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#OWS: Movement Surges 10% Online Since Zuccotti Eviction

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 22 2011

A week ago, early Tuesday morning November 15th, New York City police forcibly evicted the Occupy Wall Street protest encampment at Zuccotti Park. Since then, there's been an interesting shift in how some key observers in the mainstream media talk about the movement. For example, David Carr, an influential media columnist for the New York Times, wrote yesterday as if the Occupy movement had essentially ended, with no recognition that there are still many other cities and campuses with physical occupations underway. "A tipping point is at hand," he intoned about the movement, "now that it is not gathered around campfires." He added, darkly, "When the spectacle disappears reporters often fold up their tents as well."

Not to pick on Carr, whose column and work I often enjoy, but since when did reporters treat political movements like passing fads? The Times, like many other newspapers, has given plenty of coverage to the Tea Party movement--even when the available data suggested that the Tea Party had nowhere as big a following on the ground as its media presence and polling numbers suggested.

Interestingly enough, since last Tuesday's eviction in NYC, support for the overall Occupy Wall Street movement has risen significantly online. Below you can see the tracking numbers for total "likes" of Occupy-related groups on Facebook, as tallied by Shane Castlen on his site.

Friday November 11, Castlen added 198 newly discovered Facebook "Occupy" groups to his database (they keep cropping up), so I'm using that date as the baseline. As you can see, the organic growth of these pages was pretty anemic for the next few days, until Tuesday the 15th. Then there's a surge--instead of growing by just 8,000-15,000 likes a day before the eviction, Occupy is now gaining between 12,000-55,000 likes a day. That hardly looks like a movement about to run out of steam.

Perhaps we should be careful to generalize from a handful of observations?

On an semi-related point, Tina Dupuy has a very interesting article up on The Atlantic's website called "The Occupy Movement's Woman Problem." In it, she reports on an apparent gender disparity that she has observed visiting several Occupations around the country:

During the very first week of the Occupation in LA I noticed that the gender breakdown in its General Assembly (GA) and various committee meetings was roughly the same as the within the U.S. Congress. In other words, about one-fifth of those who were participating in the (small d) democratic part of this Occupy encampment were women. It was the same with the people who slept in the camp.

This is pretty consistent throughout the movement in general. Thus far I've visited eight Occupations in the U.S. and Canada, four on the West coast and four on the East: Toronto, New York City, Baltimore, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley and Oakland. The only GA that had anywhere near gender parity was the largest one there's been yet -- the GA on the day of the general strike at U.C. Berkeley.

I'm not about to dispute the facts that Dupuy has observed. But I do think it's a little tricky to extrapolate from visits to eight Occupations to the "movement in general." Here again, the Facebook data may complicate the picture. If you go on Facebook and begin the process of creating an ad on the site, you can access a lot of its underlying "social graph" data, often to a startling level. So, for example, if I ask Facebook to target an ad at women who like "Occupy Wall St," the site says this ad will reach an estimated 56,820 people. If I choose to only target men who like "Occupy Wall St," Facebook delivers 64,080. That's a gender imbalance of 52.5-48.5--not quite equal, but hardly the 4-1 gap that Dupuy depicts.

The truth is that we don't have the full picture. But I'd like to humbly suggest that journalists and other observers ought to take seriously the possibility that what's going on online may indeed help us understand what's going on offline. Not just because #OWS is such a highly networked phenomenon, but because the online arena is a data-rich environment that reflects the passions and interests of millions of participants in politics today. And what we're sharing and joining online is an intimate reflection of what we're thinking and doing. In real-time.