How Occupy Wall Street Is Like the Internet

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The strange but true story of a forest-dwelling journalist whose words wound up on a protest sign 3,000 miles from his home

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Browsing the Web just now, I had a surprising experience that could only occur in this era of political protest. Holed up in a redwood forest on the Northern California coast, the nearest McDonald's two hours away, I clicked through to some photos of Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City, and saw that one of their signs displayed in big block letters 46 words that I wrote! They're being held aloft by an attractive 20-something blond woman I've never met before.

This is the story of how they got there -- or at least the small part of it I know, which is all that's required to see why it could only happen now, and how political engagement in America is changing.

As you'll soon agree, it is impossible to know when the story begins, but perhaps it started with J.J. Gould, deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. An item he posted Thursday caught my attention. It sought to explain what most media observers don't get about the Occupy Wall Street protests. Gould noted the staggering diversity of messages displayed by the protesters. "Some will be confused, sure, maybe ridiculous; but many have already shown themselves to be, whether ultimately right or wrong, informed, smart, and serious. Why summarily 'oppose' them?" he asked. "Why not, say, engage them in conversation? There's no good reason to suspend criticism about Occupy Wall Street, or necessarily to buy into any one of its zillion messages; but there's no good reason, either, just to pick our favorite things to hate ... and then tell ourselves that the whole multifaceted, rapidly changing movement must be those things writ large."

I thought Gould was right. And reading his post, I was also alerted to an insight that Douglas Rushkoff had at CNN.com. "We are witnessing America's first true Internet-era movement," Rushkoff wrote, "which does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint. ... unlike a political campaign designed to get some person in office and then close up shop, this is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. As the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet."

Hmmm.

What does it mean for a protest movement to be like the Internet?

For me, that was one of those get-up-and-get-a-beer lines. "A Get-up-and-Get-a-Beer-Line isn't a bad line," explains Mickey Kaus. "It's often a good line, a line cherished and protected like a beloved child by its proud author. But it's a line packed with so much resonant meaning, or so many different possible meanings -- all interesting and profound! -- that you get up to get a beer ...."

I got up and got a beer.

Then I went to a nearby beach with my fiance and her dog. The dog's name is Isabel, and once she reaches the sand, she runs very fast in a huge circle, encircling us in paw prints, then sprints to the water, where for reasons unknown she pulls all the stray pieces of kelp she can from the shoreline up to dry sand. As she does this vital work, there is sun-speckled blue water all the way to the horizon, occasional pelicans gliding by, a bluff as backdrop with small waterfalls trickling down.

I'd forgotten all about Occupy Wall Street.

Yet J.J. Gould's piece and Douglas Rushkoff's thoughts must have been working their way through my subconscious, because when I got home that night, a post started to form in my mind. I still didn't quite grok what it meant to have a non-narrative protest movement that resembled the Internet more than a book. But I worked out some other thoughts on screen for an hour, finally coming up with an item titled "Occupy Wall Street's Biggest Strength Is Neutering It."

Roughly 11,000 people read it, as best I can tell.

Here is the CliffsNote version: If you're raging against the symbol of Wall Street, your message is going to resonate with a lot of people. But it's so abstract that it's going to provoke a backlash too -- after all, for some people Wall Street remains a symbol of free enterprise and meritocracy. The case against symbolic Wall Street turns out to be weaker than the one against actual Wall Street, I wrote, since actual Wall Street's firms did specific unethical and illegal things.

To practice the kind of grounded-in-the-real-world critique I was preaching, I even offered a specific criticism of actual Wall Street.

I wrote:

Figuring out precisely how to feel about Occupy Wall Street or "We are the 53 Percent" is difficult for many. Much easier to decide that it's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon; or that it actually doesn't make sense to blame Wall Street for inflation in college costs, the student loan market they spurred, and the culture that sent a message to too many young people that borrowing for education is always a good investment.

The allusion is to the SEC case against Goldman Sachs that Planet Money made intelligible to me in this podcast -- when I listened to it, back in April of 2010, is another place this story could have begun.

Here is where it climaxes:

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My words on a sign in New York City, where they were photographed by Ben Furnas, who I bizarrely happen to know, and who presumably didn't know I was their author; he posted the image on his Twitter feed, where it was discovered by Xeni Jardin, a writer at BoingBoing, who then posted the photograph under the headline "#OccupyWallStreet Sign of the Day: It's Wrong."

But I didn't see it on Ben's Twitter feed, though I follow him, or on BoingBoing, though I'm a regular reader. I'd have missed it entirely but for one of my Twitter followers, who wrote, "@conor64 Did you see that a quote from your article made it onto a protest sign?" I hadn't! Is that where the story begins?

I still don't know.

But I do know that I now understand a little better what it means for a protest movement to be without "a traditional narrative arc," to be "the product of the decentralized networked-era culture," to be about "inclusion and groping toward consensus." I now see how Occupy Wall Street is like the Internet -- and that parts of this protest movement would be impossible without it.


Update: The gentleman who made the sign and carried it with his girlfriend, who is pictured above, has just emailed me (he's an Atlantic reader), and alerted me to video footage you simply must see if you've read this far:

Will's Sign at Occupy Times Square from John Grace on Vimeo.


Image credits: Conor Friedersdorf, Ben Furnas

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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