J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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Archive for October 4th, 2011

A Few Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

Posted by chanders on October 4, 2011

UPDATE: Apologies to Micah Sifry for my previous misspelling of his name. The perils of posts written in a hurry. The fact remains, however, that his previous post on Occupy Wall Street both gets the history totally wrong and bears little resemblance to any sort of on-the-ground reality.

Consider me now amongst the many protest-voyeurs who passed through Zuccotti Park for a few hours yesterday, looked around, and now feels inclined to wax speculative on What It All Means.

Yah. I’m That Guy now.

Some background: for about seven years, from 2001-2008, I devoted a substantial portion of my life to doing digital media work for various lefty causes, most of whom were affiliated with this weird intersection of anti-globalization movement / institutional NYC left / mass of anti-war-anti-Bush folks that existed between 2001 and 2005 or so. A lot of them are chronicled on this blog. Between 2001 and 2005, the energy was in the movement, the protests themselves; between 2005 and 2008 we worked mostly on digital media infrastructure building. One of the things we tried, just to name one example, was creating an “Indymedia blogwire” that would integrate local blogs into the NYC Indymedia website without totally eliminating the “post-to-the-site open newswire” concepts which we’d begun in 1999. There were a lot of things like this we tossed against the wall; some worked and some didn’t.

In 2008, for various reasons – graduating, finding a job, increasing “personality conflicts” with some of the Dudes who dominated the NYC Indymedia scene at the time (and still, it must be said, dominate a certain segment of that universe), and an increasing sense of my natural liberal-bourgeoisness– I largely left that kind of work behind. I wanted to focus more on taking what I’d learned in the previous seven years and using it to help journalists figure out how to reinvent their profession for the digital age. Rather than changing the world by building a “blog-wire,” I wanted to help my students figure out what the fuck was going on in this new world they’d been dropped into.

Still, the biggest reasons for moving onto other things was a general sense that whatever political stirrings had started in 1999 in Seattle were definitely dead. The movements that our media work was supposed to be supporting seemed to have shrunk down to the hardest of the hardcore; either process-obsessed anarchists or that type of New Yorker who, through a combination of rent-stabilized housing and family money manages to devote a life to “paid activism.”

Which all begs the question: why does what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street seem so exciting?

Not knowing, or not caring about, the history I just outlined can lead smart people to write all sorts of silly things in response to this question. One example of a particularly silly thing comes from Micah Sifry, who constructs and entire genealogy of the Occupy Wall Street movement that begins (of course) with the “netroots” in 2003. Writes Sifry:

In America we’re now entering into a third wave of movement politics (the first being the rise of the “netroots” within the Democratic party after its leadership collapse between 2000-2003; and the second being the rise of the Tea Party after the conservative losses of 2006 and 2008).

Anybody with half a sense of history knows this is pure and simple nonsense; the folks in Zuccotti Park have little to do with Howard Dean, or the movement he inspired. They are, if anything, the return of a “first wave” of digital-movement politics, one which flourished briefly between 1999 and 2001– but in general, it’s probably more honest to admit that dividing these things up into “waves” is just silly (the Indymedia folks, for instance, emerged in part out of the ‘zine / Punk Planet subculture, which had been around since at least the 1980s … and so on …)

Sifry’s genealogical purpose, it seems, is to find a way to wrap every social protest up into some sort of notion of a technological-political sublime:

America is about to experience the same youth-driven, hyper-networked wave of grassroots protests against economic inequality and political oligarchy that have been rocking countries as disparate as Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Spain. The occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature last winter was a harbinger, but now all kinds of previously disconnected individuals, loosely centered on a core of beautiful-style troublemakers and inspired by events and methods honed overseas, are linking up and showing up to occupy symbolically important centers…

But still, we haven’t answered the question: why does what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street seem so exciting?

The reason that I’m most interested in has to do with the structure of the media ecosystem. Not the fact that suddenly “here comes everybody” (this was true in 1999, or at least true in 2005); rather, technological tools that used to be confined to the activist ghetto have now become mainstream. Something like Twitter, after all, existed in 2004. But then it was called TXTMob, and the traditional media didn’t use it the way they use Twitter now. The media silos have opened up to a variety of inputs that simply didn’t exist in 2004. This, in turn, changes the dynamics of movement legitimation in all sorts of interesting ways.

Yes, this is half a thought. Or more like a fifth of a thought. Blogging- land of unfinished thoughts.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with whether or not the Occupy Wall Streeters will be as successful as, say, the Tea Party. Sociologist Doug McAdam might tell us– probably not, and I tend to think he’s right.

Then again, the folks in  Zuccotti Park have already surprised me once. I’d love for them to surprise me again.


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