Occupying Strategic and Tactical Media Space

This paper was presented by Rosalynn and Adam Rothstein for MediaCities 4, as part of the panel "Uncommon Occupations," in May, 2013


The Occupy protests of 2011 and 2012, in addition to contesting the control of physical space, created a public realm of media space different than any other direct action political movement in the United States thus far. While there were a number of positive effects of this topological shift, this media space became more complex than the initial political narratives generated by the movement, and the movement failed to fully "occupy" this space, at the expense of its political success.

Narratives are the lifeblood of politics; they set the context for interpersonal, social, state-level, cultural, and strategic actions by prescribing possibilities, and describing limitations. The narrative of the Occupy movement made possible by its technological means of publication was largely that of social media: individual expression without any further program. While there was some success with the deployment of new strategic narratives, by and large the technology limited the media space to an arena of self-expression through the means provided by free media platforms. While it would be close-minded to call this a single-point "failure" of the movement, it was certainly a major stumbling block. Without escaping the ingrained, specifically-designed limitations of commercial media platforms, vulnerabilities opened, and technology failed to support the movement in ways that might have helped the movement develop.

Image 1: The police quickly adapted to the use of photo and video to document protests, and used their most confrontational tactics after dark, when digital video and photo is more difficult.

We--a folklorist and a technologist who both research technology's capacity for narratives and spent significant time working in the media groups at Occupy camps--mapped out just how these commercial platforms failed the political narrative required by the Occupy protests of 2011 and 2012. The shape of these platforms defined a certain accessibility, which did not fully correspond with the tactical political space. These failures stimulate questions for going forward, about how to design tools, behaviors, and narratives to overcome these faults.

Tools and Platforms

We'll start with an introduction the primary digital tools used by Occupy. This is not a total list, but describes what was certainly common across the networked camps. (Note: These conclusions are based on primary observations. Adam was the point-of-contact for the Portland Occupier news website started in the camp of Occupy Portland, and in addition to traveling to several occupy camps across the country, he worked in conjunction with other Occupiers from Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Washington DC, London, Houston, and other cities to develop and implement digital processes for the purposes of activism in and outside of the camps.)

  • Social Media
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Tumblr
    • Instagram
    • Flickr
    • Storify
  • Video
    • Livestream
    • Youtube
  • Various Cloud Services
    • Gmail, other webmail
    • Instant Messaging
    • IRC
    • Google Docs
    • Wordpress, other web hosting and blog SaaS
    • Conference Call services
    • SMS relays (Cel.ly)
    • PayPal & We Pay
    • Wikis
  • Hardware
    • Digital Cameras
    • Digital Video
    • Laptops
    • Removable Storage Media
    • Cell phones
    • Tablets
    • Two-Way Radios
    • Sound Amplification
    • Wireless Routers/Modems
    • Mesh Networks
    • Off-grid power systems
Image 2: Without a high ISO rate photos became blurry, and identifying particular officers was difficult or impossible.

Strategic Media Space

These tools were used for strategic purposes in a general media space that can be categorized as follows:

  • for internal communication among activists, generally called communication;
  • for self-directed legwork of the camps and activism generally called organization;
  • for external communication and PR, generally called media.

Naturally, there is crossover between all these categories. External media is also for internal consumption; efforts to promote transparency and the large number of activists involved mean that internal communication are also an element of public relations; and there is no piece of the process that is ever separate from the entirety--meaning no effort of organization is ever in isolation.

Image 3: Officers were very aware of the difficulties, as well as the power of a good, clear image, and took pains to block the view of camera people, as in this arrest.

There was a great degree of success in the occupy camps in this strategic space. Technology is a fluid front--the exact topology of technical tools shifts from week to week, and are highly dependent upon material resources, as well as the skill levels of those involved. The fact that free (as in no cost, i.e. "free beer") tools were preferred by the majority of activists made this topology even more fragile, as the availability of free tools depends on what is made available by developers. Occupy was unique, in its relatively unplanned and wide-spread adoption as a political platform by a large number of people with varying, if any activist experience. All organizational structures were invented ad hoc, all procedures were developed ad hoc, all training was done on the spot by those willing to teach and to learn, with whatever resources happened to be available at the present time. All procedures, tools, and structures were susceptible to decay as the terrain of goals and needs shifted, as volunteers re-deployed themselves between tasks, and as trial and error had its slipping evolutionary effect across the technological topology and the changing goals. And everything was subject to threat of immediate violence at the hands of the police. To put it bluntly, it is difficult to develop an activist office structure in a tent, with intermittent electricity, with no money, with people you have just met by first name only because you happened to be standing next to them, when there is often a real and sustained threat of an armored officer busting into the tent, using chemical weapons on you, and hauling you off to a cell. That anything at all was able to be organized in these strategic media spaces is a success. And that people were able to radically increase their technological skill and use it to further their strategic goals, and to prevent their fellow activists from harm in a number of circumstances is nothing short of amazing. This is the "happy story" of Occupy and technology, and it deserves to be told. However, the shortcomings created by the development of political narratives within the media platforms used also requires examination.

Tactical Media Space

But in addition to the larger strategic goals, there are the more particular tactical media spaces that become collapsed under those general categorizations. While the tactical spaces for any particular Occupy varied, often over the course of a few hours, here are a number that we identify as recurring:

  • Communication
    • secure person-to-person communication
    • secure person-to-group communication
    • tactical mapping
    • reconnaissance
    • evidence collection
    • counter-surveillance
    • physical self-defense
  • Organization
    • Discussion facilitation
    • consensus decision-making
    • fast consensus decision-making
    • educational/training structure
    • resource allocation
    • work collaboration/allocation
    • resilient physical networks
    • Power
    • Internet Data
    • Intranet Data
    • Voice
    • Video
    • equipment sharing/pooling
    • liaison with other agencies/allies
  • Media
    • task-specific publishing
    • goal-oriented publishing
    • broadcasting
    • syndication
    • network support
    • monetization structure
    • liaison with other agencies/allies
Image 4: The police also used their own cameras to document protests, to counter back in a propaganda effort. Using public funds, their equipment is always much better.

Each of these could require their own exposition to fully describe and evaluate, and have their own micro-tactical spaces. However, what is similar to all of them and what can be said generally, is that of the tools listed previous, while that list satisfies all of the three-part strategic space, no single tool satisfies any particular tactical space directly. In general, all the tools work; but specifically, none of them worked.

The problem is this: none of the commonly available technological tools used by activists are specifically designed to enable a spontaneous, diverse, horizontally-distributed street protest against armed opposition. This is not to say that the tools cannot possibly be helpful, it is to say that they are not designed to be specifically helpful. And yet, they were used.

Behavior Without Narrative

Image 5: Given that they are the police and can move about the protest with impunity, their films are often much more stable and consistent (given that activist media is always under threat of arrest). See camera man with monopole, back against the van, shielded by a line of armored riot police.

Without a specific political narrative to guide the adoption and use of technology in response to the tactical media space, activists resulted to default behaviors. These are not the fault of the activists. Rather, these are the common instincts of this particular culture and society, when confronted with the media space that Occupy found itself in. We identified the following behavior patterns that negatively affected the choice of the tools that were used, and resulted in goals of the tactical media space not being achieved.

1. When we use for-profit tools developed by a company, we are adopting their monetized use-cases.

The tools are each designed by a for-profit company, for a use-case that they have identified as potentially profitable. These use-cases vary. Some, like sending SMS messages from a mobile phone, are very close to the tactical goal of person-to-person communication that developed during Occupy, albeit it with the single important failure that they are quite insecure. Others, like Facebook, are primarily designed to monetize interpersonal relationships by harvesting personal data and serving ads. While Facebook can be used for media or communication purposes, it is really not designed for doing so.

2. When we continue using tools previously adopted in an old media space, we are failing to adapt totally to the new media space.

We often consider it clever when we are able to harness a tool for a purpose other than what it was designed for. But often it is simply convenient. By using an insecure phone line for an important tactical call, we reduce the capability of that call to a mere conversation, which anyone could overhear. When we use a chatroom for serious consensus discussions, that consensus discussion becomes less serious.

3. When we pick up tools based on what we see being used by others, we are copying their decisions, rather than properly reacting to the space.

Facebook seems to be useful because its widespread adoption stands in for its actual designed-efficacy. In other words, it doesn’t work very well, but lots of people use it, so it seems like it works okay. When Livestream is adopted as a media reporting tool because others are using it, or a hashtag is adopted because others are using it, we are creating a digital mob, not a media protest.

4. When we settle for a less-than-perfect tool, we are settling for a less than perfect tactical result.

Because something seems to work, we often go ahead with it. However, in Occupy, the movement shifted quickly from a spontaneous idea, to a serious tactical street battle. The stakes increased very quickly, and many people were seriously hurt from being unprepared and utilizing half-measures. This not only is individually dangerous, but led to the defeat of the movement.

5. Without detailed technical knowledge, we are all Othered by a new media space.

Anyone who is not fluent in a particular technology is immediately at a disadvantage. If in a media space, the right technological narrative is the difference between safety and harm, the wrong technological narrative can make a person a target. Attempting to use a supposedly "secure" form of communication without understanding what that means, can put a person more at risk than they were before.

6. The choices we make are not always rational choices about what is available, cheap, or convenient, but about our own personal narrative of what we think we are doing.

A movement, or any other activity, is only as serious as it takes itself. Decisions are based upon what the goal is perceived and described to be. If the stakes are not viewed as high, they will be treated less vitally.

Political Narratives

Image 6: Here, in the camp of Occupy Portland, information dissemination was a major goal of deployed technology, even if with old-fashioned signs and leaflets.

Political narratives, for our purposes, are the continuum of how we describe our own actions in the strategic media space. This encompasses personal experience narratives and extends to larger more coherent narratives structured by group expression. The expression of political narratives in Occupy extended across multiple technological platforms, verbal communication, and other modes. Narratives were fragmented from the beginning, reflecting the variety of affiliations within the group. And yet, there was unity within the common strategic media space. For example, the common media space reflected the movement’s concerns with accurately representing itself, in the face of mass media’s failure to do so.

And yet, there was serious division of that strategic media space. A common complaint from both those outside the movement and some inside it concerned the lack of coherency. "What are the demands?" A fragmented political narrative is not problematic in itself. But in the case of Occupy the narrative was not just fragmented, but in some cases, woefully non-existent. Demands may not be necessary, but an accurate portrayal of the tasks to be accomplished and the means for accomplishing them are.

Image 7: Computers running on off-grid power, utilizing mobile internet networks. In the early days of the stable camps, activists could set up fairly resilient technology tents, like the Media Tent seen here. Once the camps were broken up and the infrastructure destroyed, activists had to develop other means for their various tech-enabled goals.

Although the Occupy movement is not strictly speaking an occupation (in the sense of a career), the role of narrative in an occupational settings becomes relevant for the individuals who comprised the Occupy movement. Michael Owen Jones, a folklorist who conducted research on occupational cultures, identifies the importance of storytelling, which includes verbal forms of personal narratives, in an organization's setting. Like other folklorists, he understands that storytelling is not significant because it is relating the features of a factual event, but because representations are created through this reflexive relationship between the narrator and audience. (Jones 1996) Jones states, "Although the intentions of storytellers and the interpretations of listeners are not always easy for researchers to pin down, the narrating is clearly meaningful to participants; further storytelling shapes the organization and members' understanding of it." (Jones 1996) Narrative and storytelling about and within an organization, whether that be a workplace or otherwise, plays an important role in shaping the organization. It creates a member’s reflexive understanding of the organization. Without this understanding, the member has trouble making a day-to-day connection to the organization. Occupiers had a connection to the strategic media space, but often, not to the tactical media space.

This is not a problem of fragmentation. A technologically fragmented storytelling event can lead to an accurate and comprehensive narrative. In research Rosalynn conducted from a folkloristically-based perspective, she has focused on fragmented storytelling events within the occupational group of 9-1-1 dispatchers and calltakers. A story is told partially in verbal, written or text form. While occupational interruptions mean that stories cannot be told in one continuous verbal storytelling session, and might appear fragmented to someone who is not a part of that occupational community, these narratives still express one coherent message to those who understand the contextual media space and the various technological mediums. Although there are limitations of the technological systems used, they are still adequately used for vernacular storytelling because users have been able to adapt it to their needs.

Image 8: Some of the camera equipment used by activists was very good. But these sorts of rigs are expensive, and few and far between.

However, for the Occupy movement, the technological platforms and the media space in which narratives were deployed were not well enough understood. There was no narrative to understand the potential failures, or to deal with them when they occurred. It was assumed that, like the fragmented political narratives that came together to form a strategic media space, the needs of the tactical media space would simply be spontaneously solved. But the default behaviors we identified previously hid within this tactical substructure, growing into serious flaws.
In his ethnographic account of the culture of mushrooming, Gary Alan Fine describes the role narratives play in the amateur mushrooming community:

"Much talk in any group focuses on the group's explicit interests. Personal narrative is a means of dealing with collective concerns. In one sense, this is instrumental talk-talk aimed at the achievement of the group's formal goal. Yet frequently in voluntary groups expressive and instrumental components of group life merge. Expressive concerns are instrumental in voluntary groups; talk is often as satisfying as the action itself." (Fine 1998)

Fine, who has also studied occupational groups, is delineating a difference between voluntary groups, like a group centered around a hobby, and involuntary occupational groups. The roles of narrative within these two separate types of folkgroups differ, in that the latter has a functional basis that overrides the default behavioral actions. The Occupy movement might easily be classified as a voluntary group, in which expressive concerns begin to overcome the explicit interests.

This emphasis on verbal narration found its form in the emphasis on social media in Occupy. The design of many technological platforms used by the Occupy movement are oriented to the user’s personal expression, not about creating an explicit political narrative. While the platforms allowed, as designed, a reasonable format for strategic expression, this expression neglected the need to formulate political narratives more appropriate to the tactical media space of the Occupy movement. An additional political narrative is necessary that goes beyond simple expression.


Image 9: Body armor used by activist media personnel in Portland, after the severe and critical injury of protesters in Oakland by the police.

What drew the Occupy movement into the streets was a political narrative--albeit fragmented--that resulted in a h3, widespread expression of strategic unity in a media space. However, in order to remain in the streets, Occupy found itself confronting a variety of tactical media situations for which it had no knowledge, no narrative, and few tools with which to cope. The strength of Occupy’s presence in the strategic media space hid the weaknesses gathering in the tactical space, and the tools and behaviors that attempted to organize in that space could not see their own impending failure.

The questions, going forward from this analysis, are these:

What tools, other than the defaults, could be developed to deal with such tactical media spaces?

If such tools cannot be developed, what behaviors, other than the defaults, could be developed to help those in such spaces?

What political narratives for these tactical spaces can be developed, to aid the integration of technical tools and technical behaviors, regardless of the inevitable shortfalls?


Fine, Gary Alan (1998). Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jones, Michael Owen (1996). Studying Organizational Symbolism: What, How, Why? Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

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