Teams of web developers are trying to figure out how to embed the idealism of their movement into the design of their websites
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.
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:
- 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.
In short, nycga.net is more like an organization's intranet (the site where an organization stores its archives, organizes its contact info, posts company-wide alerts, and is not public) than it is like an organization's outward-facing website. Except, unlike a typical intranet, nycga.net is public, because openness is a core principle of Occupy's online activities.
All of this tells us a bit about Occupy Wall Street. First, the focus of the web developers has been to facilitate the internal workings of the movement, not to project talking points or messaging. In part, this has probably encouraged, or at least done nothing to stop, the criticism of the Occupy movement as being without clear and concrete demands.
The second thing this site indicates is that, for the occupiers, the end-game is far off in the future. The nycga.net site is a foundation -- both online in cyberspace but also a platform for a specific organizational structure -- that will allow for a longer haul, they hope.
Last, it shows the depth of the thought that the organizers are putting into building a movement that itself embodies many of the values they wish they saw elsewhere. They call the movement a "do-ocracy," meaning that the movement belongs to those who participate, that when someone has a vision for a project, it is theirs to do. The site allows for this diffuse, open structure, providing a set of online tools for helping anyone who has an idea to execute it.
Now, with the foundation that is nycga.net functioning, the Tech Ops group is turning to two new projects, occupywallstreet.net and occupy.net. That first site will be, "an outward-facing presence, from which we can broadcast to the world," as DeGroot put it to me. (Another website, occupywallst.org currently plays a similar role, but that site was started by a group of activists who are not accountable to the General Assembly.) Filling occupywallstreet.net with content will be a challenge for the protesters, as developing that kind of outward, controlled content through a consensus-based process is slow and often contentious, but something they hope will be possible with the tools they have developed at nycga.net, and the legitimacy and respect that the General Assembly has cultivated among the activists over the last two months. For now, the site remains pretty bare-bones.
Occupy.net is intended for other occupations around the country. This site, part of which is being designed by a dispersed group of Drupal coders, will allow for other occupations to take tools and repurpose them for their local needs. They'll be able to easily set up their own nycga.net-like sites and customize their own news sources. If they want, other occupations can get subdomains of the site, such as denver.occupy.net.
The movement's coders see the Internet as doing something more than merely facilitating a new kind of social movement; the Internet, they say, is itself inspiring that movement's design. "Our generation has a whole different perspective on the world based on the tools we grew up with," DeGroot told me. The Internet may be, after all, the world's biggest do-ocracy.