For a few weeks now the amount of buzz about the Occupy Wall Street protests has been steadily increasing, spiking with the arrests last weekend and yesterday with the engagement of organized labor unions in the protests. This is despite being largely ignored or dismissed at first by mainstream American media. Certainly the growth in awareness about them is due somewhat to the media coverage they have gained since those early days. However, mainstream American media was unnecessary to sustain the protest. In Iran, then in the Arab world and now in New York, user-generated media has enabled activists to create their own credibility.
Mainstream media plays many important roles in any society. Among other things, it serves as source of information, and it serves as a source of intelligence for the public about what is or should be important to them. When properly fulfilling that latter role, it confers legitimacy upon true movements that seek social change and in so doing provides them with what they need to survive -- supporters. Except that in the three recent cases of major social protest that have already been mentioned, mainstream American media largely missed the story and, despite that, the movements went on and this continues in places like Yemen. This is the transformational power of digital tools and the user-generated media that they enable.
I've been both a ringside spectator and a player in all of this. In New Hampshire in 2003, I ran a campaign that intensively engaged more than 50,000 New Hampshire voters around health care reform but through largely traditional means. At the same time though, being very intimately involved with the primary process, I watched the Howard Dean campaign deploy digital tools that as a campaign organizer I had wanted for years. From 2005-2009, I was one of the leaders of Wal-Mart Watch, a movement that largely through the effective use of digital tools took on one of the world's largest corporations and gave them not one but several black eyes. Concurrently, I watched my friends at Blue State Digital, who were providing the digital tools for the Obama campaign, deploy new and ever more exciting ways to use new media.
In each of these examples, activists told their own stories to each other when the media was not, created a sense of agreement that sustained them when popular approval was not yet forthcoming and acted out of a sense of shared purpose when realistic expectations of success were slim. In each case though the media was eventually forced to write about them because they survived to become a story. And in each case, the leadership of each of these, including myself, has said publicly that these movements could not have succeeded without digital tools.
I've talked to activists from the 1960s that have said that they did the same thing -- built movements in the face of great odds and despite a lack of general public awareness -- but not with the speed or the transformative power of the movements we are seeing today. To pull out some technology terminology, the difference is processor power. The speed with which I can reach people from my cell phone now on Twitter is like nothing that came before. The ability to have a conversation, plan a meeting or stage a protest is all exponentially higher because of these new tools and the ability of people to use them to broadcast their own voice.
So does this make traditional media irrelevant? The answer might be yes If CNN and the others continue to fail to see these stories before they can no longer be ignored. To some extent the predicament in which mainstream news finds itself has been a long-time coming. It's been caused by the push to create news that everyone wants to see, the push for ratings, and budget-cuts among other things. It has all led to a news production system that favors reporting stories over finding stories, the latter being left to PBS and NPR or an occasional valiant effort by an aggressive reporter to tell a story that he/she sees that others don't. It is just much easier to report on a celebrity divorce because everyone knows there is an audience for it, rather than to try to tell the world that something is important and hope they agree.
Something is happening with Occupy Wall Street. The movement is being fed with supporters through media, but it has been and still largely is user-generated media such as Twitter rather than CNN. Telling a story that no one is sure has an audience is risky. If mainstream American media doesn't want to tell it, the man/woman on the street will and that just makes the former a little bit less relevant.