On issues that matter …

Translating the virtual to the real September 19, 2012

It was Fall last year, a bunch of New Yorkers, brought together through social media, launched the Occupy Wall Street movement where hundreds of protesters occupied a public park on Wall Street.

To me, every element of the movement seemed just so right – it was for the first time in decades that Americans, even if relatively a small number, actually came down to the streets to protest the big corporations; they were mostly young, they were mobilized through social media, and they were not just blue collar, they were the 99%.

Americans should pride themselves for their respect for democratic norms. Unlike elsewhere in the world where agitations rarely remain peaceful, the Occupiers have exercised their rights and responsibilities to the book.

But somehow, the movement which caught the imagination of social media savvy youth the world over, grabbed the attention of the conventional media and caused at least some American lawmakers sleepless nights, failed to sustain its momentum and numbers.

So what went wrong? Right from natural elements like winter setting in, to losing the sympathy of a predominantly hegemonic mainstream media and a dumbed down society at large, to simply fizzling out owing to the intrinsic shallowness of social media.

The now theorized Arab Spring, which was essentially bolstered by social media, worked primarily because real people in real big numbers came out from the virtual sphere to the public sphere and stayed there till they achieved their goals. The problem with Americans, however, is that their virtual numbers rarely translate into real world numbers.

But more than anything, what undermines the movement is the anti-socialist propaganda in America that has for over a century, been demonizing anything that remotely challenges the American big business – injected into the psyche of Americans, much like the hypodermic needle, that to oppose the capitalists necessarily means a takeover by communists.

On September 17, on the movement’s first anniversary, the occupiers converged once again at Zuccotti Park on Wall Street. Many were promptly hauled away by the NYPD and the rest, left without direction, simply dispersed.

It is heartening to see that the core idea of the Occupy movement is not dead, but the medium on the back of which it is being carried, is not mature enough. I am talking about social media. Typical of such a medium of communication, the Occupy movement is a level playing virtual field with no leaders. I would hate to give it to Malcolm Gladwell who said the next revolution will not be retweeted. But it’s true, because real world problems need real leaders and most importantly, real sacrifices.

Srirekha Chakravarty


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