Recent years have seen reportage on lack of reporting emerge as a growing trend among mass media outlets, and Occupy Wall Street – at least at its outset – largely fell victim to this unfortunate practice. Only after more than 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn bridge did the movement begin to gain traction with major networks, and still our nation’s foremost print papers have done a better job of mocking protesters than investigating the source of their unrest. The liberal-leaning Atlantic Wire threw its two cents toward undermining activists, as did The New York Times‘ Ginia Bellafante, who condescendingly characterized the occupation of Zuccoti Park as an “opportunity to air societal grievance as carnival.” The poor press coverage, in combination with the mismatched multitudes of grievances supplied by protesters themselves, has created a branding issue for Occupy Wall Street, further contributing to confusion about the movement in general.
The first step to creating a branding solution is defining the 99%. The School of Public Affairs department at Baruch College recently conducted a survey on more than 1,000 visitors of Occupywallstreet.org. The resultant paper, aptly called “Main Stream Support for a Main Stream Movement: The 99% Comes from and Looks Like the 99%” shows that more than one third of all visitors were over 35, and half were employed full-time, while only 13.1 percent – just above the national average – were unemployed; 70 percent of visitors self-identified as independents, and only about a quarter were full-time students. Both mass media and citizen journalists have attested that the racial makeup of protest crowds is mixed, and men and women are equally as likely to participate. Furthermore, the 99% are not just made up of the 99%: entire blogs have sprung up featuring messages from upper-income earners across the nation asking to pay higher taxes to benefit standards of living for all.
The second step is to understand how they communicate their message. In its early stages, a lack of mass media coverage led to a lack of legitimacy for OWS, but kept open the door for citizen reporting and social media. However, though partly inspired by and similar to the Arab Spring, OWS has not seen the same volume of social media interest as that series of revolutions; nor is it characterized by the same type of grassroots enthusiasm apparent in President Obama’s 2008 campaign. One potential reason lies in the diverse demographic profile of the 99%: they may be older and less likely to have adopted social media presence; they may have limited access to mobile Web technology; or they may not possess the technological savvy to participate. The Baruch College study showed Youtube dominating the expressive modes of the movement, followed closely by Facebook and other blog platforms, with Twitter bringing up the rear. Tumblr is the adopted megaphone for OWS, hybridizing micro and macro blogging platforms to easily share photos, videos and messages across the Web and mobile devices.
A final way for activists to establish an OWS brand is to allow an overall ideology to emerge from all the individual grievances: it’s time to see the forest, not the trees. This is a new type of occupation, drawing upon themes and methods from civil demonstrations of the past, combined with modern media and pared against modern problems. It’s a difficult – even terrifying – idea for America to wrap its collective head around. By bringing a central idea to the forefront – human rights, for example, or equality as defined by the terms set forth – OWS will become more digestible, palatable and solution-oriented. As media scholar McKenzie Wark put it “…the most interesting thing about Wall Street is its suggestion that the main thing that’s lacking is not demands, but process. What is lacking is politics itself.”