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Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Ows blog
The news of Steve Jobs' death at 56 flashed on the television screen above my head in a neighborhood bar on Fulton Street, about five blocks from the spot where cops were swinging their truncheons at the subset of protesters who were trying to invade the holy shrine that is the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets, a  symbolic corner that represents the American public stock markets that made Jobs a billionaire.

Many of those taking a blast of pepper spray and a crack on the head from the dreaded "white shirts" of the NYPD - the pot-bellied, middle-aged ranking officers - are too young to care that this corner has been in lockdown mode since the day after September 11, 2001, when downtown New York and its public markets came under attack. They're also too young to realize that they can't do what they're doing: that they need leaders, and a cohesive strategy, and tighter messaging, and structure, and hierarchy and consultants like me.

And because they realize none of those things, they and their nascent Occupy Wall Street movement are succeeding - wildly, improbably, uncontrollably succeeding - in shaking and bending the iron chains of low expectations and gray conventional wisdom that makes us hunker in our cubicles, thankful every few months for a new gadget launch or sitcom to distract us from society's slow-motion fall.

The juxtaposition of Jobs' death, tragic at a young age with much still to be achieved, and the mosaic mob I'd just marched with from Foley Square down to the now-iconic encampment at Zuccotti Park was so obvious, so seemingly contrived as to seem like a screenwriter's wastebasket filler. There was CNBC announcing the sad death of America's most successful (and indeed, truly beloved) capitalist, the man most responsible for an explosion in portable digital entertainment. In the watering hole of the neighborhood that can safely be described as the backyard of the New York Federal Reserve, our gaggle of technophiles gasped aloud at the news. At the table there were a couple of iPhones and one majestic iPad - that sleek George Jetson consumer device that seems straight out of Vonnegut to me - along with the usual sad copycattish Android screens (including my own). To Twitter we did go, like we're supposed to.

I was thinking about the famed '1984' Apple Super Bowl ad that helped launch the Mac, a spot credited to Jobs as if he were the actual creative ad director (a role played in real life by another visionary, Jay Chiat, and his team) and I couldn't help but think of the rows of minions all watching the big screen. We didn't know then that the screens would be legion (and smaller and cooler) but the futuristic vision often seems pretty apt, and not just because Apple is the exceedingly rare corporate entity with hordes of cultish fans who treat retail shops like churches and product launches like encyclicals. We're the zombies lined up in rows and the firehose of digital media is the constant lithium drip, at least to some of the Occupy Wall Street revolutionaries.

Their vision of technology is far more utilitarian and radical. They look up from their screens. They unplug their earbuds. They keep the message short and wide. Chants and drum circles, cardboard signs and masks. Tiny performance art pieces and costumes. Derided as spoiled trustafarians stinking of patchouli, they don't seem to care. Radically, they're using decentralized digital technology to power a massive amplification of their movement. Twitter and Facebook are just the glaze on their sweet profiterole network, with hashtags used to effectively lure tens of thousands of more casual supporters and hangers on. Anonymity is given real currency in this crowd, and its leaderless quality is taken seriously. As Nick Judd effectively illustrates in TechPresident (which may have to change its name to TechOccupy shortly), anonymous messaging services like Vibe blast the messages out to smartphones. As in the recent Middle East and North African uprisings, direct text messages are an old school standby. Twitter and its hashtags are for amplification outside the zone of conflict.

As is video: the use of LiveStream images from the park and from the marches, highlighting brief but violent clashes with police, has been as brilliant an example of live mobile video catalyzing involvement as I've ever seen. The crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend numbered perhaps 2,000. There were 700 arrests. And at any given time, 20,000 people watched the LiveStream, which was cannily set up to repeat the juiciest bits of conflict when the "streamer" lost a signal.

Personal stories - single individual tales - are told in simple, effective photos on the brilliant Tumblr site, We Are The 99 Percent. To flip through this site any day this week was to surf down the jagged, steep front of our economic collapse - an emotional and moving trip through what's left of the middle class. This is close-in, user-generated journalism and a real model for how to tell a vastly complex story through hundreds of individual contributors.

Then there's Facebook. Much derided by the techno-commentariat, the most social site in the world is once again at the center of public organizing (remember Egypt), the creation of local hives of activity around the general Occupy theme. As Dave Winer said, "occupying Facebook is every bit as good as occupying Wall Street." Micah Sifry has cannily focused on the Facebook activity over the past week, and picked up the sheer velocity with which OWS-themed groups took off:

Of the original 201 "Occupy X" Facebook groups that we had identified as of 4pm EST Tuesday October 4, two days ago, the number of people signed up has vaulted from 384,889 to 480,079 as of 6am this morning. That's a 25% growth rate, matching what we've seen since we starting monitoring the explosion of Facebook groups last Saturday. Our larger dataset of 461 groups (which leaves out any group with less than 6 members) shows 633,606 "likes" in all, up about 20% from yesterday.

Clearly, Occupy Wall Street is tapping into something far deeper than just the energy of its core group of organizers. And by remaining open and not trying to control the message, it is encouraging thousands of people to paint their own version of what the Occupy movement means. It's also fascinating (at least to me) to watch the evolution of groups like Anonymous, the hacking collective that has previously engaged in a form of activism that included silencing speech online by taking down websites. There are Guy Fawkes masks in Zuccotti Park, but they're few - and they're coming off. The Occupy movement was partially stoked by the young technologists of Anonymous; this may be their moment of change and maturity - when boldly acting in public comes to mean more than long-distance dilletantism.

I have no idea where Occupy Wall Street is going, but I'm impressed so far. As Allison Fine says, it's "a delicious and irresistible idea." And I think a mass expression of anger and outrage - even without specific demands, although as Bruce Bernstein noted their crowd-sourced Declaration of the Occupation is "coherent, insightful, and moving - is both appropriate to our times, and needed to get others off the sideline. It's the advance unit of what may come next: the kind of economic and social reform that can heal this democracy of ours. As Harold Meyerson wrote this week: "Here’s hoping the disparate groups of protesters come together, grow and stay in the streets. It will take a massive, vibrant protest movement to bring America’s subservience to Wall Street to its overdue end."

And on the day when the last beloved CEO died, the use of media and technology was changing - not in the labs of Silicon Valley, but on the streets of New York.


Lance Mannion (who I marched with, gaining a cherished Teamsters cap in the process),  is filing a series of reportorial impressions at his place, which are well worth catching (including a short interview with an iron worker we conducted together).

Lindsay Beyerstein's photos are here, and she's filing posts at the spiffy new Clear It With Sidney blog of the Sidney Hillman Foundation (disclosure: a client, and it was great to march with executive director Alexandra Lescaze, the documentary filmmaker).

Deanna Zandt says I'm known as a curmudgeon (I'm cool with that) but her post earlier this week does a great job of laying out the right reasons for her own skepticism.

Finally, two must-follows on Twitter:

Liza Sabater, who's all over the story and has great sources, and exiledsurfer, who had the first inklings of Occupy early in the summer.

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