Occupy Geeks Are Building a Facebook for the 99%

Protesters volunteering for the internet and information boards of the Occupy Wall Street protest work and broadcast from their media center in Zuccotti Plaza on Oct. 2, 2011. Photo: Bryan Derballa for Wired.com

“I don’t want to say we’re making our own Facebook. But, we’re making our own Facebook,” said Ed Knutson, a web and mobile app developer who joined a team of activist-geeks redesigning social networking for the era of global protest.

They hope the technology they are developing can go well beyond Occupy Wall Street to help establish more distributed social networks, better online business collaboration and perhaps even add to the long-dreamed-of semantic web — an internet made not of messy text, but one unified by underlying meta-data that computers can easily parse.


The impetus is understandable. Social media helped pull together protesters around the globe in 2010 and 2011. Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak so feared Twitter and Facebook that he shut down Egypt’s internet service. A YouTube video posted in the name of Anonymous propelled Occupy Wall Street from an insider meme to national news. And top-trending Twitter hashtags turned Occupy from a ho-hum rally on Sept. 17 into a national and even international movement.

Now it’s time for activists to move beyond other people’s social networks and build their own, according to Knutson.

“We don’t want to trust Facebook with private messages among activists,” he said.

The same thinking applies to Twitter and other social networks — and the reasoning became clear last week, when a Massachusetts district attorney subpoenaed Twitter for information about the account @OccupyBoston and other accounts connected to the Boston movement. (To its credit, Twitter has a policy of giving users the opportunity to contest such orders when possible.)

“Those networks will be perfectly fine — until they are not. And it will be a one-day-to-the-next thing,” said Sam Boyer, an activist turned web developer, turned activist again, who works with the New York City occupation’s tech team.

Gladwell vs. Shirky: A Year Later, Scoring the Debate Over Social-Media Revolutions

Egyptian protesters shout anti-military ruling council slogans at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. Egypt’s military-appointed prime minister called for national dialogue to resolve the country’s political crisis and pleaded for a two-month calm to restore security after weeks of protests and bloodshed. Amr Nabil/AP Photo

Now that 2011 is coming to a close, it’s worth looking back at an intellectual argument that played out just as the year was beginning — back before we saw the spread of the Arab Spring, the UK riots, the Occupy movement, and so much else.


In one corner was the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, who argued in an October 2010 piece that the media had oversold Twitter and Facebook as tools for political action. Citing research by Doug McAdam, a Stanford sociologist who studied the biographical patterns in 1960s civil-rights activism, Gladwell emphasized the distinction between “strong-tie” social connections — close, personal relationships of the sort that drew committed activists to protests in the Jim Crow South, despite the risk to their lives — and “weak-tie” ones, the kind of connections you have with acquaintances who might merit your friendship on Facebook, or a follow on Twitter, but not (say) the opportunity to borrow your car. Online social networks, Gladwell argued, were inherently weak-tie affairs, and therefore ill-suited to get people out into the streets.

In the other corner was NYU professor Clay Shirky, whose book Here Comes Everybody had been called out by Gladwell as “the bible of the social-media movement.” Gladwell had pointed to a prominent story in the book about Evan Guttman, a New York banker who helped get his friend’s Sidekick back by shaming the girl who refused to give it up. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls,” Gladwell had written. “Viva la revolución.”

A couple of months later, Shirky fired back in Foreign Affairs with a long essay [reg. req.] making the case that electronic media had, in fact, played a crucial role in a number of overseas uprisings: the 2001 impeachment of the Philippine president, South Korean protests against U.S. beef in 2008, the 2009 defeat of the Communist government in Moldova. He granted Gladwell’s point that much of what passes for “activism” online is superficial, like campaigns to “like” various causes on Facebook. But, Shirky argued, “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.”

In the following issue of Foreign Affairs, the two men had a brief exchange of letters that probably serves as the simplest introduction to their warring points of view. Gladwell:

[J]ust because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter; or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the first place. … [F]or [Shirky’s] argument to be anything close to persuasive, he has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible.


I would break Gladwell’s question of whether social media solved a problem that actually needed solving into two parts: Do social media allow insurgents to adopt new strategies? And have those strategies ever been crucial? Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous: yes, and yes.

So Who Won?

So: A year later, whose argument looks better? Certainly, lots of people will be inclined to see the events of 2011 as an outright refutation of the Gladwell camp. As I spell out in my cover story for the January issue of Wired, the year has seen crowd unrest around the globe, with social media playing an organizing role in just about all of it.

But it’s important to take Gladwell seriously on his most important line of questioning: At the end of the day, does the tech really matter? As he somewhat peevishly put it, in a blog post directed at his critics during the height of the Egyptian uprising in February, “surely the least interesting fact about [the Egyptian uprising] is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please.”

And I actually think he’s right.

Copyright Troll’s Domain Name Auctioned to Pay Legal Fees

Righthaven, a copyright-troll law firm that failed in its attempt to make money for newspapers by suing people for sharing stories online, is having its domain name auctioned off to help satisfy the Las Vegas company’s debts.

As of 3 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Righthaven.com was going for $1,250, up from $100 when the online auction started on Dec. 26. The auction, which ends Jan. 6, is to intended to recoup $63,000 in legal fees Righthaven owes after it lost a case in which a federal judge said reposting an entire news article in an online forum was fair use — an issue Righthaven has appealed.

Struggling after several courtroom setbacks, Righthaven has ceased filing new lawsuits, pending resolution of that case and others on appeal. Righthaven was also hit with a separate order in October to pay $120,000 in legal fees in another case it had lost.

Borrowing a page from patent trolls, in the spring of 2010 Righthaven was formed with the idea of suing blogs and websites that re-post newspaper articles or snippets of them without permission. Now it appears that the Righthaven saga is largely over — and it’s unclear whether it will have the financial wherewithal to maintain its appeal in a closely watched fair-use copyright case.

Righthaven initially was winning and settling dozens of cases as defendants paid a few thousand dollars each to make the cases go away. But Righthaven has never prevailed in a case that was defended in court. Ironically, Righthaven sought — as payment — the domains owned by the people it was suing, and now it has lost its own domain in the process while threatening to file for bankruptcy protection.

The domain auction is to help pay Las Vegas lawyer Marc Randazza for successfully defending Vietnam veteran Wayne Hoen against a Righthaven copyright lawsuit seeking large damages for posting the entirety of a Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial to a small online message board.

The U.S. Copyright Act allows damages of up to $150,000 per infringement, but also grants legal fees and costs to the “prevailing party.” More fee awards against Righthaven are expected.

The lawsuit against Hoehn, one of Righthaven’s roughly 275 cases, accused him of unlawfully posting all 19 paragraphs of a November 2010 editorial from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Hoehn posted the article, and its headline, “Public Employee Pensions: We Can’t Afford Them” on medjacksports.com to prompt discussion about the financial affairs of the nation.

Righthaven’s first client, Stephens Media of Las Vegas and operator of the Review-Journal, invested $500,000 into the Righthaven operation last year.

Righthaven’s only other client, MediaNews Group of Denver and the publisher of the Denver Post and 50 other newspapers, dropped Righthaven in September.

The other big issue Righthaven has appealed is the complicated arrangement between Righthaven and its newspaper clients.

The arrangements hit a major snag in June when Chief U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt of Nevada threw out a copyright lawsuit against the Democratic Underground blog for allegedly clipping four paragraphs from a 34-paragraph story published by the Review-Journal, Stephens Media’s flagship paper.

As it turns out, Righthaven didn’t own the copyrights it was filing suit over. Instead, Stephens Media granted Righthaven permission to sue over the newspaper chain’s content in exchange for a 50 percent cut of all the settlements and jury awards: The agreement did not grant Righthaven license to use the content in any other way. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the arrangement a “sham,” and judges hearing Righthaven cases began to take notice.

Judge Hunt ruled in the case that a “copyright owner cannot assign a bare right to sue.”

Righthaven’s other client, MediaNews Group, had a similar relationship with Righthaven, and some three dozen Righthaven lawsuits over Denver Post content have been dismissed over the standing issue.

Steven Gibson, Righthaven’s chief executive, did not immediately respond for comment.

Photo: redtimmy/Flickr