online tools to effectively rally their troops. I think to be effective moving down the road, there needs to be a single site that stands apart from the others as the official source for news, missions, goals, and updates for this movement. This single web site should identify some sort of loose leadership (somebody is eventually going to need to take charge and be responsible for making decisions for swift action) as well as a flexible but prominent mission statement.

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There is clearly some confusion as to who the protestors are, and many news outlets don’t seem to be taking the movement seriously since the general perception is that the participants are left-wing hippie-types. The 99 sites does an excellent job profiling who the people are that care about this movement. This type of profiling of individuals should definitely be featured on the official OWS site, but a few changes should be considered. While pictures with words are personal and beautiful, the pictures are sometimes blurry, the words too small. Every profile should be accompanied by text, making the stories readable, and also translatable. It would be helpful to complete some in-depth, official profiles as well to feature on the site. These could be obtained by interviewing protestors in the park, and also at other locations across the country.

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The word of the initial protest was greatly spread via Twitter and other social networking sites. This article we read discusses the difficulty that OWS has with trending on Twitter. On the official site, there should be information about the hash tag you should be using, and it should change every few days. People should be encouraged to tweet at specific, strategic times using the new hash tag. This would continuously spark interest and visibility for the movement on Twitter.

Also, it seems to me that much of the information one can find online is fueled by forums and individuals. While helpful and important for active participants, it makes it difficult for people outside of the inner circle to find information about how they can participate remotely, or to understand what the latest news is. There should be a page that suggests daily actions that visitors to the site can take to make a change in their own small way, that also perhaps explains why this action is important. Along the same vein, I think that this movement should take this opportunity in the limelight to encourage each and every person across the country to inform themselves on issues of national interest and to vote. While the focus of this movement is definitely targeting Wall Street, banks and other corporations with major financial influence, many of the rules that govern these institutions come out of the policies that our government determines. This article gives some statistics regarding the number of protesters who voted in the most recent elections, and how many plan to in the future. Our government may not be ideal, but by ignoring the opportunity to cast your vote, you’re actively participating in furthering a flawed system. 

The success of this community depends on their ability to focus, define leadership, and create a strong online presence which would include a clear mission statement, profiles of individual participants, clearly defined and changing hash tags, highlighting ways you can participate remotely and encouraging people to educate themselves and vote, as outlined above. Without this clarity, this movement will return to being “a small encampment of mostly young activists with mostly inscrutable objectives that [are] mostly ignored by the media.”

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What the 99% Needs is a Michele Bachmann

Ok ok, that title is a little baiting. 

Though OWS is a hard thing to look at and write about without getting political, I’m going to try my best.  What I mean by that title is, in my opinion the way for the 99% community to strengthen (and I’m taking that to mean in some way progressing towards achieving its goals) is to not view itself as a totally egalitarian community.  In fact as history shows, and I fully admit to getting much of my history summary from Adam Curtis’ documentary which I spoke briefly about in my last post, operating exclusively as a non-heirarchical network of individuals, though passionate and believing in the same ideals will only ensure that the 99% community is toothless to affect systematic change. 

In his film, Curtis draws a straight line from the commune movement of the 60’s and 70’s to the use of social networks in organizing political revolutions.  The people who built communes viewed themselves as nodes in a network, without hierarchy, and applied feedback to try to control and stabilize their societies.  How much power do our communities have to affect political change if we entangle ourselves exclusively in social networking tools and analytics, and build these communities around the egalitarian ideals of nodes and networks?  As Curtis states in his film:

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions [Kyrgyzstan & Georgia & Ukraine for example], show the limitations of the self regulating model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society, power and politics. The hippies took up the idea of the networked society because they were disillusioned with politics.  They believed that this alternative way of ordering the world was good, because it was based on the underlying order of nature.  But this was a fantasy.  In reality what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines.  Now in our age, we are all disillusioned with poitics and this machine organizing principal has risen up to be the ideology of our age.  But what we are discovering is if we see ourselves as components of a system it is very difficult to change the world.  It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers NO IDEAS ABOUT WHAT COMES NEXT.  And just like in the communes it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.

-Adam Curtis All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace part 2, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

As much as we’d like to, we can not ignore the human constants of power and politics.  Hoping to ‘free’ ourselves from those constants through social networks built on faceless tweets and votes and likes will only ensure that we fail to change anything.  What the 99% needs now is good old fashioned hierarchy and leadership.

That is all to say, twitter has been an amazing tool to spread the word.  The social flow article does a great job of analyzing how topics trend on twitter, concluding that the algorithm rewards velocity around a topic over volume.  So it’s OK, there is no conspiracy of censorship, #OccupyWallStreet is simply experiencing a slow and sustained growth in volume.  The Movement is growing, and word is spreading. 

The danger is to only focus our efforts on that.  Here’s a Mashable post on OccupyWallStreet hackathons, which on the surface seems like a great use of online tools to harness decentralized knowledge and resources to build tools to progress the movement.  But what are they building?  I’d say some good stuff and some dangerous stuff. 

The good stuff are the tools that serve the very practical purpose of building membership or reaching more people: a video-editing platform that doubles as an advertising platform / an app that can use multiple cellphones in a small area to amplify one person’s voice.  The dangerous stuff?  Well I’d argue that the dangerous tools are the ones like a decentralized decision-making platform called OccupyVotes, which simply asks users to cast votes for one of two movement goals with the hope being that eventually this approach will sort out what the decentralized group as a whole finds important.

The Cybernetic Dream, according to Curtis, is that computer networks can create order in society without central control.  The irony is that ideology is what lead to the new economy and the global financial system and directly to the financial crisis the 99% are rallying against. 

Slavoj Zizek said that what we are witnessing in Zucotti Park and around the world is the end of the marriage between democracy and capitalism.  But I would say that the more toxic marriage is the one between the global economy and machine thinking.  Unless we remove ourselves from the machine thinking that gave rise to the new economy, and re-humanize the movement, aren’t we just forever pieces of the machine of global economics.

If we crowd source our capacity for thinking and conceptualizing a new world order, aren’t we just going beyond the extremely useful application of social networking tools to build and organize a movement and heading straight back into the paradigm of human beings as only nodes in a network.  The 99% should not manage itself as a commune with better smartphones. The hard part now, in sustaining this community that was built in no small part with the help of social networks, is to enable those tools to help build a hierarchy and leadership structure and not fall into the trap of egalitarian ideals.

After all, what’s the difference between being pieces of twitter volume and being pieces of a housing bubble?