How OWS’ ‘anti-market research analyst’ helps the movement go viral

Traffic analysis from OccupyWallSt.org, from “Quantitative Analysis of Phase One of Occupy Wall Street.”

The idea for Occupy Wall Street began with an email and a hashtag that spread around the Internet. Once the Zuccotti Park occupation began, it captured national attention through photos and videos that spread online, and new occupations followed. Over the course of the past year, the movement’s visibility has risen or fallen in large part thanks to its ability to capture the attention of social networks online.

What has worked? What hasn’t? How can the movement learn lessons from its past and carry them into the future?

According to OccupyWallSt.org’s Justine Tunney, Harrison “Tesoura” Schultz is the movement’s “anti-market research analyst.” He has produced reports on how various Occupy websites and social media accounts have fared in order to discover patterns and extract lessons. Some kinds of media, for instance, seem to work better when paired with particular kinds of subjects, and some networks are better-suited to certain tasks than others.

Schultz is a graduate student finishing his dissertation in sociology at the New School for Social Research. He has spent four years working as a market research and business intelligence analyst for a global advertising agency and a direct pay-per-click marketing company. We’ve known each other since the initial planning meetings before September 17, and here we discuss what online analytics has taught him about Occupy and other movements hoping to use online media to their full potential.

What is “analytics” to you, and what does it have to do with a movement like Occupy?

According to Wikipedia, analytics is “the science of analysis … the process of developing optimal or realistic decision recommendations based on insights derived through the application of statistical models and analysis against existing or simulated future data.” Much like in business, analytics in the Occupy movement creates a basis for making collective decisions about what works and what doesn’t, aside from potentially egoistic skepticism based upon subjective, unverifiable assumptions and personal experiences. Lots of different people involved in the movement have assumptions, of course, but nearly everyone in the movement can also become something of an analyst.

Wikipedia makes clear that analytics applies to business problems, and veteran organizers within Occupy have told me that they’ve never seen anything like analytics used to solve problems in activism before. There are a variety of perfectly rational ethical reasons for this, perhaps best expressed by Micah White of Adbusters on some early organizing email threads, in which he argued that this sort of discipline should not be used in an enterprise such as ours. Perhaps the most important practical danger in collecting online data using tools from Google, for example, is that the company can learn about our online and offline behaviors and sell the data to whomever may want it.

Do you feel any qualms about bringing tools with such a corporate pedigree into an anti-corporate movement?

I feel more qualms about already having used these tools in business settings than I do about using them in a largely anti-corporate movement. I’ve already done low-level work for a corporation that we’ve been regularly protesting — and higher-level work for a few others that I think we should be protesting — well before I began working with Occupy Wall Street. I also determined before I joined the movement that my self-appointed mission, driven perhaps by a bit of guilt, resentment and a desire to validate past actions, would be to apply the same techniques and insights I gained from those work experiences and leverage them toward promoting social change in general and the spread of the Occupy movement in particular.

I certainly consider myself a protester. But I don’t necessarily consider myself an organizer, or even an activist, as much as I consider myself a subversive. One efficient approach to changing our incredibly unjust society is to turn the system’s weapons against it, by observing and understanding the ways in which specific institutions exploit us and by then seizing and turning those very same means of exploitation and domination against institutions that utilize them against us. My efforts to integrate strategic data analysis into Occupy Wall Street have been the best way I can possibly think of to pursue this general strategy.

What exactly have you been analyzing?

I’ve been using Google Analytics to understand how many people visit websites such as OccupiedStories.com, Occupy.com, OccupyTogether.org, OccupyWallSt.org and various blogs. The tool enables us to understand when people tend to interact with these sites, for how long, the specific pages they read the most and how they become aware of them in the first place. I’ve been using an expensive custom web research tool called PeopleBrowsr to understand how the volume of Twitter activity for any given Occupy-related handle, hashtag or phrase has varied over the course of the movement. Much like TweetReach, PeopleBrowsr also identifies other Twitter users who are most influenced and who most influence a given handle or hastag. PeopleBrowsr is also the only tool which gives me some idea about the gender distribution of the movement’s Twitter activity. Klout’s networker influence scores are another important metric to keep track of in order to better understand the overall influence of a given Twitter handle.

Facebook provides free insights for Fan Page admins on gender and age distributions of those who “like” a page, in addition to indicating which posts and content are seen by the most people. There are also many other research tools for Twitter and Facebook that I haven’t yet had a chance to experiment with. YouTube provides free analytics with Google technology for every channel on the gender, age and regional demographics of a clip’s audience, combined with data on how members of a clip’s audience became aware of it and how much the audience tended to engage with it.

I’ve also learned a lot by looking over the results of an ongoing custom survey research project I began with Professor Hector Cordero-Gusman of Baruch University. The administrators of OccupyWallSt.org and OccupyTogether.org posted links to an online survey through which well over 27,000 total respondents, combined over seven separate collection periods, have told us about their attitudes toward the movement, mainstream politics, the kinds of media they consume as well as who they are in terms of their demographics.

What trends have you noticed? What kinds of content tend to draw attention to the movement online?

The shape of the increases and decreases across the movement — whether in visits for the bigger websites, or for Twitter activity, or for viewers on the globalrev Livestream channel — all possess a strikingly similar shape. The most online activity we’ve seen was between the eviction of the Zuccotti Park occupation on November 15 — when Twitter activity peaked — and November 17 — when visits to OccupyWallSt.org and OccupyTogether.org peaked, for example.

It’s reasonable to assume that graphic imagery of police violence against peaceful protestors, or “riot porn,” as I call it, drove increases in online activity, given that the “Tony Baloney” pepper-spraying incident and the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge also drove increases in online activity. However, the few spikes we’ve seen in online activity since the fall of 2011, on New Year’s Day and May Day, haven’t been anywhere near the range of our highest peaks from fall of last year. Riot porn is losing its luster for mass online consumption.

Has something else been replacing the riot porn in capturing people’s attention?

The most viral post I’ve seen on a Facebook page came from an OccupiedStories.com photo of a sign indicating recently-prohibited activities at Union Square in response to the spring occupation there. I’ve also seen a Facebook page created to support the lawsuit against the encroachments of our civil rights through the NDAA authorizations reach thousands of Facebook users in spite of the fact that we hadn’t posted much content on the page. One of Tim Pool’s most heavily retweeted tweets had to do with censorship, according to favstar.fm. All of this taken together has led me to suspect that content about the state’s insidious and coercive means of disciplining members of our society is currently more likely to go viral than content which reinforces the fact that the state still uses violence, pain and torture to punish those of us who refuse to submit to such discipline.

I’ve also found that photos of street theater and creative actions are more likely to go viral than video clips of the very same actions on Facebook.

So that’s one lesson activists might remember: video for riot porn, photos for more creative, theatrical actions. What else? 

Creating more content for Facebook from our actions appears to be a reliable way to increase visits to our sites. About 53 percent of OccupiedStories.com’s total traffic has been referred to their site since they began tracking it in April with Google Analytics, and they’ve done a great job of using Facebook to build a consistent following. The photo-centric WeAreThe99Percent.tumblr.com blog of course did incredibly well on Facebook. Illustrations, animated images and cartoons may possibly be even more likely to go viral than digital photos, based upon what I’ve seen on the Occupy Wall St. Facebook page, among others.

Twitter will likely always be a reliable means of increasing views on videos of riot porn, good speeches, mini-documentaries, street theater or anything that else which has been uploaded onto YouTube or that is being livestreamed.

Are the people who experience the movement online the same people who participate in person?

It’s reasonable to assume, in my opinion, that individuals who are highly active in the planning of actual Occupy operations are the same individuals who are also most likely to talk about those actions the most online. It’s certainly possible to begin to verify this assumption by looking for correlations between online data and the numbers of people at the occupations and on marches from different law enforcement and journalistic sources, as well as from Occupiers’ estimates.

Out of of 1,322 respondents from our most recent May Day survey on OccupyWallSt.org, 78.8 percent agreed that they support the protests, but only 22.2 percent of these respondents agree that they regularly participate in the protests — which suggests to me that we have only scratched the surface in terms of engaging our online base of support in face-to-face actions. An overwhelming majority of the respondents on our survey typically indicate that they participate in Occupy most frequently through Facebook activism and by attending protests, then secondly through other forms of Internet activism and recruiting friends, then thirdly through donating money, materials and other services, then fourthly by attending committees or GAs, and only lastly by actually speaking at events. Not surprisingly, they said that they thought the movement should respond to the eviction primarily by organizing more mass demonstrations as well as through online activism.

Can you tell if that attention translates into on-the-ground movement-building? What kind of power does viral media really build? 

Online attention does coincide with large turnouts at actions. Distributing news about upcoming actions certainly generates online activity, however I typically find that our on-the-ground movement building and large demonstrations create more online attention than the other way around. We are nowhere near as adept at increasing actual turnouts through strategically-planned social media campaigns as we could be, in my opinion. We still seem put more thought and work into actual actions than into how we can use social media to augment those actions, leveraging full potential of social media to spread the kind of accurate and engaging portrayals of this movement which we cannot count on the mainstream media to produce on our behalf.

Occupy Wall Street has made the masses of this country aware of the fact that individuals now have the power to express themselves to the masses without relying on traditional mainstream news networks. Most people continue to consume news information from increasingly obsolete conglomerates out of encrusted habits, more so than out of any rational consideration. The mainstream media has become the weak link in the chains of the state and system that bind us. Our society is going through a technological shift, away from passively consumed TV, radio and printed media, toward social media driven by user-generated content. We need to better understand the implications of this trend and learn how to take full advantage of it.

Has thinking about analytics already affected how OWS organizers create media for their actions?

I know for certain that there are people involved in OccupyWallSt.org, Occupy.com, various livestream operations, Twitter accounts, and creative groups such as the People’s Puppet Guild and Revolutionary Games, who use tools such as these to monitor their reach. However, I must say that it has been especially interesting to watch OccupiedStories.com create a stable following for their site by developing campaign strategies centered around massive actions such as May Day and the protests against NATO in Chicago.

What is the most important lesson from OWS that you would share with other movements creating online media in other contexts?

The most important thing for any movement relying on online media content is to make sure that the content is true and relevant to whatever offline actions happen in face-to-face life. I doubt that any movement will be able to get their message across very widely without simultaneously occupying a good balance of actual space as well as electronic space online.

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