Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Can Twitter help build programs not prisons?

November 27th, 2011

Intriguing things are happening with Twitter these days.

  • #HAILSTATE appears in the endzone of an annual football rivalry yesterday (Saturday, Nov 26)
  • “Using a hashtag is [among other things] a way for someone to convey that they’re part of a certain scene.”
  • In electoral politics, hashtags are becoming “an ideal way to snark.”
  • Earlier in November: “‘#HashtagsArentAJobsBill.’ Oh, snap.
  • The GOP got 20% more positive reactions [on Twitter] than Obama” on jobs (see chart)
  • The #OWS presence on Twitter is more diffuse and widespread than the closed #teaparty network (see visualization)
  • Campaign monitoring of Tweets for the 2012 election generates a tagcloud of top words in Tweets about the candidates and a column ranking of quantity of Tweets/candidate in real time (watch the data change)
  • The overall rate of tweeting with the tags #ows, #occupy, and #occupywallstreet has been declining over the last 30 days (as of Nov 24) while the overall reach of tweeting with #ows has spread, globally


“Twitter is the world’s largest focus group,” asserts Adam Green of 140elect.  Twitter is now being picked up and used by the political class (see “History” below). “The thing is,” explains Nancy Scola, “it’s not just the political class, traditionally defined. For every #FlipFlopMitt, a hashtag pushed by Perry’s presidential campaign, there’s an organic one started by some random person on the Internet.”  She continues, “Anyone with a free minute and a Twitter account can join in and, for better or for worse, find themselves part of a national media messaging battle.”

Since the police broke up Occupy Wall Street’s peaceful protests, maintaining momentum for #ows via social media may take on increasing importance. Meanwhile, Yochai Benkler at Harvard cautions that

“a complete retreat to an online-only form would be a mistake.

“The ability to focus on a national agenda will depend on actual, on-the-ground, face-to-face actions, laying your body down for your principles – with the ability to capture the images and project them to the world,” Mr. Benkler said, pointing to the outrage over the use of pepper spray at the University of California, Davis, last weekend [Nov 17-18] as an example of an encounter that ratcheted up the online conversation.


Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a clear forerunner of Twitter in requiring users to compose short and clear messages, as well as providing precedent for the Twitter symbols of @ (for author identification) and # (for organizing content): IRC channel names require the first character to be either ‘&’, ‘#’, ‘+’ or ‘!‘ (”hereafter called “channel prefix“). In addition to inspiring the hashtag and address tag, just as Twitter contributes to the circulation of protest and repression that corporate-owned media chooses not to give much airtime, the IRC provided a communication route for news and information when mainstream media were being censored.

Writing for The Atlantic, Nancy Scola reports:

“Observers cite the 2009 Iranian elections (#IranElection) as the moment the tool really took hold in the political realm. Closer to home, the taxonomic application found high-profile usage when the White House encouraged people to use #immigration to discuss a major Obama immigration speech and #AskObama to group together questions for the president for an online forum hosted by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.”

Then, a mere year ago, came the Arab Spring, fueled by social media – namely Facebook and Twitter.  These movements continue: #Jan25, #Egypt, #Tahrir, and #Syria. Protest spread from the Middle East to Spain in May: Take The Square.

And now, right here in the United States, #OWS.

This is how Occupy Wall Street began: as one of many half-formed plans circulating through conversations between [Kalle] Lasn and [Micah] White, who lives in Berkeley and has not seen Lasn in person for more than four years. Neither can recall who first had the idea of trying to take over lower Manhattan. In early June, Adbusters sent an e-mail to subscribers stating that “America needs its own Tahrir.” The next day, White wrote to Lasn that he was “very excited about the Occupy Wall Street meme. . . . I think we should make this happen.” He proposed three possible Web sites:,, and

“No. 1 is best,” Lasn replied, on June 9th. That evening, he registered

Orienting toward the Future

No one person creates a meme. Memes are articulations of a common consciousness, the expression of a deep and widely-shared intuition about lived experience at the frontiers of knowledge. Memes propagate because they resonate and are echoed by individual persons who recognize and act on an affinity with the images or sentiments the language evokes. Viewed historically, memes reflect the zeitgeist of an era; viewed contemporaneously – memes are best explained by the communication concept of interpellation. In plain language, interpellation is about being hailed, being called by persons, things, ideas, etc., into being “this way” or “that way,” into our individual/cultural/social identities: you and I are drawn to the things (objects, ideas) and people that each of us likes; why we like some things more than others has to do with exposure (familiarity) and difference (unfamiliarity). The important point is that being hailed is an interactive process, a dynamic exchange between those “things” (objects, ideas, other persons) and our selves (consciously and unconsciously).

For a meme to take off and become a meme, it has to get traction – the traction comes from the hailing process. The meme hollers “Yo! I’m here! Whatcha think?” If it catches your attention, this provides some ground. If you engage it – in any kind of way, through agreement or disagreement or mocking or celebration or whatever – this starts the foundation. If few others engage, too bad – no co-construction, no interaction = no meme. But if others also engage – whether in a similar or distinctive way than you – a potential starts to build. The process can happen quick or begin slowly; usually there is a spurt when the sucker simply takes off. Spurting remains unpredictable. The best science cannot guarantee when a meme will burst into public consciousness; art may fare slightly better but most memes become obvious in retrospect rather than prediction.

"No one gets rich on their own."

"No one gets rich on their own."

One of the early contributions to the momentum of Occupy Wall Street is the clarity with which Elizabeth Warren explains the economic situation. The 2 minute youtube video pictured above was made prior to OWS.  an interview with Elizabeth Warren on CNBC’s Squawk Box about “the moment” being offered by an upcoming Economic Stress Test. On youtube, that video slides into “Elizabeth Warren Makes Timmy Geithner Squirm Over AIG and Goldman Sachs Bailouts,” and then into “WHY OCCUPY WALL ST?,WHY,WHY,WHY? (MUST SEE!),” which splices an incredible range of news footage together, including Alan Greenspan’s confession to Henry Waxman that the idea he believed in for forty years about free markets’ ability to self-regulate turned out to be completely wrong.

A Revolutionary Moment?

Kalle Lasn, one of the creators of the Occupy Wall Street meme (founder of the Canadian magazine, Adbusters) has described the police raid to clear Zuccotti Park as “the latest in a series of crisis-driven opportunities.” In his interview with Mattathias Schwartz, Lasn asserts, “World wars, revolutions—from time to time, big things actually happen . . . When the moment is right, all it takes is a spark.”  Lasn is calling the evictions the end of Phase I and calling for Phase II… Originally,  ”Adbusters invited readers to “zero in on what our one demand will be.” The suggested ideas included a Presidential commission charged with ending the influence of money in politics, and a one-per-cent “Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions.” Instead, the movement chose the anarchist path, and has refused to coalesce around any one demand.


The question is both literal and figurative. Occupy Wall Street is resistance to the “prison” of the financial game created by financiers and other high stakes gamblers. Likewise, profiting from the penal system encourages profiling and other forms of social injustice. As a result, too many prisoners are Americans that we need contributing actively to the economy, supporting their families and improving their communities.

What if the focus group dimension of Twitter described by Adam Green could be extended as a platform for aggregating collective intelligence? Could crowd-sourcing the issues and ideas allow “the solutions” of Occupy Wall Street to take organic form as dictated by all of its advocates – perhaps even in a kind of competition-based collaboration with its detractors?

Has Twitter become a sufficiently strong medium for asserting political will? Can codes, programs, and applications be written to assess the dynamics of issues vis-a-vis events? Or must we continue to leave the direction of the country up to the closed decision-making of extreme pundits and politicians, as vetted by the corporately-owned mainstream media?

Benkler and Lasn are pointing the way – more physical gatherings, people massing in public spaces. There will continue to be violence from the establishment against the resistance. I confess that I am not sure if I have the guts to put my body on the line in the way so many already have. What I can do, at least for now, is try to design and advocate for non-violent means to #keepspreadingthememe.

Day 72, Occupy Wall Street
27 November 02011

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