The Occupy Wall Street Movement as a Small World Network

Small-world networks are all around us. They make up all parts of life from the way we form social groups, fireflies and crickets in nature; even the way the cells in our bodies or our brains are wired mimic a small-world network. This phenomenon is one that has been a mystery to mathematicians, scientists and physicists for years. Mark Buchanan in his book, “Nexus” discusses a pair of mathematicians, Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz, who discovered a mathematical explanation for the mystery. They wrote a paper titled, “Collective Dynamics of ‘Small-World’ Networks” and sent it into a prominent scientific journal called, “Nature,” (p.23, 48-50). A small-world network can become isolated if it wasn’t for something known as the weak tie. It is the catalyst for any small-world network and allows for it to grow beyond its circumference and introduce its ideas to other small worlds and vice versa. The Occupy Wall Street Movement that has swept across the United States in recent months and now throughout the world is an example of a small-world network that through weak ties reached its tipping point and exploded across the globe.

It all began with a tweet by the Canadian activist group Adbusters:

@AdBusters: Dear Americans, this July 4th dream of insurrection against corporate rule. http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/95/revolution-america.html #occupywallstreet.

Slow to gain momentum, the tweet was re-tweeted 38 times that same day, five the next, and one the following week. “This cycle demonstrates that viral activity is not an instantaneous event. There is always a seed idea, a period of shaping and evolving with a small, highly engaged community, a successful test in a local market, and then finally an emergence on a larger scale” ((http://greatfinds.icrossing.com/tracing-the-roots-of-occupywallstreet/). This is exactly what happened with the Occupy movement on Wall Street. Adbusters communicated to its community to congregate on Wall Street on a specific day (September 17, 2011) to express their lament for the status quo that the government so willingly accepts. Boston then got wind of what was happening and created their own general assembly to show support for and agreement with the movement.

“Adbusters, a long time anti-consumerism and anti-corporate activist organization based in Vancouver, published an image of an American flag with corporate logos. The flag was not very different from anything else Adbusters had produced in past months, but what set that post apart was a new hash tag at the end of the Tweet that publicized the new image: #OccupyWallStreet. A mobilization began shortly afterward, initially through the efforts of Adbusters and then far beyond its reach” (http://greatfinds.icrossing.com/tracing-the-roots-of-occupywallstreet/).

Adbusters is a global network that wants to advance the new social activist movement of the information age. Their aim is to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we live in the 21st century (http://www.adbusters.org/about/adbusters).

On July 13, 2011 AdBusters followed up its initial post with a provocative image of a woman atop a bull with a location and a date. Over the next two months a steady stream of twitter posts ensued.

            According to their web site, #OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a people powered movement for democracy in America that was instituted on September 17 with the encampment of the financial district of New York City. Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas, they vow to end the monied corruption in American democracy.

In terms of the Occupy movement, its purpose was to incite change through democracy within the power of a small-world network, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were doing. It began with an idea that provoked a stirring among individuals within the Adbusters community; a community that already supported the ideas that Adbusters peddles. It then travelled along the weak ties to other communities.

What is a small-world network and how is it created? What is its catalyst? Who are its participants? What does it do? How does it begin as an idea among like-minded individuals and leap frog into a world-wide explosion of revolutionary ideology and transforming potential?

A small-world network is made up of three components: the nodes, those that are a part of the community either actively or passively; the hub, which is a central character in a small world network and is one that many people know, are connected to, or turn to for information; and weak ties, they are especially important for the continued evolution of a small world network. A weak tie shares multiple interests and links from one group to another. Without this tie, small-worlds would become stagnant, narrow and socially compact. The weak tie brings diversity and connections that a hub may not necessarily be able to support.

A small-world network creation comes from like-minded individuals who come together for a common purpose. Mark Buchanan, in his book Nexus, discusses that for centuries there was a mystery that surrounded the idea of a small-world network (p.23-30). Many people recognize this concept as six degrees of separation. Hubs and nodes are important in this network, but a weak tie or link allows information to move along at a much faster and greater rate than if only the hub controlled the information. Weak ties allow information to, “escape the confining boundaries of your own social group and get into the minds of a great many people,” (p.45).

In terms of the Occupy movement, the hub was Adbusters. It disseminated information through a very intentional domain name purchase, a blog post designed to give foundation for the claim, a tweet to get the birds talking, and a reference to both the blog and the domain in order to further promote their purpose. These birds or nodes shared and discussed the information with each other, the hub then fed the discussion and action through a follow up tweet which in turn sparked more discussion, re-tweets, and then the weak ties launched it into the public arena.

Each weak tie within the Adbusters community, inspired by the idea of democratic change instituted by the people, for the people, then went on to communicate that information to another small-world it belongs to. This information eventually found its way to the hub of the new small world that then disseminated it to the others within that community. Another weak tie then picked up this information and spread it to another of their small groups.  At some point, within a matter of days, the hash tag, twitter postings and ideology behind both had tipped into a global movement. Yes, change was the purpose, but a global movement ensued that has caught fire and spread globally.

In order for an idea or movement, such as Occupy Wall Street to catalyze, gain momentum, and engage communities of all sorts there must be some kind of link. An idea and a person that allows even for the most disinterested party to find it a least a little bit interesting enough to propel it further in its evolution. The Occupy movement took what was happening in Egypt in Tahir Square and translated that into an American movement to create change that the government has thus far been incapable of doing despite the popular slogan of President Barack Obama. Through peaceful occupation and an incessant call to action in one voice with one unified cry, the movement felt they would be successful to change the current status quo because the government would have no choice but to give in to their single demand. With the current state of the American economic instability, depression and the catastrophic amount of unemployed Americans, in conjunction with the government’s bank and automotive industry bail-outs, it is no wonder that the people would have enough desire, motivation, and outcry to participate in this generation’s revolution. The amazing part of the occupy movement, is that the dissatisfaction for government action crossed many ages, ethnicities, gender, ideologies and languages. It has reached even the most disinterested party. Mutual dissatisfaction in government was the catalyst for the Occupy movement. Once the wildfire started, it spread quickly and continues globally.

“A timely and valuable article by one of the facilitators of the Occupy Wall St. process, David Graeber. I was there for the occupation’s humble beginnings last Saturday, but since then it has become a sensation among the conscious and concerned population of this country. Why? Because finally there is an ongoing, unignorable, and vibrant manifestation against the Wall St. crooks who quite blatantly stole trillions of dollars from us. Whether the occupation on Lower Manhattan lasts, or grows, or dies in the coming weeks, the global upheaval will continue and become an ever-present feature of the 21st Century. Our theory is that capitalism has entered a crisis from which it will never recover. The youth can feel it; we know we have no future within the existing system. The only question is, what alternative models can we move to, when everything feels so bleak? The Wall St. occupiers have followed the examples of Egypt, Greece, and Spain in using the direct democratic process of the “general assembly.” This means thousands of young people are having their first exhilarating taste of their voice being part of the actual exercise of power – participating in a movement.  In truth, this is our best hope, so spread it and bring that exhilaration to your friends and family,” (http://endofcapitalism.com/).

The participants in the Occupy movement originated on Wall Street in New York City; this was a natural choice for protesters to occupy because its purpose was to hold the financial industry accountable for their actions. They “proposed a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest corporate influence on democracy, address a growing disparity in wealth, and the absence of legal repercussions behind the recent global financial crisis.  “According to the senior editor of the magazine[Adbusters], ‘[they] basically floated the idea in mid-July into our [email list] and it was spontaneously taken up by all the people of the world, it just kind of snowballed from there’” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_movement). It was evident that they had hit a nerve, not just with American’s, but the 99% of the world’s population; that every town and every country in all parts of the world would no longer concede to the status quo. It seems, with Occupy movements in hundreds of places globally, that Adbusters is a far more influential hub than anything it could have imagined before.  People from all over the globe were now organized in a new way with new connections. Adbusters facilitated those connections through an ideology that many could relate to their own lives and agreement on dissatisfaction with government and corporations.

Clay Shirkey, wrote a book titled, “Here Comes Everybody” and the opening chapter begins with a story about a woman who lost her phone and enlisted the help of a friend to issue a reward via an email to the person who had found it. One thing led to another and when the finder refused to return the phone, a campaign against the finder ensued through the use of social media. In an effort to teach a lesson of “phone etiquette” the friend posted the information about the phone, the finder and her email address and photos on a discussion board as well as on his website. Because many people could relate to losing a phone and the pain of starting over, people rallied behind this woman in her stand against the finder (p.1-11).

This is known as something Shirkey describes as a collective action. It was once assumed that people couldn’t self-assemble and therefore needed a third party to take on the task of organizing on behalf of the people. For years the choice was to either allow the markets or a managed effort to be responsible for the organizing of people. A third alternative was not considered until recently (p.47). “Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history. The scope of work that can be done by noninstitutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo,” (p.48). “The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well, and because they are easily modifiable, they can be made to fit better over time. Rather than limiting our communications to one-to-one and one-to-many tools, which have always been a bad fit to social life, we now have many-to-many tools that support and accelerate cooperation and action. And the possibilities for global organization enabled by those tools continue to grow,” (p. 158).

With the proliferation of new and improved social tools, the many-to-many coordination and communication has become so easy and streamlined that the cost of participating is next to nothing. It is with these tools that have allowed movements such as the Occupy Wall Street to not only engage people of like-minded groups, but to then infiltrate other groups and to grow rapidly and cause an explosion of organizing without the help of the state or other institution necessary prior to the development of these social tools.

In 1961 a study was conducted by two social psychologists at a junior high school in Michigan. They selected a group of friends a traced their connections based on two best friends. They discovered that the circle of friends was fairly limited. When they took the same group of students and traced the connections of the least favorite friends and discovered a much wider circle. “If the original ten students had started some rumor that moved only between the best of friends, it would have infected their own social group but not much more. In contrast, a rumor moving along weaker links would go much further,” (Buchanan, p.48).

The Occupy movement dispersed and grew exactly this way. The Occupy Wall Street moved from a local New York City protest, to one that replicated in many other cities and eventually countries. The first tweet on July 4th with a call to action on September 17, multiplied excessively and the institutions that were once required for such a large quantity of people to gather were now the ones being rallied against. What was once unthinkable and effectively impossible to due to the lack of technology, is now available to become the norm. More and more groups like the Occupy movement are bound to continue to spring up when an ideology gains momentum and people can gather into new like-minded groups that before would never have met. The internet provides the tools and connections. Sites such as Facebook, Meetup and Twitter facilitate the growth of niche interests that prior to these social sites would have made it nearly impossible for them to grow.

The “We are the 99%” slogan came as a Tumblr blog page in August of 2011 and was an outrage over the 1% that holds the nation’s wealth. Each community has then taken the idea of the 99% and rallied around an idea that is more specific to their community. Age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status don’t seem to have much impact on who chooses to participate in the movement or for what purpose. When reporters went to Zucotti Park in New York to talk with protesters everyone seemed to have a different purpose for being there. But, they were unified under the umbrella of governmental dissatisfaction.

August Bradley, a photographer, went to Zucotti Park to do a piece called Portraits of the 99. Following are a few of the people who were at Zucotti Park participating in the movement (http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/faces-and-voices-from-zuccotti-park/?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.mc_id=LE-E-FB-SM-LIN-FVF-111611-NYT-NA&WT.mc_ev=click#/1/):

Ted: “I’m here to end the inequities of our society and use the money for societal needs (i.e. jobs, healthcare, education).”

Kanaska: “I’m here to help others with my music and lyrics. To live a life serving the world peacefully.”

Sam: “I’m here because I disagree with the way the country is run. Money shouldn’t mean freedom. Food shelter and medical care are rights, not privileges. I am also here to provide medical care as a street medic.”

The Occupy Movement is so much more than simply Wall Street.  In the three months since its first occupation, has been a magnet for civil disobedience and political unrest; but, despite its proclamation of peaceful occupation, it hasn’t been entirely peaceful either. On numerous occasions police have had to intervene due to violence, most infamously in Oakland, California, including fighting and in several extreme cases, a rape in Philadelphia, an assault on a war vet in Oakland, a death in Salt Lake and a suicide in Vermont. Many encampments have been found to be in unsanitary conditions and at a risk to the health and safety of the occupiers and surrounding communities (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/11/woman-raped-at-occupy-philadelphia/).

“However, all protesters are not innocent, nor are all police officers villains. There are protesters taking their otherwise justified anger too far, damaging property of local business owners—people that are part of the 99%—and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for taxpayers—also the 99%. There have also been incidents of protesters using dangerous pyrotechnics and throwing rocks at police and even at innocent bystanders. The degeneration of what was once a peaceful protest weakens and distracts from the message and purpose of the protest. The protest agitators are just as much to blame for the pandemonium as the few police officers who are taking their orders too far,” (http://www.laneytower.com/occupy-violence-1.2723869#.Tu5HurLNlGU.

Reno, Nevada has its own Occupy movement located at the Moana pool. It is ironic that in a civil disobedience movement, they would choose to pay for permits in order to “occupy” legally. Though, they have attempted to occupy other parts of town without a permit, however, with the threat of their legal permit being revoked, they opted to vacate the downtown corridor in favor of continuing to build a positive reputation. Unlike many other cities across the nation, violence among the protesters and with the police has been surprisingly absent from the Reno movement. Instead, they have been respectful, peaceful and intent on picking up where the government has not been able to care for the community (i.e. cleaning up local parks of garbage). They are more focused on change than civil disobedience (http://www.rgj.com/article/20111203/NEWS/111203031/Occupy-Reno-protest-called-off-downtown-Reno).

“We as Occupy Reno wish to develop and harness the necessary power to effectively conflict with the predominant patterns and change them. With every new idea arises conflict. The job then is getting people to move, to act, to participate; this is the function of those organizing. For those who have lost their jobs, and homes; it is your time to organize for change. But we do not want the other party to turn off and stop listening. Occupy Reno participants have established committees to address the many facets of the movement. A General Assembly is organizing and discussing logistics. Interested persons may join the discussion and keep track of updates here at this website, on our Facebook page, and on our Twitter account. Occupy Reno advocates for peaceful action and will create an ongoing network to provide citizens with the necessary tools and resources to promote change in their communities,” (http://occupyreno.wordpress.com/about/).

Between Facebook with more than 4,000 likes and Twitter with more than 1,700 followers, the Occupy Reno movement continues to grow. Their website directs traffic and provides a meeting place for people interested in the movement to learn more. This small-world network is intent on following the laws and rules. Their mission is change through disruption, occupation and education. The coming weeks and months will prove whether or not their take on the Occupy movement and actions are fruitful and if their small-world continues to grow through the weak ties that find a nugget of interest to spread to their group.

In addition to organizing without the need for traditional institutions, and engaging younger generations in participating in the democratic process, the occupy movement has spurred technological innovations that promote both of these objectives. One such innovation was the creation of “The People’s Skype,” an open source app meant to help protesters listen to speeches and vote on issues. Without the low cost to participate, few would have access to such important information to the movement, let alone, the movement itself. In order for a global movement to sustain its momentum and continue to progress, it is important that such innovations continue to thrive. It will be through each cities small world networks that innovations such as, “The People’s Skype,” app will prosper.

The idea of “corporatocracy” is another term that has entered into the English language that before this movement was virtually nonexistent. Essentially, the term refers to the idea that a system of government serves the interests of corporations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporatocracy). The abuse and stolen trust of the American public is what has prompted such a collaboration of otherwise in-congruous groups.

In an article in the Huffington Post by Carl Gibson, he decries the American government for its part in “wronging the 99%” but admits that it is not the government alone who is responsible for the events leading to the Occupy movement. In addition, he notes that simply gathering together without the removal of traditional institutions from the ears of politicians, little is likely to change.

“Corporations don’t care about helping America succeed. Corporations as they exist now exist solely for profit, not public good. If the government stands in the way of their profit potential, they can legally purchase new politicians through unlimited, undisclosed campaign donations. If the salaries of their employees or even the planet stand in the way, they’ll eliminate them to appease an economic system that values unsustainable growth over all else. This system of collusion and oppression is why Americans of all colors and backgrounds are occupying.

In a recent segment on Democracy Now!, Glenn Greenwald noted that mere legislative demands from Occupiers would be insufficient to address the grievances of the 99 percent taking the world by storm. If Congress is so rife with corruption that they’ll even vote down creating 300,000 jobs for teachers and first responders to protect millionaires from even a .05% tax increase, then the system is beyond saving through conventional means. The real battle must be waged nonviolently in the streets, even in the face of excessive oppression by an emerging police state.

The cancer eating America alive right now is a corporatocracy where cozy relationships between the power elite dictate policy for the 99%. Americans must surgically remove the corporate cancer from government through direct action and the voting booth, and cultivate new leaders from within the movement. When the people lead, our leaders will have no choice but to follow, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carl-gibson/the-corporatocracy-is-the_b_1070659.html).”

This idea that simply Occupying and voicing dissatisfaction is unlikely to change anything does not seem to have an impact on the occupiers. They continue to assemble and fight little by little for the issues they want to see change. These corporations have spread like metastasized cancer through the government and only when leaders from within the Occupy movement rise up will the change they want occur and be sustainable. Without this invasive surgery to cut out the cancer, nothing will change and prevent such corruption in the long run. The small-worlds must band together in order to become more powerful and dictate through occupation and action through voting what will be the future of America.

What began as an idea that marinated for weeks on the Internet, backed by a webpage, a blog and a twitter feed, exploded into a global crisscrossing of ideologies that centered on the idea that the people have had enough of the status quo that the government and the corporations have sustained for so long. The Occupy Wall Street movement continues to grow, creating a web of connections that the weak ties link together through an ideology of change to government and corporatocracy. It is only through the strength of these links that have allowed the movement to reach the tipping point and encompass the world.

It is no accident that life is organized into a series of small world networks. Buchanan says “What distinguish a small-world network is not only a few degrees of separation but also that it remains highly clustered. We might say that the fabric of the network is densely weaved, so that any element remains comfortably and tightly enmeshed within a local web of connections. Consequently, the network overall can be viewed as a collection of clusters, within which the links between clusters serve to keep the whole world small,” (p.199). The occupy movement is an expression of how we can and do organize without much consideration of how that occurs. It wasn’t through a single leader telling the people what to do or a corporation providing ease of access or limiting the cost of grouping together. It was through the power of small-world networks facilitated by the low cost, minimal barrier internet to allow a perfect storm of the ideology and movement coupled with high unemployment, corporate bail outs, government failure to regulate the corporations and a rampant disregard of the elite one percent over the misfortune of the 99 percent.

Adbusters was a hub willing to disseminate and in this case, perpetuate information in order to instigate change through the power of organizing the nodes to a unified voice. However, the weak ties within each tightly clustered group are what caused such a massive explosion of the Occupy movement. Without each of these characters performing their parts, none of this would have ever occurred and the corporatocracy and governmental disappointments would have continued.

Watts and Strogatz’s paper explaining the mystery around the formation of small-world networks allows us to understand why such a movement can have such a tremendous effect on the world. Adbusters, a seemingly fringe, politically motivated group can become a hub for the 99 percent. Their tightly clustered network grew expansively in a short amount a time because they instigated a movement in which the 99 percent had some kind of affiliation, even in the most passive, uninterested terms. Its power comes from the many small-world networks linked by its weak ties.

“The small-world idea itself is also remarkably simple. All it takes is a few long-distance links or superconnected hubs, and there you have it – a small world. No doubt this simplicity explains why this kind of network appears in the architecture of everything from the human brain to the web of relationships that bind us into societies, as well as the languages we use to speak and think. Where small-world ideas will lead us in five or ten years is anyone’s guess, but they may well reveal something about the way our ideas link up with one another…”(p.208, Buchanan).

In reflection of how small-world networks and ideas form, is it any wonder that Occupy Wall Street flourished?

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