#OccupyWallStreet: A Revolution in Keywords

In 2003, I was captivated by a campaign led by gay rights activist Dan Savage to create a definition for the word “santorum.”  Savage was referencing Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Senator, who made anti-gay comments that alarmed many gay rights groups.  Savage registered the domain names, spreadingsantorum.com and santorum.com, and published the winning definition: “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.”  Savage’s websites were linked within 13,000 other sites, which effectively made Savage’s definition of santorum the number one return on Google.

Savage captured the keyword by understanding how information is measured and disseminated through search engines. To get on the front page of Google, a website must not just get a lot of hits, the site must be LINKED. Thus, other people (i.e. webmasters) must take the time to put your link on their site.  If linked enough, your webpage will move to the top of the search results.  This shows that search engines’ algorithms are expressly social!

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Keywords are terms used by search engines to find content on websites. Websites tag content with keywords to make them searchable. In this essay, I show how and why keywords have come to play such a central role in our everyday lives and for organizing dissent through Occupy Wall Street. I argue that keywords have become an important unifying feature of this movement, which allows planning to primarily occur in online spaces, which then leads to in-person demonstrations. Savage’s protest signaled a beginning in a national conversation about the power of Google, which is useful a debate for understanding how Occupy Wall Street is fighting and organizing in the algorithms of search engines.

The form of protest used by Savage attracted the attention of its target. Savage’s work in 2003 haunted Rick Santorum, who began a presidential bid in 2011, but did not win the republican nomination. This battle, aided by the archiving qualities of the internet, showed the power of Google as appeals to remove references to Savage’s sites by Santorum (the man) were routinely denied by Google.  In September 2011, Santorum stated, “If you’re a responsible business, you don’t let things like that happen in your business that have an impact on the country…To have a business allow that type of filth to be purveyed through their website or through their system is something that they say they can’t handle but I suspect that’s not true.”  Google responded that because Savage’s campaign is not illegal, Google will not remove the content from its results page.  The power of Google to share information is not easily contained, even in the case where a well-known former Senator seeks to censor or stop the flow of information about himself.  Both, the algorithm and policy of Google simply would not allow it.

When querying several other prominent search engines, spreadingsantorum.com returns first, but Santorum (the man) was most concerned with Google and not others. Why?  The cultural imperative to “google it” over “search on yahoo” or “bing it” is an ideologically salient point.  Google (and to some extent Wikipedia) have become synonymous with truth among those who were raised with the internet.  While people are skeptical of claims to absolute truth, Google and Wikipedia provide users with shortcuts to information, (not the same thing as knowledge).  Moreover, these sites allow users a sense of choice (Google returns hundreds, if not thousands of references) and mastery (Wikipedia allows users to change the content with relative ease).

None of this information sharing would be possible without user’s having an embodied sense of how keywords work. Keywords are analogous to the ways that the human mind sorts, stores, and recalls information using categories. Categories are important forms of thought that allow people to visualize, comprehend, and group information together. For example, the category of “tree” evokes a picture of the ideal tree in each of our minds.  Though each person’s visualization of an ideal tree is tethered to an image from their past, it is still a tree.  But what if the category of a thing, such as a theremin, evoked no image?  What do we do when categories refer to abstract ideas, such as ‘occupy?’ The visualization process becomes muddled and requires more information. It is at this point that we ‘Google it.’ Don’t know why your gay friends are laughing at the “Santorum” bumper sticker on that minivan? When you Google a keyword you get approximately correct information without looking like an idiot.  

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However, it is not only when we don’t know something that we search for it, we also use keywords to help pre-sort information so that we can use it more effectively. Often, my students teach me more about the social than the books I read.  When we study Marx, several students will say things like “Marx rarely used the term superstructure,” which would confound me.

How would they know that from reading the small selection of essays in their course reader?  So I asked, “How the hell do you know that?”

My students were short-cutting the assignment by searching through Google Books to find the approximate place of ‘superstructure’ in the text.  That way, they did not have to read the whole thing to get the information relevant to discussion. Additionally before reading an assigned text, they will check Wikipedia for a primer on what they are “supposed to understand from this reading.” In doing so, they have incorporated a filter into their reading practices that extracts the pertinent concepts.  They believe that by doing this, the actual text will take less time to understand and test scores will rise because Wikipedia’s explanations are easier to grasp. Students have become proficient in keyword communication, asking “Why should I read it, when I can Wikipedia it?” Signaling that when information is readily available, there is less of a need for truth and knowledge. 

This was very different from my experience of being an undergrad. The common conception of the internet when I first got access was that it was dangerous place that wanted infect your computer with a virus. Pop-up ads, porno dialers, spam bots were difficult to route around in the late 1990s. So, when studying, if I read something in an assignment that I did not understand, I had two choices: ask the professor or go to the library.  

Similar to keywords, the library is organized by subject indexes that can be confusing to navigate and difficult to understand.  Going to the library is time consuming and sometimes does not yield clarity. There is enormous choice in the stacks, but little guidance as to how to find the concepts inside the books, especially if there is no index.  When I was in the library, I found that if a book was published relatively recently (within the last ten years) and had pencil notations from other readers then I was more likely to find the information I was seeking.

Like the library’s subject indexes, the ways that we are allowed to search the internet are becoming incredibly important as we attempt to zoom in on a particular piece of information or to explore a new topic. Significantly, the internet produces many more returns than library subject indexes, which then allows me to request books that the library does not stock. Unfortunately, no current library or electronic database is exhaustively comprehensive, so I also switch between WorldCat and Amazon in my searches.  Like categories and subject indexes, keywords have many uses. They describe content and help us organize concepts and categories so that they can be easily recollected or sorted online. However, unlike subject indexes in libraries, there are more ways to search for information using keywords online (just think of all the sites that you can plug search terms into: youtube, twitter, facebook, flickr, reddit, meetup, tumblr, ustream, and so on).  

Most importantly, while categories group concepts that are alike, keywords work best as UNIQUE identifiers.  A category like “social justice” may lead to the right place in a library, but as a keyword it does little to locate specific information online. Especially, when studying recent social movements, keywords are the thread that connects communities across many platforms. 

While in some instances, keywords can act as filters that funnel information, in other cases, they can act as a terrain of meaning to be fought over.  As of today, Santorum is both a man and slurry. Our ability to wield keywords, to capture and redirect the flow of information, is gradually becoming a weapon in the protester’s repertoire, whether conscious or not.  Moreover, all of us are slowly learning to communicate with each other using keywords.  This is due to our internalized incorporation of searchable databases into our everyday practices.  Like in the library, the inflexibility subject indexes are becoming obsolete as we develop new ways to “tag” concepts, ideas, and images online.  Tags are lists of keywords used by websites to describe content.

For example, if you search “Scream” on Google, you get many responses for the 1990s series of films and Munch’s famous painting on websites that use “scream” as a tag.  This is a somewhat intended cultural consequence where the slashers in the movie wore masks like the character in the painting.  One was meant to reference the other. However, on Google’s front page, you also get the video for Michael Jackson’s song “Scream,” which is made possible by the metadata tagged to the video.  Simply changing the search term to “The Scream” (with quotes) yields only sites with information about the painting though.

Therefore, our capacity to put keywords together (less words, wider range of results) in conjunction with the knowledge we already have about what we are searching for (more words, more focused results) will determine how we enter into the assemblage of available information.  Most importantly, it will also determine the ways we engage with that information and how we interact with the community providing that information. While Santorum (the man) views Google as a gatekeeper to information, santorum (the slurry) demonstrates the capacity for a group of people to find one another by speaking in the language of Google’s algorithm (hyperlinks) and harnessing its cultural power to define concepts.

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This is all to suggest that the initial call to “#OccupyWallStreet” by Adbusters was an invitation to rebel using keywords.  While many academics got distracted by the “What is our one demand?” at the top of the poster, the real message was the medium of communication that Adbusters called on. By using the symbol of the hashtag (#), Adbusters was asking for people to use this keyword/tag to find one another and become a community of practice on Twitter. Adbusters’ poster illustrates our emerging social understanding of

(1) how to utilize keywords to query the information,

(2) to use those developing information networks to build a community, and,

(3) put that communities’ concerns into search engines’ algorithms so that others will see it.

With mobile smart phones, the internet has become a ubiquitous tool for living in connected countries, and consequently more people are using the internet to launch projects that are only possible with the help of others.  Just like Wittgenstein suggests there is no such thing as a private language, there are no social movements of one. Communication is intersubjective and as long as linguistic innovation continues to occur on the margins of the ways that communication is filtered, it will be difficult to dampen movements that are built around keywords. When a  movement is organized across multiple platforms, it becomes difficult for police and governments to stop connectivity without shutting down the entire website (or, in extreme cases, blocking access to the internet).

This due to the fact that there are so many platforms that support keyword searches and Google is only one, albeit a powerful one. Savage’s campaign showed that algorithms are political tools to be leveraged. Querying “Occupy” shows that the internet is not just a place to gather or wield information, but also to meet revolutionary strangers who are also communicating in keywords. Because Occupy Wall Street is a rhizomatic and horizontal social movement that has no centralized decision-making or organizing body, it is difficult to narrate the movement from the perspective of leaders or top-tier management.  Critically, the organizational structure of the movement shifts from location to location and platform to platform.  Therefore, like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, each point of entry into the movement (online and offline) can produce various impressions and conceptualizations. For example, some Occupy sites have no physical meetings and only a facebook page, others’ have no website, but meet weekly in a public park. 

For researchers, it is important to note that occupiers are organized differently in each city and on every platform. There are many overlapping, but not necessarily overlaying groups.  This is to say, Occupy in Irvine is not Occupy in Cleveland. Occupy on Twitter is not Occupy on Facebook. Occupy in Los Angeles is not Occupy on Youtube. Constraints and affordances are not just qualities of design, but are also features of the local culture in each manifestation of Occupy.  Keywords provide the material needed to find one another, disseminate important information, and launch offline actions, but they are always rooted in local concerns. You can search “occupy [insert your city]” to find a local community near you online and offline.  If there is no Occupy in that city, there is no permission needed to start one. 

The initial community of information managers that developed around the keyword #OccupyWallStreet was very small including occupywallst.org and Adbusters.org alongside twitter and blog users who tagged their content with the same keywords. Thus, allowing each user to communicate both with and beyond one another online.   It was only after the community of users grew exponentially through the ability to share information online that Adbuster’s second injunction, “bring tent,” manifested in encampments springing up all over the world.  

Like Savage’s effort, another significant effect of protesting with keywords is the ability to direct meaning by appearing on the front page of Google. Now, when you conduct a Google search for “Wall Street,” you don’t only get the place, the journal, and the movie, you also get its opposition. That is the command of digital counter-power, to invade another’s domain and augment its meaning. Protesters have seized property on Google’s front page by exploiting the algorithm.  It is an intentional consequence, one that is not readily in the control of those who seek to silence dissent…. That is, for now.