Occupy Wall Street's grand irony

The biggest management news story of the week is the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

The movement’s use of social media and online strategies will one day be a case study in business schools, journalism schools and journals for how to organise an effective campaign, or respond to one.

Occupy Wall Street is not just a gathering of the disaffected, it is also a Twitter hashtag, Facebook page and a presence on other lesser known social media tools to recruit the young and the computer literate. That has been an important tool to spread the campaign around cities in the US and globally – we will see similar events here – creating, as some have claimed, the American economic version of the Arab Spring with the slogan "We are the 99 per cent”.

The extent of the campaign’s online organising has been revolutionary.

Jeff Jarvis, a professor of journalism at the City University in New York has written a post where he describes it as a "hashtag revolt”. It’s a description that goes to the heart of their lack of specific demands as they huddle around pizza boxes, sleeping bags and dress up as zombies to challenge the influence of corporations on government and the growing income gaps in society.

As he says, it’s just so formless. It’s no institution, but who has faith in institutions these days?

"A hashtag has no owner, no hierarchy, no canon or credo. It is a blank slate onto which anyone may impose his or her frustrations, complaints, demands, wishes, or principles,’’ Jarvis writes.

In recent days, marketing experts have written posts about the marketing lessons for business – turn the target audience into protagonists, use visuals to gain traction, focus on the zeitgeist – but the reality is the same tools can be used to smash a brand. Think for example of what it could do with Qantas. Occupy Wall Street could be a taste of things to come for managers.

Protesters have, of course, used the conventional social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter. Facebook pages have popped up in major cities across America and around the world, including Australia, and Twitter hashtags have been created for communication at general assemblies. There are estimates that over 450,000 have joined Facebook pages related to the protests so far.

To spread the message even further, they have established an internet meme of 'Occupy Sesame Street'. Twitter users have received the message: "99 per cent of the world’s cookies are consumed by 1 per cent of the monsters." That’s a brilliant piece of very cool marketing, targeting the group who grew up with Sesame Street.

But they are also using more obscure social media tools, probably in response to the arrests that followed the Twitter and Facebook posts during the London riots.

For example, they have also used Vibe, an app that transmits anonymous Twitteresque 'whisper' – time-limited messages amongst people within a 50-metre radius. Twitter creates a real time record for police and governments to monitor. But with Vibe, users can limit surveillance with options to limit messages only to people within a certain radius. It’s easy, anonymous and location-specific. That makes tracking of flash-mob-style gatherings more difficult for police.

They have also been using Internet Relay Chat, set up by hacktivist group Anonopops which is part of the Anonymous fighting for Wikleaks, to exchange long form updates. They have provided live coverage through Livestream and they have exchanged links and thoughts on Reddit, the social news web site.

They have now built an Occupy Together news hub to collect links about the protests around America and around the world and they have used Tumblr to post photos, videos and messages to share with strangers.

One Tumblr site "We are the 99 per cent” has reportedly been re-blogged countless times.

Kickstarter, an online system for promoting creative projects, is setting up an 'Occupy Wall Street Journal', a four page broadsheet newspaper with the ambitious aim of having a print run of 50,000 copies. It is a total volunteer project and Kickstarter is seeking donations.

The protests have drawn celebrities like Roseanne Barr, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon and her ex Tim Robbins who all generated much social media commentary. Even Yoko Ono chimed in with her support on Twitter: "As John said, ‘One hero cannot do it. Each one of us have to be heroes.’ And you are. Thank you. love, Yoko”.

Still, Occupy Wall Street is not completely anti-capitalist.

Steve Jobs might have been chief executive of the one of the most profitable corporations on the planet, workers in China might have become ill or committed suicide making his products and the guy’s philanthropy was zero. But when news of his death broke, many of the protesters tweeted their respects to Jobs. Some even hailed him as one of their own.

If that sounds inconsistent, it’s worth remembering that the spread of Occupy Wall Street movement would not have been possible without the smart phones, laptops, iPads and other tools allowing people create their own projects.

That in itself highlights the crazy incongruities and heterogeneity of the movement.

How things will pan out for Occupy Wall Street remain to be seen. Nobody knows whether it will have any lasting effect.

But you can be sure that social media scientists and marketing specialists will be watching it carefully. No doubt, some will be taking notes and drawing lessons for future applications for managers and government.

Managers developing social media policies should look at the campaign and this broader use of social media tools. It’s not just about Facebook and Twitter. The Occupy Wall Street movement has shown it’s also about knowing exactly who the audience is, and engaging them into action.

The proponents have shown why you need to make it part of the strategy and have a very clear voice, remain consistent and integrate online and offline activities. It is also important to identify all the tools that would draw in new participants with constant updates.

The greatest irony would be businesses learning from the protesters and becoming more effective.