May the best meme win: On the origins of #OWS

So I am sure there will be many dissertations and journal articles written on the strategy and tactics behind #OWS and various #tahrir movements.  Interesting to me are the origin stories – how certain things actually get catalyzed – specially those that require distributed collective action. Today the New York Times has a nice story on how #OWS got started.  Particularly of note  is the role played by Adbusters magazine and foundation to actually catalyze the movement and create the meme around it:

On July 13, he (Mr. Lasn)  and his colleagues created a new hash tag on Twitter: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET. They made a poster showing a ballerina dancing on the back of the muscular sculptured bull near Wall Street in Manhattan.

For some people they were just words and images. For Mr. Lasn, they were tools to begin remodeling the “mental environment,” to create a new “meme,” the term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for a kind of transcendent cultural message.

“There’s a number of ways to wage a meme war,” Mr. Lasn, whose name is pronounced KAL-luh LAS-en, said in an interview. “I believe that one of the most powerful things of all is aesthetics.”


Mr. Lasn has long believed that Wall Street and vast corporate wealth have sent the United States into what he calls “terminal decline.” But unlike many people involved in the protests, he also has specific goals he would like to see reached. He wants to see, among other things, “a Robin Hood tax” on all financial transactions, a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act that erected barriers between banking and investing, a ban on certain types of high-frequency trading and the overturning of the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.

Mr. Lasn said that he and Micah White, a senior editor who helped start Occupy Wall Street, are in regular contact with some prominent protesters but insists they have no interest in a continuing leadership role, nor is it their job to speak for the movement, even if Adbusters would like some credit for starting it.

“This is what Adbusters has done for the past 20 years, to come up with these memes and to propagate them,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about: may the best memes win.”

I really think the last statement is very interesting as it relates to the role of “meme” production in getting collective action going.  More generally, in this case, we have a more than 20 year old organization that is in the business of generating memes – one way or another – to get their message across.  All of a sudden – with the confluence of technology, proof from other foreign locales, and general economic conditions – this meme takes off – massively – to the point the people are getting arrested, hurt and pepper sprayed – for the sake  of the meme.

So a question to our dear readers – Was #OWS just bound to happen one way or another – with or without the help of Adbusters? Or was the meme generation capability important and necessary for this to work?

2 Comments on “May the best meme win: On the origins of #OWS”

  1. stevepostrel says:

    It ain’t a meme–it’s a focal point in a coordination game. There’s a decent-sized group of avocational/ideological protestors (remember all the WTO riots?) who only want to come out and raise hell if they know that other people will also come out. It’s only fun if there’s a large group that can get attention and create an exciting but safe atmosphere of lawlessness. Any trigger will do–a political convention, a trade meeting, or a synthetic protest stunt. Tellingly, the Adbuster founder opined that the OWS strategy of long-term occupation was ineffective–he wanted them to move on to new and clever attention-grabbers–but the protestors were enjoying their action too much to pull out voluntarily.

  2. Dafydd Harries says:

    Sure Occupy seems inevitable in hindsight, but before it happened it was not clear that there was a strong and broad enough sense of outrage to sustain organized protest. Would Occupy have happened if AdBusters hadn’t sparked it off? Impossible to say. My suspicion is that something would have happened eventually, but it might have taken on a very different form and character. Perhaps the more interesting question is: can we identify similar turning points in other social movements, where the right message at the right time turns dissatisfaction into action?

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