A Guide to the Occupy Wall Street API, Or Why the Nerdiest Way to Think About OWS Is So Useful

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The most fascinating thing about Occupy Wall Street is the way that the protests have spread from Zuccotti Park to real and virtual spaces across the globe. Metastatic, the protests have an organizational coherence that's surprising for a movement with few actual leaders and almost no official institutions. Much of that can be traced to how Occupy Wall Street has functioned in catalyzing other protests. Local organizers can choose from the menu of options modeled in Zuccotti, and adapt them for local use. Occupy Wall Street was designed to be mined and recombined, not simply copied.

This idea crystallized for me yesterday when Jonathan Glick, a long-time digital journalist, tweeted, "I think #OWS was working better as an API than a destination site anyway." If you get the idea, go ahead and skip ahead to the documentation below. If you don't get, let me explain why it might be the most useful way of thinking about #Occupy.

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API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. APIs allow data to be pulled from an online source in a structured way. So, Twitter has an API that lets app developers create software that can display your Twitter feed in ways that the company itself did not develop. Developers make a call to that API to "GET statuses/home timeline" and Twitter sends back "the 20 most recent statuses" for a user.

What an API does, in essence, is make it easy for the information a service contains to be integrated with the wider Internet. So, to make the metaphor here clear, Occupy Wall Street today can be seen like the early days of Twitter.com. Nearly everyone accessed Twitter information through clients developed by people outside the Twitter HQ. These co-developers made Twitter vastly more useful by adding their own ideas to the basic functionality of the social network. These developers don't have to take in all of OWS data or use all of the strategies developed at OWS. Instead, they can choose the most useful information streams for their own individual applications (i.e. occupations, memes, websites, essays, policy papers).

A key feature of APIs is that they require structure on both sides of a request. You can't just ask Twitter's API for some tweets. You must ask in a specific way and you will receive a discrete package of 20 statuses. We decided that breaking down the inputs and outputs of Occupy Wall Street in this way might actually be useful. The metaphor turns out to reveal a useful way of thinking about the components that have gone into the protest. Obviously, many of these tactics owe a debt of gratitude both to traditional organizing training (e.g. consensus decision-making processes) as well as more recent protest movements in North Africa and Europe (e.g. taking the square, distributed leadership). Nonetheless, it is Occupy Wall Street that pushed many of these ideas out across this country.

So, here's your guide to the Occupy Wall Street API.  I realize that this is not a realistic API, just a useful frame, but we employ, for verisimilitude, the REST architecture, just like Twitter. That means we only have a few actions: Get (retrieve info), Post (create or update info), Delete.

*General*

GET Occupation: Occupying physical space stands in for a greater metaphorical occupation of the commons. Actions to permanently occupy or reoccupy a park focus and energize a larger group of temporary protesters and armchair supporters at home. The physical location provides an anchor for virtual activities.
GET Decentralized leadership structure: Repeat mantra that the movement is 'leaderless.' In practice, have no single leader on whom the media and/or public can focus. Avoid profiles of organizers. If necessary, elect a dog as leader of the occupation, a la Denver.
GET Loudly inclusive userbase: Do not require any particular identification, such as labor or ethnic identity. While youth-driven, make sure to highlight examples of older occupiers.
GET Money: With the approval of the General Assembly, other occupations can draw on the funds raised by the main Occupy Wall Street fund. This is not required. Accounting battles in these situations can and have gotten messy.

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*Strategy*
GET Strategy/studied police antagonism: Occupy protesters have courted some confrontations with police officers while shying away from others. While the occupations have been almost exclusively non-violent, they have also refused to heed police orders. Hundreds have been arrested and a few injured in clashes with police. In return, protesters have gotten to document the heavy force the police have deployed. Images of hundreds of riot police facing down unarmed protesters has catalyzed support for the movement.
GET Strategy/open source ideology: From the beginning, the occupation was meant to take on a life of its own. Organizers and occupiers alike have not tired to maintain control of the message or methodology for spreading ideas or occupations. Anyone who wants to support Occupy Wall Street can just do something, trusting they'll be able to connect to the movement. Hence OccupyHistory and hundreds of like sites.
GET Strategy/General Assembly: The occupations are governed by general assemblies in which consensus rules. These are generally run by organizers who are familiar with the consensus method. The GAs strive for inclusiveness and bring the whole group together on some predictable schedule. Anyone can speak at the meetings and detailed minutes are taken.  
GET Strategy/working groups: While the big decisions are made by the GA, the thousands of other tasks involved in running the camp have been farmed out to working groups that focus on specific issues. For example, the Internet Working Group works on the infrastructure requirements of the protesters.
GET Strategy/social media: Occupy Wall Street had a social media strategy from the beginning. They encouraged all protesters to record their experiences with cell phones and cameras and then used that media to drive awareness of the protest in its early days. Since then, a whole network of social media has emerged from Twitter accounts to Facebook pages to wikis. This web is woven together by a media team as well as outsiders who have begun to act as signal amplifiers and filters. A particularly effective outside effort was the WeArethe99Percent tumblr, which presented stories of everyday people who were struggling despite their hard work.
DELETE Strategy/Marxist ideology: Despite the dogged determination of some on the right to read any critique of capitalism as pure Marxism, this is just not the case. While some protesters may espouse the desire for massive and structural changes to our economic system, they are not calling for a Marxist revolution. As journalist Bruce Nussbaum put it, "OWS is against Crony Capitalism, not Capitalism. It's FOR Entrepreneurial Capitalism... OWS has splits. Some want a share economy. Others are nihilist. But most see Steve Jobs as a hero."
DELETE Strategy/Mainstream media mediation: In the early days of the protest, it garnered little attention. An NPR editor said they did not cover the protest because it did not "involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective." So, the protesters made their own media and distributed it (see above on social media). While media attention is easier to get now, the channels the protesters created in the early days remain active and provide a direct transmission of what the occupiers think is happening.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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