Originally published on November 11, 2011 in The New York Observer
It’s been two months since about 100 people started occupying a small park near Wall Street and from there, the seeds of what appears to be a growing movement has hatched. I’ve written in the past about the Occupy Wall Street movement but have continued following it since. Strip out the political content and what you have here is one of the fastest growing startups in America and one that could redefine how business is run.
The active class
As many people have mentioned, the movement was initially made up of younger people, primarily recent college graduates who could not find jobs. But what none of the commentary appreciated (and something I was also not fully aware of) was that this was the first massive movement led by a generation that had not known a time when the internet did not exist. In my previous note on the subject, I had highlighted how much of that movement had the feel of internet philosophy brought into the real world but it wasn’t until more recently that I realize that #OWS is a breakdown of the boundary between virtual and real world.
As a whole generation has learned to chat, exchange ideas, create content, and spread messages over the online medium, they have been affected in a way that many had prognosticated but few had seen: one of the fascinating thing about the internet’s lack of ownership is the fact that it leaves all of us as owners of the internet.
Whereas some activists, myself included, once worried that it was only left up to a few to protect this wonderful public sphere that had been created, the truth is that support for an open internet, and by extension a more open society, is strong. Witness, for example, what happened last week when SOPA threatened this opennesss: not only did net people rise up and confronted their lawmakers on this but users of those services also did, generating thousands of calls to Congress.
Two things happen when someone makes that first call to Congress: first, they feel a sense of kinship with the other people who are fighting for the same cause, and secondly they feel they have a say and can have an impact in changing the system, making them more likely to be socially and politically active in the future.
For over a decade now, many have talked of internet activism but we also need to think about the longer impact that such thing has. I’d venture that the activism created by the ability of quickly sharing political stories or quickly reaching out to politicians is creating a more active political class on all sides of the spectrum: on the right, we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party, and on the other side, we’re seeing the rise of #OWS.
What has traditionally been known as the left (the side that wants a more active government instead of a less active one) is also more in line with the model set in place by the early founders of the internet. Remember that the net has largely been administered as a common, with all parties involved being given more or less equal rights. There has been tensions when some parties have tried to reach for more rights, as can be witnessed in the recent fight over SOPA.
The people’s microphone
So what does this all have to do with #OWS? Well, let me get to that. In order to do so, we must look at the people’s microphone. What started as a way to get around laws requiring a permit to use amplification equipment has become a key component of this new movement.
A few days ago, I tweeted that “Mic Check is the RT of #OWS”. What I meant by that is that it’s becoming clearer to me is that through those words, #OWS are asking the rest of the crowd to spread a message.
From a messaging standpoint, there are a few components at play here. First, there is the use of simple words to trigger attention. To paraphrase Will Rogers, belonging to the left is not belonging to any organized movement. But the “mic check” changes that: it opens up a request for the crowd to lower their message and agree to amplify someone else’s. A basic assumption here is that while there may not be agreement as to what is being talked about, there is an agreement that the message will be relayed forward.
This is in line with the current principle of “net neutrality” many fights have arisen about online: there is a general agreement between all parties on the internet that no matter what the traffic is, every internet service provider agrees to carry it without discrimination. So “Mic Check” can be seen as a request to open a web page or application on the internet, with the assumption that communication will continue until the message has been communicated.
Psychologically, this type of agreement already primes the brain to be more receptive to an idea. The next step in what happens with the people’s microphone is the amplification, or the repeating of that other message one has agreed to carry. Here again, some interesting components happen: Because the message is to be repeating by a large crowd, who repeats it to the people behind them, it enforces an oratory style that requires something in line with the type of pithy statement that would fit in the 140 characters allowed for a tweet.
By repeating the idea, however, something else might happen in people’s brain (and this is based on the kind of psychological primers that are used in many videogames): having opened up to a mike check (and thus agreed to carry the message), the brain is more receptive to the message being amplified. When the message is repeated, a certain sense of ownership of the message is conferred on the person amplifying the message.
That sense of ownership is something that probably translates into a sense of belonging and lasts longer than the meeting the person has attended. I suspect that, through the use of the people’s microphone, #OWS is increasing the overall number of converts to its movement.
Large orgs and #OWS
Having built a relatively leaderless movement and managed to get a large amount of supporters, #OWS has attracted the attention of many established players in the political world. And on this part Thursday’s anniversary events at Foley Square, many organized labor members could be seen with placards for their own causes.
However, what is becoming increasingly clear is that while #OWS is a very inclusive movement, it is not a movement that will be easily hijacked. The unions may be allowed to voice their message but they will not be allowed to lead the leaderless movement, nor will anyone else. Partnerships and inclusive behavior is something that has been more common in the technology industry (though that is, unfortunately, starting to change among some of the bigger players) and there may be a lesson here for all organizations as to how to balance their own interest while working together with other groups (Yes, Wall Street, even you can learn from #OWS!)
Foley square may have been an organized event for the second anniversary of #OWS but the use of amplified equipment seemed to have given it less fervor, with more people milling about and having different discussions about different topics. The cohesion that arose out of gatherings of thousands at Zuccotti Park did not appear to be there at Foley Square and seemed more in line with what traditional political rallies look like than the kind of effort seen around #OWS.
However, political organization of all stripes have a lot to learn from #OWS. For example, looking at the people’s microphone I mentioned above, there may be value in considering how to drop amplified equipment from smaller gatherings (sub-10,000 people). In an age of retweeting and sharing, political images and hashtags are also extremely important. The hashtag, that weird # symbol before a specific term is a unifying force between different efforts. It has been widely adopted across most content sharing services and can serve as a way to aggregate and integrate content from many different services into a single place (or allow users to search for said content in a consistent fashion). Here, #OWS did some of its own learning: in its early days, they were gathering around the tag #occupywallstreet, which is fairly lengthy and thus steals away from the rest of the message when dealing with a service with limited character availability, the shorter #OWS has allowed the movement to recapture precious characters. How that learning was incorporated into their ongoing efforts could be seen with the selection of #N17 as the date of November 17 to celebrate their anniversary.
The tents may be gone from Zuccotti Park and many other #OWS encampments but I suspect that the movement will continue growing because, at the end of the day, what made it strong was not a set of tents and tarps but a sense of ownership of the future by all its members and that, as a society, is something we all need more of.