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 with it effectively. 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 there are no demands, which is part of the brilliance of everything that has transpired. Let me tell you why I think so.
The Trouble With Spokespersons
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 20s 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 spokesperson 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 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.
The Social Movement
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.” The report 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.
It’s a far more ancient and natural phenomenon than an e-marketer would like to admit, going back to ancient human history and of course the leaderless group intelligence frequently found in Nature. The exceptions prove the rule here — in religion, for example, where the "movement" forms and follows long behind the "leader" (Lao Tzu was dead for 300 yrs. before any "Taoist" movement existed; Christ was gone for half a century before anyone began to speak of "Catholicism").
The point here is that OWS is an organism of vast intelligence. What the tech has done is to make that intelligence more easily manifest and more globally accessible. No small accomplishment; but tech is not responsible for the rise of leaderless orgs, which have spawned and thrived throughout human history, each attracting and accepting johnny-come-lately leaders. History fixates on the leaders, because that’s an easy focus to deliver in a textbook; but the realities are far more interesting than textbooks would like us to think.