As the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations unfold, Twitter has established itself as an important form of social media for communicating about the movement, just as it has done during the course of the Arab Spring uprisings. However, if you go and take a look at what is actually happening on the ground, a more full picture of the impact of Internet-based communication emerges. CleanTechnica visited Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan earlier this week, and this is what we found.
Communicating Occupy Wall Street Globally with Images
While tweets are pure language, photos break down the language barrier, and cameras are very much in evidence at Zuccotti Park (by the way, “park” is something of a misnomer; Zuccotti Park is a, small, narrow fully paved plaza wedged between tall office buildings, punctuated by raised beds that contain modestly sized trees). On the sidewalk outside the park, throngs of causal passers-by were using cell phones and digital pocket cameras to capture the scene. Many focused on the signs held by an outer ring of demonstrators who stood still, facing out to the street for maximum exposure. Inside the tightly packed park, more photographers weaved through the crowds with professional-quality equipment at the ready.
Using Photos to Share Messages
Philip Howard, a social media researcher with the University of Washington, recently lead a study on the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring movements. In an email conversation with CleanTechnica he made a comment which suggests that people who don’t use flickr or other public photo sharing services per se may still be sending images to people within their circles, if not through Facebook then simply by email.
“I’m not surprised that you saw so many digital cameras and mobile phone cameras because people love documenting their experiences and sharing those images over networks of family and friends,” he said. “The most important piece of hardware in social media is still a camera. People who don’t have digital cameras often have camera phones, or a laptop with a camera built in…the most popular media to share is pictures.”
Occupy Wall Street and Facebook
Howard’s study focused primarily on Twitter for a number of reasons, including access to the technology in the Middle East (cell phones are ubiquitous, but laptops are not). Facebook may emerge as a more important tool in the U.S., not only because more people use laptops, but also because more people feel more comfortable about exercising their right to share an opinion.
If anything, three middle-aged demonstrators interviewed by Idea Lab were more concerned about the reaction of their employers, rather than any issues with government officials.
The three – Jeff, Andy, and Ed – all of whom preferred not to provide their last names, were friends who had come from Connecticut and Massachusetts, and were at the park for the first time. All three were fully employed in technology-related fields, and had first heard about the demonstrations from online sources.
Andy had been posting frequently on Facebook in support of the demonstrators. He found himself unable to say no when Jeff invited him to come along. He had made a sign appropriate to the occasion, which read “I’m 48 and this is my first protest.”
“It’s one thing to sit and say go from the comfort of my office,” he said. “This was a chance to add to the crowd and help in some way.”
Ed had also written occasional posts. “My reasons for coming are similar, to make a presence, to be here,” he said.
“I came to add my voice and see the people here,” said Jeff, who had first suggested the visit. “I wanted to know – I was desperate to know – whether this has a chance.”
Supporting Occupy Wall Street through Websites
Supporters are also sharing online messages through nonprofit organizations, some of which have been hopscotching across the globe in an effort to link similar movements in different countries.
In an interview with Idea Lab, Mia Cambronero, an employee of the group Avazz (co-founded by online veteran Moveon.org), explained that they had been to other demonstrations this year. They had been visiting Zuccotti Park for the past several days specifically to display an online global petition in support of the demonstrators, complete with a full scale electronic counter that numbered well over 400,000 by mid-afternoon on Sunday.
Cambronero explained that the elaborate installation was intended to “counter efforts to paint this as a fringe bunch of crazy kids in a park,” in addition to providing demonstrators with moral support.
Alternatives to Twitter and Facebook Emerge
Twitter may also be fading out as more useful alternatives come onto the market. As reported by the New York Daily News, Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have begun to forsake Twitter as an organizing tool in favor of a mobile phone app called “Vibe,” which enables users to post information anonymously and temporarily.
Another online tool, Tumblr, has also emerged as an alternative means of sharing images and messages.
As deep as Occupy Wall Street’s online roots run – the initial September 17 Occupy Wall Street event was organized online from a July posting by the Canada-based magazine Adbusters, which had already registered the domain name OccupyWallStreet.org back in June – within the park old school methods of communication prevailed.
During CleanTechnica’s visit two speaking events were going on at once, both without the benefit of sound equipment, with the audience using a somewhat cumbersome but effective call-and-response format to amplify the speakers’ words.
Image Credit: Tina Casey October 9, 2011.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.