Last week I went down to Zuccotti Park out of an overwhelming desire to be a part of something intensely important. One of my professors compared the occupation of Wall Street to People’s Park in Berkley, California. He also sees strong connections to the ongoing hacktivist activities in Spain. OccupyWallst.org draws their tactics explicitly form the Arab Spring. I have waited so long to write something about my own experiences because, frankly, it almost feels too personal. So, if you’ll indulge me, this post is going to be a little different from the ones I’ve written in the past.
While the major news outlets try desperately to shoehorn OWS into existing frames, smaller outlets have provided excellent commentary and insight. Jenny Davis was the first on this blog to write about the movement’s use of social media. Since her insightful post, social media has proven to be an effective tool in revealing police brutality and even possible entrapment by the NYPD. The various Twitter backchannels have been instrumental in organizing and publicizing the organization – as well as the results- of major protests. Nathan has also done an excellent job of discussing the relationship of online and offline action. And yesterday’s post by Sarah Wanenchak describes exactly my feelings on the confluence of various forms of technology. There truly is no easy way to describe the feeling you get when you hear the people’s mic for the first time. It is a little difficult to master, but a truly powerful tool.
Having participated in everything from sweeping Zuccotti Park, to handing out the “Occupied Wall Street Journal,” to helping start a local occupation there is a pervasive sense of togetherness. Friend requests on Facebook explode, you learn the depths of blogging software, you loose your voice from screaming, but you talk through it because you are having a meaningful conversation with a total stranger on 125th Street. Over a decade ago, when Robert Putnam was writing Bowling Alone he bemoaned the generational loss of social capital. At the time, he saw little promise in the message boards and chat rooms of the dial-up internet. Nothing could replace face-to-face communication. And he was almost right. Putnam says,
Above all, then, as now, older strands of social connection were being abraded-even destroyed-by technological and economic and social change. Serious observers understood that the path from the past could not be retraced, but few saw clearly the path to a better future.
Voluntary associations in the mid 20th century provided deep social relationships, but they were bounded into silos of different races, classes, and genders. As those classifications have been challenged, abandoned, or radically transformed, our social environment evolves faster than we can change ourselves. We feel a vague sense of disconnectedness as we search for new and meaningful voluntary associations. New associations are coming from unexpected places, and offer multiple entries into new kinds of voluntary associations. Our twitter feeds and Facebook networks allow us to reach across geographic boundaries and relate to one another through political affinities, niche hobbies, or even vaguely defined -but powerful- movements. Our associations begin to take on a rhizomatic shape. They spread horizontally and offer multiple entry points but maintain their cohesiveness as an identified whole. Through our augmented voluntary associations we are beginning to see a rhizomatic re-construction of voluntary associations.
A lot of ink has been spilled over whether our digital connections pull us together into a global community or push us apart into our own highly specialized tribes. I do not find either to be very convincing- as they mostly fall into the trap of digital dualism. I would rather point to the wide-spread solidarity created by and through the Occupy Wall Street movement and show that as long as the bits keep flowing, we will have the ability to create new kinds of voluntary associations. These new augmented voluntary associations are rhizomatic, that is, they run horizontal instead of vertical, provide multiple points of entry, can mobilize large groups into collective action, or pit them against one-another in partisan confrontation. Whatever the outcome of the Occupation movements, it is important that we recognize the power of these new associational patterns and use them in the most inclusive and productive way possible.