The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters supposedly speak for 99% of us. Some reports in the mainstream media, such as a recent National Journal survey, suggest that the anti-capitalists have the backing of the public. But does the evidence of activity on social media support the claims? It would appear not.
In his book Public Parts, How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves The Way We Work and Live (Simon & Schuster 2011), Jeff Jarvis writes about the potential of protest on social media to strike fast and hard on a massive scale. He describes how Facebook was rocked in 2006 by a wave of opposition to its News Feed service when it began automatically forwarding mini-press releases of every user update to “friends”. He tells how one of the 500 online protest groups that arose against Facebook attracted 700,000 supporters on the first day alone (Jarvis credits the numbers to David Kirk Patrick’s Facebook Effect).
Yet as of today, after weeks of high-profile and sometimes violent protests, the main Occupy Wall Street Facebook page has 287,000 registered as “liking this” and 67,000 “talking about it” (Occupy Tokyo has 4,130 listed as “liking this”; Occupy Hong Kong 1,300; Occupy Stockholm 502; London 4,700).
For an indication of what the 99% of the public are most interested in one must review the Top 100 Most Popular Facebook Pages In The World 2011. Starbucks, CocaCola and Disney are in the top 30. OWS does not enter the frame among the remaining 70 and most likely wouldn’t feature in the top 250.
Signs of support are even less impressive on Twitter. The official Twitter stream of the Liberty Square protest in New York has pumped out 5,081 tweets, attracted 98,000 followers and has been listed by 2,337 Twitter users.
For comparison, OWS’s nemesis at the Wall Street Journal has around 12 times as many followers (1,186,341) and is listed by more than 40,000 Twitter users.
Moreover, OccupyLSX@OccupyLSX, the official twitter stream of the protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathederal in London, has just 16,000 followers. Meanwhile, London’s Time Out magazine has 77,000 followers on Twitter (I know it is not a like for like comparison, but it does highlight the insignificance of the protesters in the eyes of Londoners using social media).
The signs of interest in OWS activities on YouTube are equally anemic. The numbers of subscribers to The LibertyPlazaRev Media Committee’s YouTube channel stands at 1,845 plus 115 friends who have left just 127 comments. Though it has to be said that one of its video clips received around half a million hits.
Elsewhere, the largest number of OWS-related hits on YouTube that I could discover was a video of a ranting US Marine complaining about supposed police brutality (“It’s not a war zone,” he tells the New York police), which received more than 2 million viewings. This still indicates a modest level of interest when one compares it with the most popular video ever on YouTube that garnered more than 600 million hits; even a dancing dog attracted 11 million.
The main worldwide website and organisational hub of the OWS protests is http://occupywallst.org. Yet according to the internet ranking agency Alexa, this leading website against corporate greed and capitalism is merely the 8,024 most hit site in the world. It is also ranked the 768 most popular site in the US.
By contrast, according to Alexa, the Financial Times website ranks at 795 in the world (WSJ ranks 195) and 540 in the US (WSJ 66). For further comparison, the Swiss newspaper NZZ’s online offering, representing the banking class, writing in German, ranks at 4,472 on the world stage – far higher than OWS.
Of course, my round up is far from conclusive, exhaustive or scientific. But it does, I think, capture something that we can see on the streets at the protests: the numbers involved are far from impressive. Of course, activism takes commitment and is risky. The advantage of social media over street protest is that it requires low commitment to get involved. But even with such a low threshold of participation, there’s little evidence that the 99 per cent is interested in even providing OWS protesters with that minimal level of passive support online.