To my mind, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is one of the most powerful contemporary demonstrations of social media’s creative and disruptive force. In just a few short months, what began as a well-packaged concept, or ‘meme’, made its way through online networks to inspired initiators, who, in turn, mobilized even larger networks to generate physical ‘occupys’ in roughly 1000 distinct geographic locations. After all was said and done, we are left with a powerful case study of how the virtual can become the ‘real’ in social and political space, with startling speed and impact these days.
I can think of no better person to give us deeper insights into the genesis of #Occupy than my activist mentor, Kalle Lasn. One of the most effective social media shit disturbers around today, he is neither young nor a technophile. In fact, at age 72, Kalle Lasn has mixed feelings about the Web, which he sometimes sees as an unhealthy cultural addiction. Nevertheless, after working for over 20 years to make a dent in late capitalist culture through Adbusters Magazine and related Culture Jamming campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day, Lasn finally hit the jackpot when he tweeted to his followers, exhorting them to camp out in front the New York Stock Exchange. This seed of an idea, through viral online sharing and phsyical mobilization, was to become a global movement that grabbed headlines for many months in 2011-2012 and continues to live on as an important cultural and political reference.
As early as June 2011, Lasn was throwing around ideas of a mass mobilization against the excesses of the American financial sector in much the same way that protestors had taken over Egypt’s Tahrir square during the Arab Spring. Using Adbusters’ vast email network (currently at 98,376 subscribers) as well as the Magazine (circulation: 120,000), Lasn floated the idea that there should be a peaceful occupation of Wall Street that fall. Later, when more and more people took to the concept, they followed with calls to action to hit the streets on September 17th. Tweets began flying with the hashtag #occupywallstreet. The rest, as they say, is history.
I recently had the chance to reconnect with Lasn. Here are his reminiscences on Occupy Wall Street and the next movement he is cooking up with the help of social media.
After launching the OWS concept, were you suprised by the final outcome?
Lasn: Way before we even thought of Occupy, there was the excitement of what happened in Tunisia and before Tunisia, the excitement of what was happening with the Anarchists in Greece, the Indignados in Spain, the incredible regime change moment in Egypt, all of a sudden, for the first time in the history of Adbusters, it felt like, my God, the young people from around the world are waking up to the fact that their history does not compute and suddenly, with the help of social media, they actually had the power to actually fundamentally change things.
It was really the excitement of something that was happening like a replay of 1968. I lived through 1968, I knew that global revolutions are possible and, after Greece and Spain and the other things that were happening, it felt like, ok, this could be another one of those moments. And that’s when we figured, let’s give it a go. Let’s go for some kind of regime change in America, let’s try to occupy the iconic heart of global capitalism and see what happens. And I think that excitement that we felt was actually being felt by hundreds of millions of young people around the world and that’s the reason why the timing was so perfect. So many young people around the world were unemployed and the future looked bleak and all those financial fraudsters were not brought to justice, Obama wasn’t doing anything, and it just felt like a ‘piss off’ moment where some little spark would light it up.
As soon as we launched the hashtag #occupywallstreet and we put our Occupy Wall Street website up, and those posters of the ballerina on the bull, we could feel it, something big was going to happen. So to answer the question, it was not really a suprise that there was a big spark moment in Wall Street and Zuccotti park there. But what did surprise us afterwards was how quickly it propagated. All of a sudden it was in Los Angeles, then it was creeping across the border into Canada and then I visited Occupy Vancouver right here in my own back yard and, as you remember, for a few months there, there were hundreds Occupy’s around the world. That did surprise me. We made a big spark moment and I could feel it going viral but when it really started spreading, that was really a ‘gift from the gods’. Were asked ourselves afterwards, what did it? Was it networked society and all the rest of it? But really, it comes down to timing. Sometimes, when the moment is ready, all it takes is a spark.
What plans do you have for using social media in the future?
Lasn: We’re constantly brainstorming here about how we can harness social media here to pull of something even bigger than Occupy Wall Street, to actually light the spark that launches the global revolution and we have this KillCap idea right now. That all these people who were part of Occupy and all the people that have woken up to the fact that their future doesn’t compute, these 100 million people around, would stand up and play this KillCap game, to kill the current mode of capitalism and try to come up with a kind of Capitalism 2.0. Then we would spark KillCap incarnations in D.C. and in Toronto and elsewhere, which, instead of just camping out in a park, would create myriad offensives all around the world so that we’ve got an idea of a sort of gaming. What hasn’t really happened yet with the world of activism is that we haven’t yet figured out how to turn it into a game. And we feel that KillCap would be that game.
To follow the development Lasn’s KillCap concept, see: http://www.adbusters.org/killcap
Personal note: I worked closely with Kalle Lasn from 1998-2001 as Adbusters’ Campaigns Manager. Adbusters and its team of talented young creatives has always been ahead of the communications curve, in my opinion. This is where I learned the ropes of digital and social marketing and where I first witnessed the power of people power through social networks.