Pundits have tended to fawn over the tools of any movement, rather than the people using them, but the explosion of grassroots protests across the world is indisputably linked to the rise of social technology. Every recent mass street movement has been planned, accelerated, or magnified by online activists.
Tumblr, the mixed-media microblogging platform, has a tiny user base compared to Facebook and Twitter, yet it has emerged as the defining protest tool of Occupy Wall Street, uniting disaffected Americans through a series of handwritten signs telling tales of woe.
The Tumblr-Occupy Wall Street link began with We Are the 99 Percent. Launched in August, weeks before the first protests began at Zuccotti Park, We Are the 99 Percent asked readers to submit photos of themselves holding signs explaining how the economic downturn had affected their lives. Thanks in part to Tumblr’s “reblog” feature, which enables users to seamlessly share others’ posts on their own Tumblr blogs, We Are the 99 Percent quickly went viral, with people across the country flooding the site with their stories. By October, We Are the 99 Percent was posting nearly 100 submissions a day.
Prior to Occupy Wall Street, Tumblr was known mostly for cleverly curated photo sets, including Kim Jong-Il looking at Things, Unhappy Hipsters, and Hungover Owls. But We Are the 99 Percent has transformed Tumblr into a political battleground. It has spawned numerous spinoffs, including We Are the 1 Percent, a sincere Tumblr featuring wealthy Americans declaring their solidarity with the other 99, and the less sincere We Are the 1 Percent Bitches, a Dave Chappelle-inspired satire of America’s real and fictional moguls (including the Simpson’s Montgomery Burns) rubbing their riches in the rest of our faces. Parody sites with Photoshopped images of Occupy Sesame Streetand Occupy Black Street(with the caption, “No Justice, No Peace, No Diggity) have proliferated as well.
Meanwhile, conservative activists have launched a Tumblr counteroffensive: We Are the 53%. Based on the percentage of Americans who pay federal income taxes—the assumption being that the protesters are among the 47 percent who aren't required to pay because of tax credits or poverty—We Are the 53% was launched by RedState managing editor Erick Erickson. His inaugural post read: "I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can't sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don't blame Wall Street. Shut it up you whiners. I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain."
When I first came across We Are the 99 Percent, I dismissed it as a derivative and not particularly well-executed idea. It felt like a rip-off of one of the most-viewed videos from the Obama campaign that featured people holding “Hope” and “Change” signs, which in and of itself was a derivative take on the Courage Campaign’s video of children of same-sex couples holding signs saying “Don’t Divorce My Parents.” At least those videos featured people holding concise and legible signs, I thought; the We Are the 99 Percent signs were long statements written in small and often illegible print. Yet more evidence that the movement lacked message discipline!
But then I actually read the full-text captions accompanying the photos. “Financially unable to divorce,” wrote a 63-year-old woman. “I don’t see my mommy and daddy a lot since they’re always working…” wrote a 13-year-old girl. “My parents get really scared when they have to pay our mortgage because it cuts down on our money. I stopped eating a lot so there’s more food for everyone else.”
The stories on We Are the 99 Percent helped turn the tide for a variety of mainstream types and media elites who previously dismissed Occupy Wall Street as a fringe left-wing movement. Take The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who wrote: "It’s not the arrests that convinced me that 'Occupy Wall Street' was worth covering seriously. Nor was it their press strategy, which largely consisted of tweeting journalists to cover a small protest that couldn’t say what, exactly, it hoped to achieve. It was a Tumblr called, 'We Are The 99 Percent.'"
Why has Tumblr become the go-to platform of this moment? As we saw in Iran, Twitter can be a powerful broadcast tool for delivering minute-by-minute accounts of breaking news and amplifying concrete messages (“Down with Ahmedinejad”). And in Egypt, Facebook was pivotal for recruiting protesters and scheduling rallies in Tahrir Square. But Tumblr has served neither of these purposes for Occupy Wall Street, a diffuse and leaderless movement with a deliberately undefined goal.
Instead, Tumblr has humanized the movement. Tumblr is a powerful storytelling medium, and this movement is about stories—about how the nation’s economic policies have priced us out of school, swallowed us in debt, permanently postponed retirements, and torn apart families. We Are the 99 Percent is the closest thing we’ve had to the work of Farm Security Administration—which paid photojournalists to document the plight of farmers during the Great Depression—and it may well go down as the definitive social history of this recession.
For all of the talk about a lack of message discipline, a vivid message is rising out of the cacophony of stories on Tumblr: the system in place isn’t working for the 99 percent, and they’re not going to take it anymore.