It all started innocuously enough with a July 13 blog post urging people to #OccupyWallStreet, as though such a thing (Twitter hashtag and all) were possible.
It turns out, with enough momentum and a keen sense of how to use social media, it actually is.
The Occupy movement, decentralized and leaderless, has mobilized thousands of people around the world almost exclusively via the Internet. To a large degree through Twitter, and also with platforms like Facebook and Meetup, crowds have connected and gathered.
As with any movement, a spark is needed to start word spreading. SocialFlow, a social media marketing company, did an analysis for Reuters of the history of the Occupy hashtag on Twitter and the ways it spread and took root.
The first apparent mention was that July 13 blog post by activist group Adbusters (r.reuters.com/suc54s) but the idea was slow to get traction.
The next Twitter mention was on July 20 (r.reuters.com/tuc54s) from a Costa Rican film producer named Francisco Guerrero, linking to a blog post on a site called Wake Up from Your Slumber that reiterated the Adbusters call to action (r.reuters.com/vuc54s).
The site, founded in 2006 “to expose America’s fraudulent monetary system and the evil of charging interest on money loaned,” is a reference to the biblical verse Romans 13:11 that reads in part: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
Guerrero’s post was retweeted once and then there was silence until two July 23 tweets — one from the Spanish user Gurzbo (r.reuters.com/wuc54s) and one from a retired high school chemistry teacher in Long Island, New York named Cindy tweeting as gemswinc. (r.reuters.com/xuc54s)
Gurzbo’s post was not passed along by anyone but Cindy’s was, by eight people, including a Delaware-based opponent of the Federal Reserve, a vegan information rights supporter, a Washington-based environmentalist and an Alabama-based progressive blogger.
Again, there was relative silence for nearly two weeks, until LazyBookworm tweeted the Occupy hashtag again on August 5. (r.reuters.com/zuc54s) That got seven retweets, largely from a crowd of organic food supporters and poets.
The notion of Occupy Wall Street was out there but it was not gaining much attention — until, of course, it did, suddenly and with force.
Social media experts trace the expansion to hyper-local tweeters, people who cover the pulse of communities at a level of detail not even local papers can match.
In New York, credit goes to the Twitter account of Newyorkist, whose more than 11,000 tweets chronicle the city in block-by-block detail. His was one of the first well-followed accounts to mention the protests in mid-September.
Trendistic, which tracks hashtag trends on Twitter, shows that OccupyWallStreet first showed up in any volume around 11 p.m. on September 16, the evening before the occupation of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park began. Within 24 hours, the tag represented nearly 1 of every 500 uses of a hashtag.
The first two weeks of the movement were slow, media coverage was slim and little happened beyond the taking of the concrete park itself. But then a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge prompted hundreds of arrests and the spark was ignited.
On October 1, #OccupyBoston started to show up on Twitter. Within a couple of weeks, #OccupyDenver and #OccupySD and others appeared.
The Occupy Wall Street page on Facebook started on September 19 with a YouTube video of the early protests. By September 22, it reached critical mass.
“Newcomers today, welcome! Feel free to post. Advertise your own pages of resistance. Network until it works,” read one posting meant to inspire protests elsewhere.
For young activists around the world, who grew up with the Internet and the smartphone, Facebook and Twitter have become crucial in expanding the movement.
They are pioneering platforms like Vibe that lets people anonymously share text, photos and video over short distances for brief periods of time — perfect for use at rallies.
“No one owns a (Twitter) hashtag, it has no leadership, it has no organization, it has no creed but it’s quite appropriate to the architecture of the net. This is a distributed revolt,” said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at City University of New York and author of the well-known blog BuzzMachine.
Some reports say the protesters have raised as much as $300,000 in donations to cover everything from pizza to video equipment but others put the figure much lower.
The Alliance for Global Justice, which calls itself “the fiscal sponsor for Occupy Wall Street,” has raised $23,200 via WePay.com.
As of Monday afternoon, Facebook listed no fewer than 125 Occupy-related pages, from New York to Tulsa and all points in between. Roughly 1 in every 500 hashtags used on Twitter on Monday, all around the world, was the movement’s own #OWS.
The websites keep proliferating — We Are the 99 Percent, Parents for Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together, even the parody Occupy Sesame Street (concerned mostly with the plight of monsters living in garbage cans).
Online streaming video has also been a huge resource for the protesters, using cheap cameras and high-speed wireless Internet access.
Supporters, opponents and the merely curious got the chance last Saturday to watch the Occupy Wall Street protesters decide whether to occupy a major public park, Washington Square Park, in the Greenwich Village area.
They saw warnings the police were about to arrive in riot gear and with horses, vans and buses to take away protesters if there were mass arrests. Local media reported about 10 arrests among the 3,000 or so people in the park.
As the seconds to a possible confrontation ticked down, the tension led to various reactions from those watching online.
“Anyone arrested is a political prisoner,” said one.
“Here comes Czar Bloomberg’s Cossacks,” said another, in reference to New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the appearance of the mounted police.
There were “we are watching” messages of support from cities across the United States and some who found it the best entertainment going on a Saturday night.
“So much more exciting than a TV show” was one comment.
(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; Additional reporting by Martin Howell and Anthony DeRosa in New York; Editing by John O’Callaghan)