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A Look at #OccupyWallStreet's Internet-Powered Protest Engine

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, October 4 2011

Occupy Wall Street protesters march on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1. Photo: blulaces / Flickr

Vanessa Zettler moved to New York from Brazil about a year ago, and says she was among the first to find out that Occupy Wall Street was going to happen. She decided to get involved after reading an AdBusters email in the run-up to the first occupation of Zuccotti Park, in New York City's Financial District, on Sept. 17. When she and the rest of the first wave of occupiers arrived, they set up a technology infrastructure: A donated generator that's been pumping since Sept. 18, a charging station for laptops, lighting for nighttime, and wireless Internet, all protected from the rain by tarps and umbrellas.

I asked her who, exactly, did the work. She said there was no one person — and launched in to a refrain often heard from protesters, which begins: "There's a committee ..."

The way things work in Zuccotti Park is impromptu, do-ocratic, and seems to depend heavily on an inherent belief in the good nature of human beings. Every night at 7:30, anyone who happens to wander by can get in on their "general assembly," a confab where protesters share updates, information and ideas. On Monday, one protester refused to allow the get-together to proceed until two "facilitators" running the meeting had gained the explicit permission of the group. Another thought it would be against the group's morals to get a city permit for megaphones and other amplified sound — currently the protesters don't have a permit and aren't using megaphones in the park — seeing as so many of their number disapproved of acknowledging government authority in any fashion. Their system for public comment bumps people up in line if they are women or belong to a minority group, an attempt to compensate for the willingness of white men to speak their piece. Anyone who feels like standing up and starting a working group seems welcome to do so.

This same fuzzy idealism is apparent in their technology stack — and yet it's been working so far.

The most widely viewed live video feed of activities in the park comes from a single account, Global Revolution, which is represented as belonging to a network of independent videographers who document protests around the world. Last night, that feed came from a laptop with a webcam duct-taped to the front, perched on an overturned cardboard box, operated by a rotating cast of men who looked to be in their twenties and sat on an empty, upside-down bucket of "Tidy Cats" kitty litter. This whole apparatus itself used a waist-high, rusted green metal storage locker as an impromptu media riser.

The revolution will be live-streamed. Just don't expect that to be a very sexy enterprise.

The first operator complained loudly about some sort of interference with the stream's wireless signal, stayed busy trying to raise a colleague on his mobile phone and disappeared before I could track him down to talk. The second, when asked, said he was manning the show more or less because someone had asked him to. And yet the stream during their general assembly has a more or less continuous video and audio feed of the business done last night at the center of what is becoming a nationwide protest network.

"There's a committee" seems to mean people show up, find something they'd like to do, do it and move on — but that doesn't mean things aren't getting done.

"For a protest movement born of the internet," Melissa Gira, writing for BetaBeat, reports Tuesday. "Occupy Wall Street’s technical situation is at times precarious." She details a meeting of the protesters' Internet committee — and an argument over whether the general assembly's website should switch to Drupal, the open-source content management system, and thus avoid "corporate" tools. (No mention that it's currently the White House's CMS of choice, but perhaps that's jumping the gun.)

Reuters reports that the protesters' laptop hub would be the envy of some IT departments, with wireless Internet now provided by "portable WiMax hotspots from Clearwire," and a trained meteorologist compiling weather reports.

Maybe envy is a stretch. But the generosity of others has fueled an at-least solid IT infrastructure for the protesters — which they use to produce a steady stream of video out of Zuccotti Park and to the world. A small pack of videographers was busy well into the evening on Tuesday, hunched over laptops in their media bay as the protesters' general assembly began, editing the video they had spent the day collecting.

Zettler, the woman from Brazil, told me that some of the protesters' laptops — let's call them the People's Laptops — were damaged in the rain. So calls went out on social networks, and now there are new People's Laptops.

"We also don't want to use our own cameras," she told me, explaining that people on the protest's media team are always one demonstration or police encounter gone wrong from losing their equipment.

So, on Sept. 30, a wish list appeared on a popular email list for online progressive activists, with the hope that the equipment will appear from the same place protesters get financial donations, laptops and food — from the kindness of people on the Internet:

1. Good webcam - Logitech C910
2. Good Consumer - Canon HV20, 30 or 40. Any dv or HDV camera with good light sensitvity
3. ProSumer - Sony hdv cameras. Zi7u, older sony sd cameras like pd150 vx1000 etc
4. Prosummer high end - canon d7 with teradeck cube hdmi transmitter
5. Pro - any high end hd camera with teradeck cube and verizon cards.
6. Extra high end Dell and Mac laptops.

External hard drives
SD cards
Apple laptops with final cut pro
PC laptops with premier or AVID
HD cameras
Cables (USB, FireWire, etc)
Sound equipment (microphones, lavs, cables, booms, etc.)
Any other film/video equipment (lights, generators, Gaffer tape, power cables, etc.)

There were certainly no shortage of cameras on the ground Monday night — maybe some of them were donated — but the ability of strangers on the Internet to deliver on a surprising array of promises can't prevent the weather. Monday night, protesters agreed to set aside money from their donation-fueled general fund for 100 sleeping bags — a first purchase of munitions in what could become an ongoing fight against autumn in New York and maybe, eventually, a snowy winter.

Or maybe everyone will get bored after SEIU and other labor unions show up on Wednesday, and things will peter out before it starts to really get cold. Who knows? But for now, the same way Occupy Wall Street seems to be gathering donations, it is gathering technologists, theorists and thinkers.

Carne Ross — the head of Independent Diplomat — was there last night. The former member of the British Foreign Office announced his hope to start a working group of protesters to build out an alternative system of banking — sort of like The Lower East Side People's Federal Credit Union, he told me, but on massive scale.

"I think you've got to do something," he told me. "You can't just protest."

Web developer Gregory Schwedock sidled up to the outskirts of the assembly to talk with Ross. Another person addressed the assembly looking for collaborators on a video game about Occupy Wall Street.

The meetings of a working group on political reform, the appearance of people like Ross, the oncoming horde of union workers, the ongoing attention paid to the stories of economic woe on the protesters' highly successful "We Are the 99 Percent" Tumblr site — these are all signs that the protesters on Wall Street are slowly converting their energy into political will. And the protesters are pushing a view into this process out onto the Internet, to anyone willing to listen, thanks to that generator cranking away in Zuccotti Park.

Who knows how their experiment will end — but for now, their protest engine is still noisily at work.

This post was updated Tuesday to add new information.