OWM–with a Nod and a Wink
I am developing an appreciation of the Occupy Wall Street movement that surprises me. You know the news about it and how, over the weekend the movement went global. You probably also know that the authorities are not dealing effectively with it. They’ve been content to watch and wait hoping that the movement will exhaust itself. That’s a good strategy for the last millennium and the movement may wear out if only because as winter approaches it gets harder to remain committed to living on the street. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
That end game is not assured and my interest is in the day-to-day workings of the movement. There is no leader and as yet no demands which is part of the brilliance of everything that has transpired. Let me tell you why I think so.
Demands would require a leader, someone to give a face and a name to the demands. Without formal demands we are left to presume from the actions of the loose group that it is protesting the situation that drove the economic crisis in 2008 which has not been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction and which is responsible for the dismal economic outlook — especially for people in their 20’s looking for their first real jobs.
So there’s neither message nor demands but with a nod and a wink we all know what’s unspoken. But look at the effect this has. No spokesman means no individual for the media to fixate on and that means the message can’t be diverted very easily.
Compare this to the WikiLeaks situation. Julian Assange quickly became the focus of the controversy. His organization made the leaks but Assange’s personality was quickly the story and it was instantly trashed up to and including arrest on specious charges related to sexual misconduct. In short order the controversy became the man and the issues he’d over which he’d hoped to spark a discussion evaporated when a more salacious story became available — one that required much less effort on the part of the fifth estate to bring to us. This well-worn script suddenly isn’t wearing well.
Occupy Wall Street (and similar protests) has none of this and, to borrow a metaphor, it seems to be cloud based and very social. It resembles the protests of the Arab Spring. We never heard about leaders and messages or anything else from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and we didn’t need them. We knew what was going on. All of these movements have social media as a rallying point that loosely coordinates activities and spreads the protest from city to city.
This is a big new lesson about mass movements in a democracy and the growing power of social media and those gadgets we carry in our pockets. For instance, not long ago (March 2011), Tom Glocer, Thomson Reuters CEO, told media executives in the Middle East, “Systematic denial of freedom of accessing information will lead to a revolution.” http://bit.ly/peVHwn The headline from the site Emirates247 said he called the internet a basic human right.
At least in the Occupy Wall Street situation, there’s no shortage of information and it’s readily available as is the basic story (just as in North Africa, no one had to tell people they were oppressed by corrupt regimes). What’s fascinating is the way people have chosen to use the internet and what they know. They’re curiously united but they keep their distance from the center of it all, which could easily bring the movement down.
In the days before all of our new social and mobile technology it may have been necessary to operate close to the center with leaders and manifestos. How else could people rally others to their causes? Social media does that work now and it is work done friend to friend. New technology has caused some people to think differently about how best to unite and get a message out. They are ahead of the curve, operating out of the reach of conventional media and political jujitsu. This is both instructive and beautiful. Like watching a no hitter in progress.
By: Denis Pombriant
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Interesting post, Denis. I appreciate the observation that in the absence of an identified leader it is much harder to divert the message. Amazing how a simple #hashtag can in effect become the face of a global movement… very powerful imagery and testament to the democratization of technology and politics. Traditional (“mainstream”) media can choose to acknowledge or ignore these, but the velocity of the movement can be–and is–successful and powerful independent of their coverage.
I’m sure you read the Forbes article “Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution” by David Kirkpatrick (http://onforb.es/uDQmkE) – a similar articulation and definitely worth a read for anyone who hasn’t yet had a chance.
I like what you have written, but there is one downfall to the “no leaders, no demands” movement – the opposite of what you cite: there is very limited media coverage.
While the action is the protest, as opposed to a message or a demand, the media does not know what to do with it — and it probably will die within a few weeks after the media finds a new darling to woo.
don’t you think that clear demands and focus is what americans want to see in their news? messy affairs don’t get to be front page… at least, not for long.
Esteban, you make a good point but I think that point references an old paradigm in which the message has to be carried in mass media and to the mass market. The real audience for this protest is not the person who gets news from the networks. It’s two groups — 1) those who share information through social and mobile technologies and 2) the objects of the crowd’s derision, the politicians and corporations. With an election always coming up, politicians look at this movement and realize they have a problem. The same is true for corporations. They might have received special treatment and bailouts before, but which of them today sees any of that as a possible future outcome? To me this is sentiment analysis writ quite large for some very important groups.