Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Photo by David Shankbone
Occupy Wall Street has been occupied.
The fate of a Twitter account that was a widely followed source of information about the New York arm of the movement shows what happens when business, such as it is, is conducted without ground rules or a settled source of authority.
The New York Times recently reported that a group of Occupy Wall Street activists filed suit against a former compatriot after he locked the others administrators out of a jointly accessible Twitter account, @OccupyWallStNYC. The account was created by Adbusters, a Canadian magazine, but was eventually used by several of the protest movement’s leading speakers and organizers. As of this writing, it had over 178,000 followers.
Marisa Holmes, an activist affiliated with Occupy Wall Street, inherited direct control of the account from Adbusters. She distributed the login credentials to others, including Justin Wedes, who changed the password and shut the other contributors out of the account in August.
In a blog post, Wedes portrays himself and Holmes (to whom he did not refer by name) as having fostered the account together, with the team expanding outward from the two of them “organically” over time. He pointed to a series of “toxic” emails in early 2014 and the horror of some members trying to limit the number of tweets on certain topics by other member as justification for him kicking everyone out unilaterally. The account is still active, however, with tweets and retweets, presumably from Wedes alone.
“Clearly the question of ownership of the account is a contentious one, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Wedes wrote (emphasis in the original).
Holmes, meanwhile, told The Times that Wedes was about to be voted out of the group when he locked them out of the Twitter account. “The key point is that it was a collaborative project, but he didn’t get that,” Holmes said. She has also disputed the idea that Wedes was ever given any form of ownership of the account. On Occupywallstreet.net, a collection of those who formerly had access to the account compared Wedes to a “disaster capitalist” and an opportunist, and they disavowed his voice as one that speaks for the movement.
The irony of the situation hardly bears remark. From its inception, the Occupy movement has demonstrated little respect for property rights of others (especially the so-called “one percent”), yet both sides of the Twitter dispute are quick to defend what they see as rightfully theirs. Wedes’ story involved taking back something he had generously shared; those who filed suit allege that he took something to which he had no particular right.
These individuals, who have acted as faces and voices of this amorphous assemblage while avoiding being cast as its leaders, are discovering that any enterprise consisting of more than one person relies on trust and rules, both explicit and implied.
Coups don’t ordinarily occur in business, except in the context of owners asserting their prerogatives. Sharing something like a Twitter account may sound good on paper, but the moment something goes wrong, the problem with the egalitarian ideas of ownerlessness and leaderlessness becomes glaringly apparent.
The Occupy philosophy, to the extent that there is one, is that people who want stuff should get it from people who already have stuff. There are mechanisms in our society to enable that to happen in certain cases. But, as members of the Occupy movement are now finding, people who create things feel entitled to control their creations. When such control is unjustly wrested from them, they feel aggrieved. This is just as true of the business owners and the stewards of the public places occupiers took for themselves as it is for those who cultivated a social media presence from which they have been subsequently shut out. Those who brought the lawsuit are seeking not only restored access to the account, but $500,000 in damages.
When Occupiers asserted their rights to claim space that belonged to others, they set a precedent that has now been used against them. It is probably not the outcome they intended.