How Occupy Wall Street Is Like the Internet

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

House in the woods.jpg

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."

Presented by

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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