But among those factors, technology plays a central role. I don't mean this is in any narrowly celebratory way: "Technology caused Occupy Wall Street!" But I will say that a set of mobile technologies that didn't exist ten years ago offered protesters new human capabilities that they used to record and disseminate information, as well as organize -- or maybe more properly, design -- the protests. These new behaviors, like blanket cell-phone photo coverage paired with social media amplification, were unprecedented in the United States, though activists put them to use in the Arab Spring protests.
To take a small example of the changes in action, let's return to the moment when the protests went viral. A New York police office was caught on video pepper spraying several women in the face. Our James Fallows captured the spirit of the moment and why it brought such support for the protesters: "[T]he casualness of the officer who saunters over, sprays right in the
women's eyes, and then slinks away without a backward glance, as if he'd
just put down an animal, does not match my sense of 'appropriate'
behavior by officers of the law in a free society."
It's possible -- though perhaps unlikely -- that a TV news crew would have caught such a moment. It's possible that in the pre-Internet world such a moment would have circulated quickly on copied videotapes or on cable access shows. But it is not possible that such an event could have been captured in the way that it was and transmitted within 24 hours to thousands of people through dedicated protest information channels, some of whom amplified the signal to their contacts outside the movement, and so on. Millions had seen the clip within a day or two. And though the news media piled on, it would not have taken members of the press to spread the video. Its emotional power pushed easily through the information networks of the Internet that daily spread cat videos and essays about the Thai floods.
The message of the clip's dissemination is clear. Protesters have chanted, "The whole world is watching" for decades. That's never been strictly accurate, and it's not now either. But what is true is that nearly every action is being recorded -- and with the right set of circumstances, that action can be virally distributed to millions. The moral stopping power of citizen observation has been extended.
After the Occupy protests began to gain mindshare, Americans saw something they'd never seen before. The immediacy of protest images taken by protesters felt new. The speed
of their distribution certainly was new. The angle and production values
of the protesters' videos were different from the produced segments
news organizations put out. Social media pushed the media off to the side, turning them (us) into surfers on a wave that they could see but not control.