The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York, but has spread across the U.S. thanks, in no small part, to the new digital tools available to the protesters. While Occupy Wall Street (#occupy) has yet to issue a statement on their demands, we can already learn a lesson from how they are using web and mobile technology to organize, collaborate and spread the word.
Occupy Wall Street has been experimenting with new forms of democratic, grassroots organization that both draw lessons from and rely upon social media. Following in the footsteps of the Arab Spring protesters, and flying in the face of Malcolm Gladwell’s prediction, the movement has tapped into the social connections on Facebook, the near real-time communication on Twitter and the media capabilities of YouTube.
The “official” Occupy Wall Street Community Page on Facebook has over 256,000 “likes”. Supporting demonstrations in cities across the U.S. - like Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Miami - send out updates and organize events on their own Facebook Pages. While the sheer size and reach of Facebook makes it attractive for communicating with a wide swath of the public, some members of the movement have worried about relying solely on a proprietary platform.
For more of Ivan’s perspective on the Occupy Wall Street movement (not necessarily focused on the tech side of things) you can read these two blog posts on the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s site.
Twitter has been used by the #occupy protesters to great effect. Both the #OWS and #OccupyWallSt hashtags have been trending for weeks as the activists use them to help organize events and supporters bring attention to the protests. Everyone from major news organizations, to celebrities to the protesters themselves are using the micro-blogging platform to share and spread news, pictures and information from the protests. Tagging content has made it easy for thousands to upload photos from Occupy events.
Videos, many taken by cameraphones, have been posted to YouTube channels like Occupy TV, where some of them have spread virally. With the support of organizations like MoveOn, some videos have been seen and shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Early incidents of police brutality that were caught on video have racked up over a million views and were featured on major news outlets. While the protests have complained that the mainstream media is ignoring or downplaying their actions, they have certainly made good use of crowd-sourced media and online networks to tell their story. And new platforms, like the crowd-funded media buying service LoudSauce, may enable them to get their messages to as big of an audience as traditional media.
Mobile apps, then and now
This protest movement has come at a time when mobile technology is nearly ubiquitous and well-connected to the web. CNN reported on the changes this mobile connectivity has made between the current protests and previous ones. For demonstrations in 2004, the Ruckus Society had to build a text alert service to transmit tactical messages from organizers to protesters. Now the demonstrators have use of robust tools like Twitter for non-centralized communications.
Drawing on the use of Twitter by protesters in Egypt, the #occupy activists are using social networks that are accessed from mobile devices to communicate across their network. The next step is creating local peer-to-peer networks without a central middleman, like Twitter. Already an app called Vibe, an iPhone and Android app that allows users to connect with people based on proximity.
The use of mobile devices in the Occupy Wall Street events has also raised questions of the limits of privacy. OWS has been largely transparent, in contrast to the Arab Spring protesters who were forced into secrecy by oppressive and intrusive regimes. To help protesters in the latter environment, a Ruckus Society software developer, Nathan Freitas, helped bring about the Guardian Project, which seeks to build and distribute mobile apps for anyone concerned with intrusion or monitoring of their information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet civil liberties group, has posted a guide to using cell phones where they might be seized, and searched, by the authorities either in the U.S. or abroad.
Bridging the divide between supporters and activists are teams of developers who have been taking part in Hackathons for the Occupy Wall Street movement. A hackathon is an intensive, short-term collaborative computer programming effort. Developers in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco are working on a host of projects that can be found on the Occupy Hack website. One of the most complete projects is Occupy Design, which provides a repository for “protest signs, logistical signs and universal icons”.
It remains to be seen what the Occupy Wall Street movement will come to, but it is clear that it represents a new form of protest in the digital age. It’s a relevant example of network-centric advocacy. With social networks, mobile technology and the ability of the internet to develop and distribute not just information but tools, the OWS activists are charting new territory for grassroots, spontaneous demonstrations. NPTech has always cared more about social change than changes to Facebook, but the potential for digital tools to amplify this change is enormous. The resources they are accessing didn’t exist five or ten years ago and they may only be fully developed in another five years. The use of digital tools by #OWS is an immediate example of the evolution of how movements like this will communicate, organize and spread.