On the Saturday that thousands of protesters marched to Times Square, the brass bells of the New York Stock Exchange rang out at noon–signifying the takeover of the trading floor by the New York startup community. Companies like Etsy, Meetup and ZocDoc were handing out t-shirts and branded ping pong balls to fresh-faced engineers in backpacks who circled the screen-filled roundabouts while munching the complimentary sandwiches provided for SA500, a Silicon Alley recruiting event.
The choice of venue could be interpreted as symbolic aggression. New York startups compete fiercely with the finance sector for programmers and MBAs–and while they can’t match Goldman’s salaries, they do make the social argument. Knewton wants to transform education, Sulia wants to reinvent news, and the mobile payments app Venmo wants to replace credit cards. Meetup is “starting a local community revolution”; Etsy’s mission is to “empower people to change the way the global economy works.” The lofty talk of startups is not unlike the rhetoric of the protesters, who are advocating–albeit vaguely–the most radical agenda of any political movement in recent memory.
“I see them as very, very similar,” said Scott Heiferman, co-founder and CEO of Meetup.com, who orchestrated a field trip to the protest after a recent board meeting. “Most of the successful startup people are out to make a dent in the universe and change the world in some way, and that’s what they’re trying to do downtown. I can’t speak to the people who are just hanging around for the free pizza, but there are people downtown who are really fired up to see some sort of systemic change in culture.”
But while they’re definitely talking about the protest, many techies aren’t sold. The movement has high engagement (and revenue!) but the brand, the marketing and the roadmap need work.
“It’s all about your pitch,” said Reece Pacheco, the co-founder and CEO of the hot video-sharing startup Shelby.tv, who was at the N.Y.S.E. that Saturday scouting for talent. “Right now Occupy Wall Street’s pitch is really bad because no one know what they’re really about. You got some people saying ‘yeah, stop spending money, and get the troops out of Iraq,’ and like, ‘free Nelson Mandela!’ They’re all over the place.”
“My view of it is that they have not been utilizing technology to their full advantage,” said Brandon Diamond, founder of the Hacker Union, a collective of New York programmers. “What they should start with is a centralized resource where people can find out what they’re protesting. Even a Twitter account.”
“I think the way it’s been executed has been really poor,” said Melanie Moore, a former financial analyst who is now on her second web startup, a subscription-based site for fashion essentials. “That list of demands that came out? It was like, Marxist bullshit. It was crazy. Like, ‘we should abolish government.’ Like anarchist … they’ve gotten to the point where their brand is very diluted.”
Ms. Moore, who lives on Wall Street and regularly walks past the protest, advocated a pivot. “If I wanted to go about it the right way I would get a group of people together, break off from Occupy Wall Street, call it something else, rebrand it and start the right way, with people who maybe have some connections in Washington.”
Despite criticism from the techie peanut gallery, Occupy Wall Street is nothing if not tech-savvy. (One of the earliest criticisms was the preponderence of Macbooks among the protesters.) The protest has had a near-constant Livestream from the headquarters at Zuccotti Park, which has also broadcast from Times Square and during the now-infamous mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a fixture on geeky forums like Reddit and SomethingAwful; even the Bitcoin community and the hacktivists of Anonymous are into it. The protest has also voted consistently to use open-source software for everything from its website to its accounting, and the still-grassroots funded movement is hip to crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, which raised money for tangential projects such as The Occupied Wall Street Journal. There are also more than 200 occupation-related campaigns on the Y Combinator-incubated WePay.com. “It’s not a coincidence that much of the success of the #OWS movement comes from their nimble use of technology to organize and get their word out,” the venture capitalist Fred Wilson wrote on his blog.
Betabeat happened to be standing at the corner of Zuccotti Park on the second Saturday of the protest, as a march that had resulted in about 80 arrests was returning to the park headquarters. As the much-thinned stream of sign-holders neared, the N.Y.P.D. tensed and started to shoo protesters off the sidewalk and into the park. “Cameras up, cameras up!” one man shouted, needlessly, as the small crowd had already sprouted a halo of smartphones.
Atlantic staffer Conor Friedersdorf, who lives in the redwoods of Northern California, discovered a sign at the New York protest bearing an excerpt from one of his blog posts–alerted to him by a reader on Twitter who had seen it on BoingBoing. The way his words had traveled, transformed and disseminated back to him led to an epiphany: “I now see how Occupy Wall Street is like the internet,” he wrote, adding another layer to the remix by referencing words written by CNN’s Douglas Rushkoff. “I now understand a little better what it means for a protest movement to be without ‘a traditional narrative arc,’ to be ‘the product of the decentralized networked-era culture,’ to be about ‘inclusion and groping toward consensus.’”
The New York tech community would seem to be in a prime position to help the webby movement. The protest has been using Vibe, an anonymized broadcasting app similar to Twitter built by a New York techie. One Meetup engineer organized a small hackathon that produced a few Occupy Wall Street apps including OccupyVotes, a platform for deciding on the specific demands everyone has been clamoring for, which has already collected some 19,000 votes on 64 proposals.