Occupy Wall Street’s ‘horizontal hierarchy’ seen through prism of the Internet

November 11, 2011

Ten years ago, the streets of Manhattan would be desolate on any given weekend, emptied of its bankers and lawyers. Not so, last Sunday.

Just outside the Fulton Street subway stop, the once-lonesome streets had a festival feel to them. Tourists packed the sidewalks, some headed to pay their respects at the newly opened 9/11 memorial. Others had a different destination in mind: Zuccotti Park, ground zero for Occupy Wall Street.

The urban campground is part sideshow, part adult playground, part protest and almost entirely an enigma to the media, the government and even to the protesters themselves. Just how this leaderless, unwieldy ship is steered — and where exactly it’s going — is something many of the protesters admit they don’t know.

After spending a day in the camp and watching the conversations of the protesters online, it struck me: The work-in-process aspect, while confusing to people outside the Occupy confines, doesn’t trouble those on the inside. In fact, some seem to embrace bewildering outsiders.

The “horizontal hierarchy,” as the group likes to call its leadership style, becomes more understandable when viewed through the prism of the Internet. The style of communication, decision-making and planning taking place in Zuccotti Park, and in Occupy protests across the country, mimics much of the way we have learned to talk to one another online. Although there have been signs of this altered communication style in earlier movements, such as the tea party, the Occupy protesters seem to have fully realized and implemented the lessons of a thousand message boards in a real-life community.


The communication and leadership of the Occupy movement mimics much of the way we have learned to talk to one another online. (Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES)

Although online commenters have a reputation of vitriol, they’re often self-corrective. One person will rant; the next six will correct and calm the first. It’s a give-and-take online. Although misinformation spreads, on larger conversation sites, such as Reddit or Twitter, truth often bubbles up.

So it was in Zuccotti Park last Sunday. Toward the center of the encampment, a circle of men and women stood and sat in an area dubbed the “Think Tank.” The current topic was questioning whether there was a need for identification tags, but the conversation was far more sprawling. One woman vented about a too-tight curfew. A young visitor encouraged them to reach out to the other protests. A woman from Egypt spoke of the revolt in Tahrir Square.

Each person had the right to speak; but similarly, each person had the right to interrupt through the use of an Occupy-only technique called a “mike check.”

One woman, concerned over a women-only tent, frustrated and near tears, stopped talking when a man shouted “mike check” and proceeded to joke about his lost wallet: “It has no money in it, so you’re out of luck.” The crowd repeated his words, and the woman waited to speak again.

To an outsider, it was inexplicable; to the protesters, it was a point of order. The conversation lasted four hours. When the group broke to move onto another topic, no decision about ID tags had been made.

For the protesters, therein lies the danger of a movement that mirrors the online world. There is the possibility of slacktivism, that people are there far more to play than to protest or that the freewheeling nature of the debate winds up resolving nothing. Perhaps most dangerous of all, however, is that the protest community will find its divisions as easily as people do online and splinter off into silos that leave little room for outside voices.

Or, perhaps, the style will teach us about a new way to debate, sprawling and messy, but also more inclusive.

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