En tren con destino errado se va más lento que andando a pie /
On a train headed the wrong way one moves more slowly than by foot
Below I explain why I temporarily shut down the Occupy Wall Street NYC twitter account, and how I will reopen it in the hands of responsible stewards.
On the night before September 17, 2011 I found myself in the Brooklyn Commons preparing for an action called Occupy Wall Street. I was armed with nothing more than a backpack, some camping gear, a megaphone and a Twitter account with 1,300 followers that had been handed to me by a comrade. She was tasked with delivering it to someone in New York City on behalf of Adbusters, the Canadian-based culture-jamming magazine that had created it. As it turns out, all of those other things I had with me have been lost to time or to Bloomberg’s Army except one: @OccupyWallStNYC. That Twitter account persists to today, with over 174,000 followers who have tuned into a movement that still remains alive and kicking nearly three years later.
I began to build a team of people that I thought had interesting lenses into the movement from within. For a while it was just one young woman and I. She had backpacked to Zuccotti Park all the way from Oregon, and she struck me as an inspiring and charismatic human being. We ran the account jointly, tweeting while marching through the streets of Manhattan or sprawled out on blankets in the occupied park. There were no rules then, other than the minimum amount of security culture necessary to protect the account. I named our little team the #TweetBoat, inspired by the #LulzBoat of Lulzsec, an offshoot of Anonymous.
So the two of us went along tweeting and documenting what we saw, experienced and took part in at OWS. Along the way, we befriended others and grew the team organically. Soon, weekly meetings began to take place – first onsite at the park and eventually at bars nearby on Thursday nights. I bought many rounds of drinks to entice folks out and thank them in some small way for their contributions to the boat. We built a solid team of 8 or 10 folks, and at that size the boat ran relatively smoothly. Meetings were sometimes contentious, but always empowering and respectful. Sometimes a celebrity would show up, or a random stranger would wander into the back of the bar and join us. We reveled in the comradery that entangled us together in those magical nights on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Consensus is a powerful too, but it is fragile. When stretched beyond the net of trust that our solidarity helped build, collective decision-making can become coercive and ultimately exclusionary: the allure of finding consensus, by pushing out dissenters, overtakes our collective desire to agree. Consensus is a tool that must be wielded carefully. And the culture that we built on the #TweetBoat allowed us to create a safe space for consensus decision-making that was inclusive of an ever-growing team.
Things started to fall apart. The team grew bigger and bigger, but met less and less often. Gone were the inspiring Thursday night bar meetings, replaced with infrequent reunions of small groups of us. These reunions for me were often filled with awkward nostalgia and longing for a renewed sense of community. As meetings dwindled, more communication began to happen by email – a wholly inadequate forum for deep, consensus-based decision-making. The addition of the new tool web tool Loomio offered some promise, but nothing can replace real community building in person. The #TweetBoat had lost its verve.
In early 2014, a series of very toxic email threads began to shake the boat. A member who published some of its contents compromised our secured listserv, protected by the mutual agreement of all members not to share its contents publicly without consent. Newer members to the group found themselves wrapped in a dust storm of festering inter-personal conflicts. The tone of emails became accusatory and grandstanding became commonplace. I started to worry about the future of the boat.
Finally, things came to a head last week. A thread about “self-promotion” became just another shaming session. If we start from a place of assuming bad intentions – i.e. discouraging “self-promotion” over encouraging solid, relevant content – we will end up with rules that shame rather than empower. Group members took on the task of limiting others to “1 to 2 tweets per day” (or week) on a topic, a form of censorship that would never have been allowed in the earlier days of the boat. I had to say enough!
This party is over. Time to go home. Time to clean house for the next party. Time to sleep, to heal, and to reflect.
Many people will be angry. They have that right.
Many people will be saddened. I will be the first to admit my own sadness to see a beautiful collaboration turn into a toxic, unsafe space.
What is next?
The account is closed. No more tweets for now. I plan to read through each of the 47,806 sent tweets, of which about 80% I crafted. (The first year or so of tweets can be found here, and the rest will be published shortly for all to see.) As I read them, I’ll reflect on what happened and how the awakening that OWS was for so many of us has changed me. Perhaps you’ll read them, too.
Clearly the question of ownership of the account is a contentious one, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. The success of the #TweetBoat was in creating shared ownership of this collective resource by many different people with often divergent perspectives on what Occupy is. Still, even collective resources like gardens need human stewardship. I don’t shy away from currently being the chief steward of this account, and my plan is to reinvigorate it again by putting it back in the hands of responsible stewards. Until that happens, it doesn’t have much use. What is a garden worth if all the gardeners are fighting instead of tending it?
One thing is for certain: the future of the #TweetBoat, like the future of this movement, depends upon embracing change. Movements move. So do people and so do groups. It was never my intention to hoard this resource to myself, which is why I built a solid team and that team deserves praise. I hope that many of them will participate in its next iteration: clear shared leadership, more in-your-face, ground-based tactical media and democratic decision-making.
This boat for a long time was moving in the wrong direction. This is the first step in turning it around.