Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Is September 17 America's Own Tahrir Square-Style 'Facebook Revolution'?

Protests in the Middle East and elsewhere capitalized on the spontaneity of social media, but can it also be deployed deliberately?

  • August 9, 2011

Starting September 17, the publishers of Adbusters want 20,000 people take over Wall Street for months, until their demands are met. The campaign’s nerve center urges protestors to “set up tents, kitchens [and] peaceful barricades,” apparently in anticipation of settling in for the long haul.

This isn’t a weekend protest – it’s an attempt to launch a Tahrir Square-style occupation.

On Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, the protest’s organizers are trying to whip their followers into a frenzy. Logistics are being coordinated; social pressure is mounting. Will people respond? Will #occupywallstreet rank as a trending topic on Twitter? Will this loose coalition of young people pick up allies among disaffected, under- and unemployed members of the middle class?

For a million reasons, from Americans’ seeming learned helplessness to the organizational skills of the NYPD, it seems inconceivable that the folks behind this protest will pull it off. If it happens, technology will not be an enabler, it will be the enabler. Unlike protests in Egypt and riots in London, there are no temporally distinct precipitating events for America’s still non-existent protest movement.

There isn’t even a clear purpose for the protests, yet – in typical Internet fashion, the “one demand” of protesters” is still being crowdsourced. (As of this writing, “revoke corporate personhood” is leading by a wide margin, and “abolish capitalism” is a distant second.) There is, however, exactly the sort of steady, grinding economic agita that has inspired protests elsewhere in the world.

America tried to avert an economic catastrophe, and it’s possible we failed – that all the quantitative easing in the world can’t stop the algorithmic traders on Wall Street from crashing the pensions of whichever Americans still believed they possessed any wealth. Is that enough to inspire 20,000 people to show up in downtown Manhattan after having encountered one another nowhere but the Internet? Looks like we’ve got a month to find out.

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