Smartphones and Occupy Wall Street: Part 1
Over the past few weeks, the Occupy Wall Street movement – or #OWS if you’re following along on Twitter – has spread like wildfire. According to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ page on Wikipedia, as of October 9 approximately 900 demonstrations have taken place in over 95 cities across 82 countries.
The velocity at which the OWS movement has caught on has been astonishing. Considering that the mainstream media did not even begin covering it until one week after the demonstrations began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, I believe the movement’s success can largely be attributed to mobile technology. In particular, protestors armed with smartphones that enable them to easily upload content to popular social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as blogs and photo-sharing sites, have succeeded in focusing our collective attention on social and income inequality in America and beyond.
While I’d originally intended this blog post to be a one-time deal, I’ve decided to break it up into a 3-part series due to the dense nature of this topic, namely the role of mobile technology in the OWS movement.
The first of the series - this one - will focus on the positive impacts mobile technology has had on OWS.
The next post will focus on disadvantages of smartphone use as it relates to OWS, which will include unresolved issues around user privacy, data security, content ownership, and history-making by way of user-generated content.
The third and final post of the series will focus on the “so what” part of this mainly mobile enabled-movement: democracy building in a digital age, harnessing the power of tech-mediated platforms to increase civic engagement, and the role of technology in enabling collective action that leads to lasting social change.
Part 1: Smartphones Are Bringing the Awesome
Empowering Smart Mobs
Smartphones are enabling protesters on the ground to exchange information quickly and coordinate activity in real-time in response to fast-changing conditions. Smartphones also help protesters communicate with off-site supporters that are monitoring the situation from afar, thereby tapping into a greater well of collective intelligence – what Clay Shirky calls “cognitive surplus” – and leveraging the power of network effects.
Affecting Public Discourse
By using their smartphones to upload pictures, videos and status updates from the ground in real-time, protesters have largely been able to propagate the OWS movement and the various messages behind its “We are the 99%” slogan without much help from mainstream media, especially during the first few weeks when the movement was still nascent. This amplification of voices has been wildly successful in shifting discourse from national debt and spending cuts to issues related to social and economic inequality and the corporatization of the American democracy.
Inspiring Collective Action through Storytelling
Like those from the Arab Spring, first-hand accounts of OWS protests told through images and status updates have riveted us. This is no small feat considering the capriciousness of today’s media cycle and our limited attention spans. These pictures, videos, and personal narratives have resonated to such a high degree because our monkey brains are still very affected by stories and images, much more so than facts and figures. (This is why infomercials and customer testimonials work so well.)
The compelling nature of these personal narratives, many of which have been captured and told through hand-scrawled signs held up by everyday people, has engaged a wide range of supporters from around the world. These stories are extremely powerful because they are authentic and relatable. What's more, they've inspired others to come forward with their own stories. Just check out some of these on We Are The 99 Percent.
If you were to ask Marshall Ganz, these “stories of self” have culminated into a “story of us,” which has then catalyzed a widely shared and highly motivating sentiment that is the “fierce urgency of now.” And with a critical mass of people feeling like they now have some skin in the game, a wave of creativity has been unleashed in support of the movement.
Supporters have been inspired to contribute to the movement in ways outside of actually being there at a protest. These include the creation of tools such as the Occupy Wishlist and Occupy Design, and spin-off campaigns like Occupy The Classroom, Occupy The Polls, and Occupy Museums. There’s also a growing collection of OWS art that’s being created (I personally find these Guy Denning sketches pretty amazing), not to mention a showcase solely devoted to OWS inspired art in New York City.
Given that 35% of the U.S. population currently own smartphones, according to Pew's latest research, with average smartphone adoption rates among African Americans, Latinos, and youth between 18-29 being even higher, their proven ability to positively impact civic participation is certainly good news to us at ZeroDivide. However, as with any other tool, there are pros and cons associated with usage, and the benefits derived from using smartphones in the context of OWS must be weighed against their disadvantages.
But more on that in Part 2 next week…