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Occupying Wall Street: What Went Right?

Demonstrators with the Occupy Wall Street protests march from Zucotti Park to Washington Square, in New York, Oct. 8, 2011. The movement has inspired more than 200 Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, seeking volunteers for protests and fostering discussion. (Photo: Robert Stolarik / The New York Times)

Of all the criticisms being hurled at Occupy Wall Street, the most substantively interesting is the issue of scale. How large can the living-society portion of the occupation grow, dependent as it is on a reasonably small living space and an inspiringly simple if limited amplification system? Questions like this are worth pondering, and I’ll be taking some of them up here at Truthout in the coming weeks, but let us pause for a moment to consider how astonishing it is that this is a concern at all.

Three weeks ago, the Wall Street occupation began with a demonstration whose coverage was virtually non-existent and whose turnout frustrated and disappointed organizers. Today, every news outlet of note devotes column inches and television segments to the protest, the President and his press people field questions about it, hundreds of solidarity occupations have sprung up across the United States, and in the middle of any given business day, one to two thousand protesters can be found at the Liberty Park Plaza encampment. That the question three weeks on shouldn’t be “What went wrong?” but rather “Where from here?” is remarkable.

How did that happen? Similar attempts at organizing movements to liberate our democratic politics from its corporate stranglehold didn’t catch fire this way. Some of these attempts were quite recent, and involved many of the same people as populated the original Google group tasked with organizing the occupation. US Uncut made some small waves in the late winter and early spring as it staged teach-ins in bank branches, disrupted investors meetings and carried out pranks on the corporate beneficiaries of crony capitalism. An occupation of the New York State capital in Albany, inspired by what materialized in Madison, Wisconsin and a City Hall camp-out called Bloombergville similarly garnered some interest and press but didn’t capture any sustained attention or energy.

And then: the deluge. In the era of protest by way of live-streaming and hashtags, it is worth attempting to account for the phenomenon of revolt-gone-viral.

Justin Wedes, a Wall Street camper and veteran of US Uncut, the Albany demonstration and Bloombergville offers this explanation for the occupation’s sudden, staggering spread: “Any of those could have caught on, but the time wasn’t quite right. I think Occupy Wall Street is coming along at a time when circumstances are even more desperate, when people have been pushed to the brink.” The moment certainly is important. The enormous accumulation of Bush fatigue lent special power to the relief people felt when Obama was elected, but the continuation of Bush policies has left many I’ve spoken to even more frustrated than before – and that realization has now sunk in.

But timing isn’t everything for memes. Internet epidemiology is a tricky field. How things go viral, what nodes facilitate the spread of memes, the factors that ubiquitous clips share – these are not often easy to pin down. Tech writer Melissa Gira Grant contributed these thoughts: “One major factor is the open-ended message in, ‘We are the 99 percent.’ That is the meme, more than the occupation of space. There are a lot of people who can’t be there, but who can still get in on ‘We are the 99 percent.’”

“A top-down structure,” she continued, “could never work this way. It would try to control the message. The fact that some people are holding the space while others are doing the viral work allows people authentically to play to their strengths. The excitement would not have arisen if outside think tanks were determining what the spreadable meme will be.”

“Another feature of memes is that they are potent and simple forms of storytelling,” Grant added. “The fact that establishing a solidarity occupation seems simple, like you can teach yourself to do it by watching other people do it, mirrors online memes. It is breaking the shame and stigma around the financial situation and turning its change into a collective effort.”

One discouraging feature of viral videos is the brevity of their lifespan. Everyone can quote Charlie’s brother’s admonition to his finger-hungry co-star, but that clip’s hits are no longer ballooning the way they once did. And this brings us back to the question of how Occupy Wall Street can expand in scale, scope and relevance, how it can avoid the wayside-bound tendency of fads.

Stay tuned for more on that in the coming days.

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