Protest On Wall Street Is Louder Online Than Off

A modest, recession-inspired demonstration grabs plenty of online attention. Is the future of activism more digital than physical? Fast Company goes inside the Sept. 17 OccupyWallStreet demonstration in New York (and follows reactions online) to find out.

Even by participants’ own estimates, the ongoing OccupyWallStreet demonstration in New York City hasn’t been very big—between 500 and 700 protestors near the famous bronze bull statue at its peak on Saturday afternoon attended, and perhaps 200 slept over in a park near Ground Zero on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Also In This Series

1// The Inside Story Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7)
A look back on a series of moments that have made the movement feel different than any other.

2// The Signs Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7)
Signs, banners, and costumes have extra importance in a protest without a unified slogan [Slideshow].

3// The Stealth Leaders Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7)
The movement prides itself on its lack of central authority, but here are the people keeping it humming.

4// Tahrir Over Here? (Sept. 21)
Occupy Wall Street claims to be inspired by the Arab Spring, but can it, too, convert social media outrage into real action?  

But this small action against bank bailouts, public spending cuts, and money in politics has drawn an outsized presence in the tech and media world. Highlights include high Twitter hashtag rankings, realtime crowd-sourced mapping, SEO optimization, and the possible involvement of WikiLeaks and hacker collective Anonymous.

Many protestors cited demonstrations in Egypt—and their use of social media to jump-start a revolution—as an inspiration. "This couldn’t have happened without Tahrir Square," said a Rutgers student named Annalee (few protestors would give their last names). "I was there a week before, and I knew something was up. But I thought it would take 10 years to happen."

Riyaad Minty, head of social media for the Al Jazeera Network who has covered the uprisings of the Arab Spring, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, tells Fast Company the comparisons between the Wall Street demonstrations and those in, say, Egypt or Yemen, where protestors, even children, are being shot to death, are not that far-fetched. Americans, Minty says, "may be able to vote for a new government, but you're not going to change the fiscal policy of America overnight.... The people now have a collective voice, either in social media or through hashtags—people can motivate around a cause, collectively." 

Most people in New York on Saturday said that they had learned about the event on Facebook. This isn’t just another story of protests organized via Facebook, though. It spans the web.

Another protestor named Patrick carried a cardboard sign that simply featured the little red-eyed mascot of social bookmarking site Reddit. A self-described anarchist, Patrick said that the protest was discussed in Reddit groups on anarchism, socialism, and libertarianism.

About two-dozen protestors wore the iconic Guy Fawkes mask associated with hacker collective Anonymous. Perhaps a dozen of them were actual members. That buzzword has probably driven the most media attention—coverage prominently mentioning Anonymous ranged from NPR to the Huffington Post and CNNMoney before the event even happened.

According to a September 2 article in Computerworld, the Department of Homeland Security even issued warnings there may be cyber attacks on Sept. 17 after someone posted a YouTube video announcing Anonymous’s backing of the action. Said Annalee from Rutgers: "That Anonymous mask has some immense symbolic appeal.... You see the mask, and you know this is badass."  

Numbers of protestors on the ground may not be as important today as page views, likes, and trending topics. The whole nature of activism is being transformed by technology from the mainstream to outliers.

For the many twentysomethings involved in these web-fomented protests, Facebook and Twitter are their Tahrir Square. The distributed nature of the OccupyWallStreet protest fits the web’s distributed, but cross-linked, networks.

The Twitter hashtag affiliated with this protest, #occupywallstreet, according to analysis by Statweestics ranked 55th on Twitter for the week, and 27th today (Monday). Another popular hashtag, #takewallstreet, ranked 83rd and 35th, respectively.

It’s not all PR bliss online for the cause, however. An unfounded and untrue rumor that Twitter was censoring tweets made the rounds all weekend. A hotly anticipated hacker tool from Anonymous called #RefRef never surfaced; its rumored due date was September 17th. That tool is now believed to be a hoax. The much-hyped (and made in Manhattan) social app Foursquare got little to no use at the #occupywallstreet protests. Just four people checked in to the gathering on Saturday night using Foursquare.

But the growth of #occupywallstreet is a classic Internet tale. Lacking formal organizers, it feels more like a meme than a movement. The idea and date came from a July 13th online call to action by magazine and activist organization Adbusters. In New York City, organizing mostly happened in an ad-hoc, student-dominated group called the General Assembly (not affiliated with the startup coworking space and tech hub, General Assemb.ly).

Before anyone had formed an assembly, there was already the OccupyWallStreet web site. Volunteer Harrison Schultz, a self-described "business intelligence analyst" who is completing a PhD in sociology, worked on SEO for the site. He said, "I used business techniques to help this movement." Schultz also said he got help with this endeavor from his new boss at his day job.

Meanwhile, a panel truck marked "WikiLeaks" drove around the financial district. When approached, the grinning drivers offered no coherent answer for why they were there and what they were doing. There are several websites with some connection to #occupywallstreet, but not necessarily to each other, such as Adbusters, NYC General Assembly, The US Day of Rage, several Facebook pages for both the New York event and gatherings in other cities, along with a roster of heartbreaking personal stories on the Tumblr blog We Are The 99 Percent.

Take the Square tracks the global wave of recent occupations, such as those in Cairo, Portugal, Tel Aviv, and Madrid. That last city, represented by Toma la Plaza, is one that organized its own #OccupyWallStreet event on the same day.

In New York, the general assembly model, by definition, has no leaders. Anyone can speak. The group may decide, by consensus, on a particular action. But people are free to unplug and do their own thing. Anonymous works in about the same way. So various general assembly "committees" had their own projects. One of them, Arts and Culture, captured attention with lighthearted pre-protest actions such as street yoga and poetry readings in the two preceding weeks. Its members were also the first to get arrested when they attempted a pre-protest sleepover on sidewalks.

With video of the police encounter, they grabbed press in a Huffington Post article. "That hugely impacted traffic on the site," said Harrison Shultz, who also set up web analytics. The New York protestors, and those in other locations such as Madrid, have continued with video by livestreaming nearly every minute of every day (ironically on a free site where the videos are bedecked with corporate ads). In New York, one person carried a video camera, tethered to a laptop with a Verizon 3G card that another essentially wore around his neck so he could access the screen and keyboard.

Another non-organizer of #occupywallstreet is a group called US Day of Rage (USDOR). Despite the scary name, it champions the sensible topic of campaign finance reform. "One citizen. One dollar. One vote," the slogan goes. The group was founded last March. It gained 1,000 members in a week and now has 7,000 whom Alexa O’Brien, a cofounder, describes as "very committed." Chapters in 18 states are already organizing their own varied, local demonstrations (not necessarily related to #occupywallstreet) she said.

Through USDOR, O’Brien helped organize modest #occupywallstreet protests in other U.S. cities: a 60-person flash mob in Seattle, for example, and street theater with two-dozen performers in San Francisco (some of whom are still at the site). "We’re trying different tactics in different places," she said. "We’re learning."

But O’Brien, who describes herself as a content management strategist, is also trying out new tech. For #occupywallstreet, she deployed a realtime online map system using open-source software called Ushahidi that was originally developed to track reports of violence after the disputed Kenyan elections in 2008. Using the website, email, or text messages, protestors can report anything they see—police, the size of crowds, Wi-Fi hotspots, public restrooms—and also get the latest updates so they can reorganize on the fly. (The map has remained mostly empty in New York, however.)

It’s some of the tech she hopes to use in the future, including joining the long-planned October 2011 Protest in Washington, D.C. on October 6. "You have to have a clear tech structure," she said, to coordinate so may independent groups.

For now, OccupyWallStreet feels like a wish for change, more than an action that can make it happen. But it could also be a harbinger of what's to come, a dress rehearsal for a revolution online and off.

"There are attempts to get these movements going around the world," Al Jazeera's Minty says, having seen a bunch of them ignite. The idea has even been captured in a T-shirt that recently caught his eye. "It says, 'The Revolution Will Be Franchised.'"

Also In This Package

The Inside Story Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7) Fast Company reporter Sean Captain was at the occupation from day one and looks back on a series of moments that made the movement feel different than any other action he'd covered or participated in before. 

The Signs Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7) Signs, banners, and costumes have extra importance in a protest without a unified, catchy message or agreed-upon list of demands. [Slideshow]

The Stealth Leaders Of Occupy Wall Street (Oct. 7) The movement aimed at calling attention to injustice in the American financial system prides itself onhaving no central leadership, and it's been criticized for having no central message. Here's how it's working anyway—and changing the way we think of protests. 

Occupy Wall Street: Tahrir Over Here? (Sept. 21) Yahoo blocked emails related to the ongoing protests on Wall Street. Meanwhile, attendees have been dealing with another problem: American protest rallies rely on mass media, not social media. 

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1 Comments

  • Jym Allyn

    The inability to stop the money controllers from screwing the rest of the economy has gone unchanged since long before Jesus was found guilty and executed for pissing them off.
    It is the Golden Rule: Those that have the gold, make the rules.
    The ONLY way it is ever going to change is when there is more transparency as to the Rules and who makes the rules (and how it profits them) so that the Golden Rulers realize that their having gold in an economy based upon consumerism is dependent upon the rest of us having enough to be sufficiently enthusiastic consumers.