The legacy of the Digital Revolution

Victoria University media studies lecturer Dr Michael Daubs looks at how the internet-led Occupy Wall Street movement has - or hasn't - changed the way protests are organised

This past September marked the fifth anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Since that time, the movement has been subject to continued debate in both the popular and academic press. One common thread in these debates has been Occupy’s relationship with digital media. Echoing those who referred to the 2009 ‘Green Wave’ in Iran as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ and Egypt’s ‘Facebook Revolution’ in 2011, reporters, pundits and academics pointed to the central role that digital, networked media played in the ‘Tumblr Revolution’ of OWS. In his book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, for example, Manuel Castells argues that OWS was “born on the Internet, diffused by the Internet, and maintained its presence on the Internet.” He and others framed OWS’s horizontal, leaderless structure and consensus-based direct democracy as representative of a new era of social movements.

To be fair, some involved in the Occupy movement did identify connections between OWS and historical social movements, including events as diverse as the American Revolution, the Perestroika movement and Glasnost in Russia, and Ghandi’s protests in India. However, OWS participants also regularly adopted rhetoric that distanced the movement from past protest actions, and the use of online tools played a key role in that rhetorical separation. 

Many considered social media in particular to be central to OWS because they reinforce the belief that the Internet is a democratising space where everyone is free to debate issues as equals—an idea rooted in the (mistaken) association of the Web with 1960s counterculture in the United States. While many associated with this counterculture would eventually experiment with digital technologies, their technological activities were largely apolitical, seeking to create a new utopia online rather than dealing with real-world issues. Yet the belief that technology could bring about an offline social utopia would persist. As Fred Turner describes in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, “Ubiquitous networked computing had arrived, and in its shiny array of interlinked devices, pundits, scholars and investors alike saw the image of an ideal society: decentralised, egalitarian, harmonious, and free.”

This belief is reflected in many of the comments from OWS participants and bloggers writing during the early days of the movement. These comments often make explicit connections between OWS and the Internet that described OWS as “a lot like the Internet—leaderless, spaceless.” blogger Joan Donovan wrote, “The ability to organize people without the need for a hierarchical bureaucratic structure in this way appears to be a new feature of social movements with their origins in the Internet.” This comment demonstrates how participants framed OWS practices as “new” despite the fact several movements in the past—for example, the Situationists in Europe in the 1960s—also adopted a horizontal structure rather than relying upon a “hierarchical bureaucratic structure”.

Furthermore, Douglas Rushkoff called OWS “America’s first true internet-era movement…. As the product of the decentralised networked-era culture, it… is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet.” His description signals the way OWS attempted an Internet-like integration of people by including a diverse range of views and perspectives. This philosophy is exemplified by slogans such ‘We are the 99%’ which emphasise the diversity of opinion within the movement while simultaneously asserting its inclusiveness.

Critiques of the movement also have many similarities to the critiques of the Internet itself. Occupy has, for example, been criticised for having multiple, ambiguous and ultimately unachievable demands—a movement without a goal. Media scholar Jodi Dean has similarly argued that the openness of the Internet leads to “the multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counter-hegemonies”.

While the success of the OWS is still a matter of debate for many, Occupy’s legacy might be the way it demonstrates how much the belief in an egalitarian internet not only influenced how participants organised their movement, but also limited their ability to understand and learn from decades of previous protest actions. The minutiae of the movement, its historical antecedents, and the socioeconomic developments that led to its emergence are minimised. Instead, the movement is simply understood as simply being “like the internet”. Recent protests, such as the Women’s Marches held the day after United States President Donald Trump’s inauguration, returned to more traditional practices such as marches, speeches, and clever signs. This approach has its own set of challenges, to be sure, but it also allows for a more historical perspective that avoids marginalising the protestors’ actions and the conditions that led them to protest in the first place.

Michael Daubs is giving a public talk, Erasing History: The Battle in Seattle, Occupy and the mediatisation of protest movements, at the National Library in Wellington on Thursday April 20 at 5.30pm. The event is free but please RSVP with Daubs in the subject line.

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