How Do You Code a Movement?

Teams of web developers are trying to figure out how to embed the idealism of their movement into the design of their websites

occupycoders-body.jpg

The images circulating of the Occupy Movement have several themes: Young-looking protesters with signs. Dirty-looking protesters in tents. Scary-looking protesters clashing with police. To much of the world, this is what the Occupy movement looks like.

But there's another side to the Occupy movement, one that makes for less dramatic imagery: Coders, dozens of them, working at their laptops in offices, parks, churches, and homes around the country. Together, they are building the online face of the movement.

And it isn't obvious what, exactly, that face should be. How do you represent, in code, a movement that is trying to be leaderless yet disciplined? Local yet speaking to national concerns? Inclusive of anyone who wants to join yet not without a cohesive voice? While editorialists can argue about these seeming contradictions, the developers have to work them out in practice.

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From early on, they chose not to use Facebook, but to rely on WordPress and other open-source platforms. As Jake DeGroot, one of the movement's web developers explained, "I think one of the major pushes to make our own is the fact that the movement is so heavily based around the check and balance of corporate power." Relying on sites such as Facebook, they felt, placed them too much under someone else's control. 

A second and related principle that runs throughout their work is that by building the right online tools, they can make a new kind of social movement possible, one that manages to defy the tensions between leaderless and organized, local and national, and inclusive and cohesive. They can embed their idealism directly into their code.

* * *

The early web efforts of the Occupy movements took shape in August, in advance of the first day of the occupation. Drew Hornbein, a web developer living in Brooklyn, began building what today the web team of OWS refers to as Version 1.0. That early site eventually became nycga.net, the main online hub of the New York encampment. The team behind it (a group whose name and structure is a bit in flux) is the coding arm of the Wall Street occupation's General Assembly (GA), its governing body.

The site is not your typical political campaign website; it is a tool for OWS's internal activities, mostly organized around the nearly 90 working groups that have formed around topics such as media, sanitation, or alternative banking, all of which are organized loosely under the umbrella of the GA. Underlying the site's operations is a social element that allows anyone to create an account and participate in the work. The centerpiece of the mainpage is a stream of constant updates, informing visitors, for example, that meditation is still on for today at 3:30, or reporting on police activity in the area. There are thousands of posted events and the minutes of group meetings and general assemblies, including, for example, this agenda from the first of November:

Agenda:

  • Winterization
  • Proposal from structure & organization
  • Problems with last night's GA
  • Internal community issues inside plaza Viz. media & substantive issues
  • Chip: solution to our electrical problems that requires nothing but money & involves no fire-dept. issues
  • I want to propose a coalition around emergency preparedness for raid

Here's what you won't find at nycga.net, at least not without some serious digging: fact sheets or infographics about inequality, nicely organized press releases, or an official blog. There is little capacity for the sort of mass e-mail blasts that Move On uses. As Charles Lenchner, who has been involved in the Internet Working Group, explained, "the things that are the bread and butter" of technology consulting for political organizations are just not there.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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