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#OccupyWallStreet On Track Nationally to Double in Size Every Three Days

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 3 2011

This is going to be a very interesting week for the Occupy Wall Street movement, for three reasons. Other more mainstream organizations, like MoveOn.org, Rebuild the Dream, the NY-based Working Families Party, and an array of local unions, are urging their supporters to join in. Their calls are definitely gaining traction: the number of people signed up on this Wednesday's "Community/Labor March to Wall St." Facebook page has more than doubled in the last 24 hours, as have the number of people being invited by their peers. While most of these people are just going to show up at the end of one work-day, rather than bring their sleeping bags and stay, their presence can only help the #OWS core group grow.

Domestic media coverage, which has been steadily rising since last week's pepper spray incident, is only going to mushroom in the wake of the arrest of hundreds on the Brooklyn Bridge Saturday. The New York Post front-paged the protests today, for example, and outlets like the New York Times are rapidly picking up on the fact that Occupy groups are sprouting around the country.

Indeed, according to my spreadsheet tracking sign-ups on the Facebook pages of 54 Occupy groups (including the meta-groups Occupy Together and ones in Toronto and London), the total number of people signed up swelled from 181,065 Sunday mid-afternoon EST to 232,360 as of 2pm EST today. That's an overnight increase of 28%, slightly faster than as between Saturday and Sunday. This means that the Occupy Wall Street movement is on pace to double in size roughly once every three days. (Big thanks to Shane Castlen for automating the data-gathering!)

At the same time, the NY-based #OWS General Assembly has managed to cobble together a "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City" that addresses, in some measure at least, the desire that the protesters make some clear demands. The declaration isn't a list of demands as much as it is a collection of common assertions, a kind of "join us if you agree with us" manifesto.

Rapid growth is going to stress the #OWS movement; when Students for a Democratic Society suddenly exploded in size after it led one of the first rallies against the Vietnam War, its founding leadership found itself unable to keep up with all the new and unfamiliar people calling up from all over the country, starting their own local chapters and asking for more copies of the "Port Huron Statement" (SDS's founding declaration). Worse, as documented by James Miller in his great history of SDS, "Democracy is in the Streets," there was no way for SDS to maintain the core bonds of trust that characterized its founding group once this membership explosion took place. Group decision-making became more brittle and ideological, as a result.

Social media may save #OWS from that fate, or just produce other, equally challenging problems of growing a movement to scale while keeping its core ethos. So far, other local groups seem to be adopting the "general assembly" model of decision-making, and many also seem to be making ample use of online video and blogs/Facebook-pages to document their work and explain themselves to others. See the OccupyTV YouTube channel, for example, which has started curating local videos and already shows dozens of videos from 18 different American cities.

The entry of mainstream support from MoveOn, Rebuild the Dream, and organized labor is also a mixed blessing for #OWS, as these are all committed to working within the Democratic Party and undoubtedly would like to claim the Occupy movement's energy and momentum for their own. There are parallels here to how Republican-affiliated groups like Dick Armey's Freedom Works and Tea Party Express insinuated themselves into the Tea Party movement, though of course one end point for a lot of #OWS activism may well be to primary Democrats it views as too "corporatist" in the same way the Tea Party movement went after many incumbent Republicans for being too cozy with "big government." We shall see.

One final observation that I think is worth sharing. I've been going back and forth by email with Dave Karpf, a young academic who studies new political movements and who has a very fine book coming out next year on "the MoveOn effect" on organizing and the structure of today's networked political groupings. Like me, he was an early skeptic about the potential of "Occupy Wall Street" to grow and indeed he blogged about his doubts back on September 19th, when it seemed as if the original Adbusters-called rally was a bust. As he pointed out then, Occupy Wall Street:

got no coverage on MSNBC.  It got basically no coverage on DailyKos.  MoveOn, the PCCC, Rebuild the Dream, and Democracy for America all had better things to do with their time.  Adbusters’s “Our Tahrir Square” analogies quickly moved from offensive to pathetic.  The netroots and the rest of the progressive movement completely ignored this non-event.

Now, all those groups are trying to get back in front of a parade they didn't even believe could happen. I asked Dave, who has since written that he "spoke a bit too soon" with his first post, if he had any idea why he thinks #OWS has taken off. Was it the pepper spray incident, when a high-ranking NYPD officer charged into a seemingly defenseless and pacified group of women and was caught on video assaulting them with the toxic spray? That certainly generated a new wave of attention and sympathy for #OWS. Karpf replied:

The pepper spray was certainly important, but it's way too simplistic to put all the credit there. This is a spot where I think the social media environment may have been transformatively important.

My original post was based on considering #ows according to the metrics announced by Adbusters. By those measures, the thing was a complete flop.  And for the following week, you basically had a small core of protesters, "occupying" a park because no one much minded, and slowly petering out. That, again, is what I'd pretty much figured. That it even lasted the week up to the pepper spray incident was a bit surprising.

The added variable was their sophisticated use of social media.. [Emphasis added.] The Tumblr site ["We are the 99 Percent"] is phenomenal, and has deep cultural resonance without the look or feel of an anarchist protest movement.  The Livestream video makes the protest seem vibrant, regardless of crowd size.  And the online activists did a good job of shaming progressive big-thinkers into paying more attention and being supportive. All that contributed to the pepper spray moment being a bigger deal than it otherwise would have been. If it was just an isolated incident, it would have disappeared quickly.

I think we basically have a Shirky-style "lowered Coasian floor" phenomenon. The minimum size for sustaining an effective protest group may have decreased dramatically. We used to need gigantic protests to garner media attention. Now, not so much....Coverage of #ows has little linear relationship to the size of the crowds, which means that they're a lot bigger in our social imagination than they are in practice. (The Tea Party has benefitted from the same phenomenon for a couple years now.) Particularly in comparison to the anti-war protests, this is really something to see -- for years the size of progressive protests has produced frustratingly small echos in media coverage. Now they're being amplified.

I would add two things. First, we shouldn't forget the huge role played by Wall Street and Washington in organizing these protests. Every action produces a reaction, and the festering failure to punish anyone in the financial industry for the economic collapse of the last three years was bound to, sooner or later, push many people into the streets. And second, if this is what a relatively small but highly networked group can do, imagine what may start to take place as similar groupings grow around their own local hubs in hundreds of cities around the country.

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