Occupying Social Media

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is embedded within and traverses the technologies of the 21st century. Much of what OWS protests stems from a social and economic environment facilitated by new technologies. Wall Street, the physical and metaphorical site of the US stock markets, is a global interconnected enterprise – a place where, as one sociologist puts it, vast sums of money are wired around the world in seconds “at the click of a mouse” (Giddens 2000). The economic crises of the last few years have had a global impact because the world’s economies are interconnected, and their interpenetration is heightened by digital technologies. But OWS not only sees the role of technologies in sparking the crises; it also makes use of those technologies. OWS is often rendered #OWS, its letters preceded by the “hashtag” or numeral sign, to signify a subject tag on Twitter. This affirms the investment of OWS in social media.

Already before OWS, there was conversation about the importance of social media in uprisings and protest movements. I define social media as including internet-based media platforms that make it possible for people to interact and communicate in new ways. Websites like Facebook and MySpace, applications like Twitter, photo-sharing programs like Flickr, and blog sites such as WordPress or Tumblr now make communication faster, and make it possible to converse and share information with large groups of people at once. The speed of sharing and transmission between these platforms has intensified with the development of mobile, hand-held devices, especially smartphones.

Dominating the discussion about the role of social media in movements have been two well-documented expositions – one by Media Studies Professor Clay Shirky (NYU) and one by journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell. The disagreements between them call our attention to issues that I believe are important in analyzing the role of social media in protest movements.

In his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Shirky argues that social media create new types of connections between people, challenging older media. For instance the music industry has had to adapt to music-sharing and mp3s, the newspaper industry has had to adapt to blogging and to people’s increased preference for online news sources, and professors and students have had to attend to the development of Wikipedia as a collaborative form of knowledge production. Flickr is a particularly interesting example because it shows a way that people can organize around something horizontally, without being told how to organize. Every photo you upload you can tag, and then suddenly everyone who takes a photo of the OWS protest at the Brooklyn Bridge and tags it is part of a group.

In 2009 protests broke out in Moldova and the media debated how much of a role Twitter played there. (Morozov 2009) The next year even more people protested against Iran’s authoritarian government, aided by Twitter and Facebook. That same year, Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker called “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (2010). He argues that platforms of social media are built around “weak ties.” Twitter is just a way of following (or being followed by) people you may not even know and Facebook is a tool for managing all your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you couldn’t keep in touch with otherwise. He claims that what mattered most during the 1960s Civil Rights movement was a close personal connection to someone else involved in the movement. Volunteers would give the organizations they joined lists of personal contacts – people they wanted kept aware of their activities. Gladwell compares the Civil Rights movement to a successful military campaign, in that when sit-ins spread to new cities, it was because some kind of activist movement was already installed there. He has no trouble acknowledging that the kind of organization he describes is hierarchical – with someone making decisions at the top and dictating them to the people down below. To this point, he adds that the kinds of network that exist through social media are too loose; they won’t survive difficult challenges (such as a cold winter!) or last for extended periods of time. (Gladwell 2010)

On December 17, 2010, a fruit vendor set himself on fire in the Tunis marketplace to protest police abuse and corruption. The uprising that developed in response spread to Egypt, where the young protester Khaled Said was taken and tortured by police. In reaction, Wael Ghonim, a young Google employee created a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said.” (Kirkpatrick 2011)

In connection with earlier protests in Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made news by saying that the US needed to support the growth of social media and its infrastructure in other countries, for the sake of democracy. In a similar vein, Shirky suggested, in Foreign Affairs (Jan./Feb. 2011), that the US might provide media tools that would help people in other countries who were protesting against repressive regimes. Several ideas from his article are useful for thinking about OWS. Shirky suggests that opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. He claims that it is in this second, social step, that political opinions are formed. Partially in response to Gladwell’s argument about hierarchy, he goes on to say that disciplined and coordinated groups, both businesses and governments, have an advantage over undisciplined ones in directing group action. But he believes that social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. He cites the example of the anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines, which used text messages to organize a massive group without any real managerial control. As a result of social media, Shirky says, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action – such as demonstrations and media campaigns – that were previously reserved for formal organizations like large unions. (Shirky 2011)

Reflecting on Shirky’s and Gladwell’s views is helpful in thinking through questions about what makes a movement effective. We know communication is key – this argument goes back to Marx’s belief that it was the change in means of production that brought workers together and allowed them to organize. It was the new manufacturing technology that brought them to the same physical location. Today the question has often been whether the technology improves communication. Its impact on communication and social relations is certainly impressive. Things are different, if not better.

Shirky’s arguments fit with OWS’s non-hierarchical, anarchist-influenced model of decision making. But Gladwell’s claim that people need to be willing to take big risks, and that those risks are better facilitated by personal connection, is hard to ignore. At the same time, it also seems unfair to relegate those who are using social media to the armchair role of “slactivist.” And finally, Shirky rightly points out that governments (and most likely also corporations) are already intervening and co-opting social media, as Hosni Mubarak did by shutting down the internet altogether in Egypt for a period of time. In fact Occupy Wall Street has recently begun taking steps to develop its own social networking site, sometimes referred to as its own Facebook. The Global Square, an open source platform, was reportedly intended to be active at the end of January 2012, but as of March had not been made public (Captain 2011; Crow 2012). OWS is thus clearly aware of both its dependence on social media, and the problems with those media – as well as the issues raised by the underlying technologies in relation to energy use and the need for alternative sources of energy.

One might say that technological infrastructure and energy sources are the elephant in the room when new technologies and social media are discussed. That is, how are new technologies drawing on our natural resources, and who controls those sources and their transmission?

In late October 2011, the city of New York had firefighters and police officers remove OWS’s generators and fuel from Zuccotti Park. (Martin 2011; Wells 2011)Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued that they were a threat to public safety and therefore illegal. Activists quickly recovered from that setback and installed stationary bicycles rigged to car batteries.

The batteries were then used to charge laptops and cell phones. Unfortunately, the entire OWS encampment was removed from the park just a few weeks later. These same fuel sources were cited as part of New York State Supreme Court Judge Michael D. Stallman’s ruling that the owners of Zuccotti had the right to have OWS removed in order to clean the park.

The [petitioners] have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators, and other installations to the exclusion of the owner’s reasonable rights and duties to maintain Zuccotti Park, or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely (Waller v City of New York 2011).

Though the tents were probably considered more problematic by the city (they were what was mentioned repeatedly), the fuel sources were claimed as a safety hazard. Yet generators were what kept the link to the rest of the world, to other Occupy Movements, and to activists throughout New York City. We may debate what type and how much of a role social media play in protest movements, but the speed with which Occupy Wall Street created alternative energy sources and the very fact that they brought in generators in the first place suggests that they considered ready access to the mobile phones, notebooks, pads or laptops that are the hardware for social media, to be a vital necessity.


Captain, Sean. 2011. “Occupy Geeks Are Building a Facebook for the 99%.” Wired 12/27

Crow, Lorien. 2012. “Occupy Wall Street Builds Facebook Alternative.” Mobiledia. 1/3.

Giddens, Anthony. 2000. Runaway World: How Globalization Is Reshaping Our Lives. New York: Routledge.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2010. “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” The New Yorker. Oct. 10.

Kirkpatrick, David D. 2011. “Wired and Shrewd, Young Egyptians Guide Revolt.” New York Times. Feb. 9.

Martin, Adam. 2011. “New York City Pulls the Plug on Zuccotti Park’s Power” The Atlantic Wire. Oct 28, www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2011/10/new-york-city-pulls-plug-zuccotti-parks-power/44265/

Morozov. Evgeny. 2009. “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution is Not A Myth.” Foreign Policy (NetEffect). April 10. http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.

Shirky, Clay. 2011. “The Political Power of Social Media” Foreign Affairs. Jan./Feb.

Waller v. City of New York Index No. 112957/2011

Wells, Matt. 2011. “Occupy Wall Street: Zuccotti Park re-opens – as it happened.” The Guardian NewsBlog. Nov. 15, 2011

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