To occupy Wall Street, occupy the internet first

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In 2011 in America, what passes for a revolution is a frightening tangle of wires, power strips, routers and gas generators underneath a canopy in the center of a park.

A demonstrator holds a sign during an Occupy Wall Street protest in lower Manhattan in New York October 3, 2011. The Occupy Wall Street protests moved into their third week on Monday with demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park. REUTERS/Mike Segar

That fire hazard of a mess is at the center, literally and figuratively, of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protesters who have disrupted lower Manhattan since mid-September have assembled the means to blast out their message -- if they can agree on what they fighting for.

“Whoever controls the media, the messages, controls the culture,” read a ratty cardboard sign that Connor Petras held at the corner of a major downtown intersection.

But Petras, juggling his BlackBerry and an apparently stale wheat bagel while also trying to hold the sign, acknowledged the protesters did not have their rallying cry figured out.

“There’s not really a main focus point ... and I think that is a problem,” the 18-year-old New Jersey native said.

Higher taxes on the wealthy, more equitable treatment by banks, easier financial terms for higher education, better care of the environment -- all are on the agenda at Zuccotti Park, a concrete island in the shadow of the rising World Trade Center, and yet none of them top the list yet.


Occupy Wall Street is movement, but it is also a Twitter hashtag, a Facebook page and a Livestream event, which means the protest does not even need a physical home. By one estimate Tuesday morning, “Occupy” events were happening in 147 cities, and much of that is the result of social media being used to recruit the young and the computer-literate.

“OccupyWallStreet is a hashtag revolt,” Jeff Jarvis, a professor of journalism at the City University of New York and author of the blog BuzzMachine, said in a recent post. “A hashtag has no owner, no hierarchy, no canon or credo. It is a blank slate onto which anyone may impose his or her frustrations, complaints, demands, wishes, or principles.”

On a cold and gray Tuesday morning, with rain imminent and many of the protesters huddled half-asleep on the ground, there were plenty of subtle signs of technology’s influence, such as Twitter hashtags on printed maps, five-day weather forecasts on a status board and a core of computer-savvy volunteers.

Whatever you call it -- data center, media hub, post-production studio -- it would be the envy of a lot of IT departments in corporate America. Laptops, webcams and cell phones vie for precious space with cigarettes (Marlboro Lights are a popular choice) and coffee cups (to the consternation of the “technical staff” worried about spills).

It is anarchy, and the people like it that way.

“It all happens very quickly and every aspect of the media supports every other,” said Luke Richardson, 25, of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Richardson satisfied the protester stereotype in some ways -- goatee, blue kerchief around his neck at the ready for tear gas -- and yet not in others, like his Green Bay Packers beanie.

He said he wasn’t worried about the uncontrolled spread of the message: “I’m not concerned with trying to control it too much.”


There has clearly been some fragmentation. On Facebook, the Occupy Wall Street page has nearly 22,000 “likes.” Yet there are another 9,000-plus for the Boston page, more than 13,000 in Los Angeles, over 6,600 in Philadelphia, and on and on. It is not clear how many of those overlap.

The movement’s official Twitter name, @OccupyWallSt, had nearly 39,000 followers. The “Global Revolution” Livestream channel had nearly 4,000 viewers.

On Tumblr, page after page is tagged with the protests, whether it be pictures of protesters’ signs, quotes from speeches or personal observations of the young and old, famous and anonymous who went to the park themselves, like tourists, to see what it was all about.

For sheer impact, little has topped “We are the 99 Percent,” a Tumblr site on which people share their personal stories of financial pain, hand-written and held up to a camera for the world to see. The site already features more than 600 personal stories, some of them written by and featuring the sad faces of children.

More than anything else, that has drawn huge attention from the mainstream media. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein devoted a column Tuesday to why the blog itself justified covering the Wall Street protests. "These are not rants against the system. They're not anarchist manifestos. They're not calls for a revolution. They're small stories of people who played by the rules, did what they were told, and now have nothing to show for it," Klein wrote. (here)

No matter how ragged or how young, most everyone in the park has some kind of internet access, usually via smartphone (Research in Motion’s Blackberry for the most part, as Apple seems out of favor somehow with the crowd).

Providing the backbone of the network are portable WiMax hotspots from Clearwire, powerful enough that more than 40,000 people a day can tune in to live streams. If Clearwire and Research in Motion stay in business, and the sun shines long enough to power the soon-to-be-erected solar panels, there is a sense the protests could go on indefinitely.

Even the weather is covered by technology -- 24-year-old Queens native Nicholas Isabella, a trained meteorologist, plots five-day forecasts from a laptop in the center of the park, tweeting and broadcasting them on Livestream.

“People go on the marches, I can tell them to bring a poncho,” he said.

Editing by Claudia Parsons