#Occupy: The Power of Revolution When it Becomes Memetic

By now, the majority of people have at least a passing knowledge of Occupy Wall Street and all of the related #Occupy protests sprouting up all over the world.  From its humble start as a demonstration that the internet declared a failure, the movement has grown and gained momentum, and has now demands the attention of the media which initially ignored it, and has been gaining more and more public approval.  If you do not know much about Occupy Wall Street, or how it is different from other protests that have been happening recently, one of the best places to start is the New York Magazine article by Frank Rich.

What’s as intriguing as Occupy Wall Street itself is that once again our Establishment, left, right, and center, did not see the wave coming or understand what it meant as it broke. Maybe it’s just human nature and the power of denial, or maybe it’s a stubborn strain of all-­American optimism, but at each aftershock since the fall of Lehman Brothers, those at the top have preferred not to see what they didn’t want to see. And so for the first three weeks, the protests were alternately ignored, patronized, dismissed, and insulted by politicians and the mainstream news media as a neo-Woodstock for wannabe collegiate rebels without a cause—and not just in Fox-land. CNN’s new prime-time hopeful, Erin Burnett, ridiculed the protesters as bongo-playing know-nothings; a dispatch in The New Republic called them “an unfocused rabble of ragtag discontents.” Those who did express sympathy for Occupy Wall Street tended to pat it on the head before going on to fault it for being leaderless, disorganized, and inchoate in its agenda.

Despite such dismissals, the movement, abetted by made-for-YouTube confrontations with police, started to connect with the mass public much as the Bonus Army did with a newsreel audience. The week after a Wall Street Journal editorial claimed that “no one seems to care very much” about the “collection of ne’er-do-wells” congregating in Zuccotti Park, the paper released its own poll, in collaboration with NBC News, finding that 37 percent of Americans supported the protesters, 25 percent had no opinion, and just 18 percent opposed them. The approval numbers for Occupy Wall Street published in Time and Reuters were even higher—hitting 54 percent in Time. Apparently some of those dopey kids, staggering under student loans and bereft of job prospects, have lots of parents and friends of all ages who understand exactly what they’re talking about. [...]

These efforts to domesticate and contain the protests are unlikely to succeed. It is not frustration that’s roiling America but anger, the anger of a full-fledged class war. Try as polite company keeps trying to ignore it, that war has been building in this country and abroad for much of this decade and has been waged in earnest in America since the fall of 2008. But the crisp agenda demanded of Occupy Wall Street will not be forthcoming. The inchoateness of our particular class war is central to its meaning. America is not Tahrir Square or the riot-scarred precincts of North London, where everyone knows at birth who is in which class and why. We pride ourselves on being a “classless” democracy. We abhor ideology. When Americans left and right, young and old, express anger at an overclass, they don’t necessarily agree about who’s on which side of that class divide. The often confusing fluidity of class definitions, especially in an America as polarized as ours is now, may make our home­grown class war more volatile, not less.

I recommend reading the full article, as it is one of the most succinct and thorough breakdowns of the historic and cultural context of the #Occupy movement, and works as a great starting point or refresher about what is happening.  If you want why people are angry summed up in a single image, just read this Calvin and Hobbes comic, which while old, hits the nail right on the head.

One of the most fascinating aspect of the #Occupy movement though is how it has spread, and the growth that can only occur when their is a lack of exclusive ownership.  The best way to describe it is memetic, where #Occupy has become an internet and cultural meme, something that people take, transform, remix, make their own, reference, and devote their time and productive capacity to perpetuating it.  A great discussion of memetic culture comes from Limor Shifman, who identifies the difference and threshold of transition between something being viral and becoming a meme.

What’s the difference between “memetic” and “viral”? 
While “viral” and “memetic” are often used interchangeably, disentangling them may lead to a more nuanced understanding of digital culture. Looking mainly into videos, I suggest treating the “memetic” and the “viral” as two dynamically interconnected video-types. A viral video can be defined as a clip that spreads to the masses via digital “word-of-mouth” mechanisms without significant change. The memetic video, in contrast, invokes a different structure of participation. It is a popular clip that lures extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche or mash-up. Leave Britney Alone, the Star Wars Kid, and the Hitler Downfall parodies are particularly famous drops in a memetic ocean. Off course, there is a temporal element lurking here: many memetic videos started-off as viral ones. While still unsung in academia, this distinction is part of popular discourse, as evident in Know Your Meme.

Both the viral and the memetic seem to fall in line with what Henry Jenkins calls “spreadable media”, yet the analytic distinction between them highlights two different aspects of participatory culture: the first relates to a mode of diffusion, the second to a prevalent mode of mimeses-based communication. While so far research has tended to focus on the diffusion of specific “viral” videos, probing practices of mimesis may enrich our understanding of cultural formation. [...]

Why are so many people re-making YouTube videos?
By the time you finish reading this post, thousands of new videos will have been uploaded to YouTube. A good chunk of them will be remakes, mash-ups or parodies of existing videos. The answer to the question of why so many people are doing this is far beyond the scope of a single post, article, or even book, but I’d like to play with one idea here. I suggest that re-creating popular videos is the cultural embodiment of what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, users who upload a self-made video demonstrate their creativity and uniqueness; on the other, derivative videos often relate to a common, widely shared memetic video. By this act of cultural referencing, users both construct their individuality and their affiliation with the YouTube community.

If you unfamiliar with concept of video memes as described, below is an example of a memetic video, in this case a Hitler Downfall parody about the fact that it is a memetic video.

If you look, the web is full of variations of this video, all with their own subtitles, making the rant about any and every topic, from grammar, the new iPhone, to the death of Qaddafi.  Shifman is focused on YouTube in her analysis of memes, but it is easy to see how this idea of “networked individualism” can be applied to the #Occupy movement, a nebulous idea that has grown a life of its own, that no one owns or controls, where people are just as likely join a march, sleep in the, make a t-shirt, or remix clips to make poignant YouTube movies.

Memes are even used in how people report about Occupy Wall Street.

This is not just about reference, but about participation, and people putting forth energy in what capacities they can to help the movement, such as visual designers starting Occupy Design.

These are not just limited to protest signs, but wayfinding and logistical graphics to help with physical #Occupy sites.

People are also making physical and cultural artefacts, such as Occupy George, a semantic parody of Where’s George?.

Another prominent thread is the personal but universal narrative, the rallying cry of the 99%, where everybody is unique but in a similar situation.  In many ways, this expression is what Tumblr is built for, the mass participation of disenfranchisement, where you can see endless pictures and images of people showing how we are all in the same boat, such as Occupy Student Dept.

This is just a tiny sample of the activity that has grown around the #Occupy movement, and it is growing faster and faster, to the point where “occupy” has become a banned search term in China, and the density of #Occupy protests in the US is almost comical proportions.

The map basically coordinates with population density, and shows that dissatisfaction and angry about the curent state of the world are not isolated feelings.  This does feel different though than “an American Arab Spring,” and a lot of it does stem from its memetic nature.  If the Arab Spring was the revolution powered by the tools of the internet, #Occupy is the revolution powered by the culture of the internet.  YouTube is not just where the videos of police brutality are posted, but where they are editorialized, responded to, remixed, parodied, slowed down, and made the property of public.  This should not come as a surprise at all either, because it has been building towards this for some time.  This is Anonymous for the masses.  This is the politics that attack Scientology, PayPal, child porn, gets back to its lulzy roots as LulzSec, and then takes on corporate greed in general when it becomes widely adopted.  Has it changed and evolved?  Of course, there is no way that it could not.  It is a movement with no leader, no single uniting slogan, cause, or ideology.  It is meant to be transformative and to become what people need it to be.  As disturbing as it is to think of it this way, #Occupy is another meme created on the boards of 4chan that has grown and evolved past its original constraints, and has become something collectively owned by the culture at large, the political revolution equivalent of LOL Cats.  The difference is earnestness, that this is not an irreverent joke, but people fighting a sense of hopelessness, an unfair system that they feel lied and betrayed them.  What we are seeing is the spread of meme, a meme centered on authenticity, truth, fear, anger, and honest emotion, where the energy formally put into making response videos and remixes is put towards activism.  We have seen how the tools of the internet fuel a revolution, and now we are seeing the culture of the internet’s revolution.  And you know what?  So far, it is not quite like anything I have seen before.

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