A month into this, all became clear - and not just because Occupy Wall Street set up camp three blocks from where Jason Chervokas and I ran a small news operation that covered digital start-ups in the 90s (though it helped).
Occupy Wall Street is a start-up. And it is deeply entrepreneurial. Indeed, if Silicon Alley venture capitalists like my friend Fred Wilson - who is publicly intrigued by the protests - are looking for proven talent in attracting a crowd online behind a product that is lithe, broad, and ripe for vast adoption, they could do worse than surf the crowd of social entrepreneurs sleeping under tarps in Zuccotti Park.
Unlike the bankers and Wall Street firms, who rely on fixing the game in Washington and public bailout money to lock in their billions, the scraggly and gritty start-up team at Occupy Wall Street steers much closer to the idealistic self-improving America of Ralph Waldo Emerson - and even to the capitalist penny passion plays of Horatio Alger. Who has done more with less? The young organizers of Occupy Wall Street - or Jamie Dimon? Who gets a higher return on capital (both social and the green variety) - the marchers on Broadway or Lloyd Blankfein? The bankers are essentially oligarchist socialist types these days, looking for handouts from the government. The protesters? They've got their wits, their sleeping bags, their energy, and their American dream.
Where's the better ROI?
Now, Occupy and its sister spin-offs do not lack in advice after a month of stunning success in spreading their story. Get a message. Get public leaders. Join organized labor. Work for Democratic candidates. Get a message (this is the most popular). But all this sounds exactly like the early days of Twitter to me. Do this, be that, fit into our idea of what you should be. And this is where Fred Wilson's longstanding advice to Internet entrepreneurs is instructive: time and again, he's urged startups to focus on building usership and serving customers. The revenue model will be there, if you do those things right.
And in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the "revenue model" is - broadly stated - changing public policy.
But that's a question for father down the road, much like Twitter in 2006. The focus on growth is the right one. And right now, Occupy continues to grow. Micah Sifry has been tracking social media metrics; on Friday he posted that OWS had doubled in size over the previous eight days, while also noting that the spike in original attention had moderated somewhat.
I think it's also clear that the Occupy movement has moved beyond its "early adopters" - protest-ready young people, online activists, anarchist hacker types, alternative media, and the social media chorus for distributed protest movements. Combine Micah's Facebook metrics with some anecdotal experience and I think the picture is of a startup that is close to its mass adoption moment.
But to carry the startup analogy a step farther, Occupy is also at the point where the sharks begin to circle, sensing a potential hit in the marketplace. This is where things get tricky for successful startups: do you go for that round of capital (in this case, human and social capital from unions, nonprofits, and existing political organizations)? Are you tempted by merger or acquisition? How long is the runway? Because Occupy is so decentralized and leaderless, these questions will undoubtedly have to wait. Yet it was troubling this past weekend to see Wikileaks founder Julian Assange attempt to co-opt the London version of Occupy with a speech that smacked of his unfortunate cult of personality; such an event would clearly not be allowed by Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly tacticians. Who will attempt to "be the leader" of the Occupy movement?
These are not minor questions. There is still every chance that Occupy Wall Street goes down as an interesting moment, a nice story for the grandkids, rather than a real movement that changes American policy. Very few startups get their IPO, and really, there's no substitute for winning, as veteran organizer Al Giordano advises in an elegant essay that recounts another generation's Wall Street march against nuclear weapons (one that peripherally involved your humble blogger, who admittedly, was into it for the Springsteen concert).
Winning a civil resistance, a social movement, a nonviolent struggle, a community organizing campaign profoundly changes the participants. It turns them into winners and transforms them into people who can never, ever be conquered by fear or despair ever again. That is why it is called revolution. It turns everything around, upside-down, and inside, out. It is the motor that evolves the species.
Last night, we had dinner in midtown before the Richard Thompson show at Town Hall. On Sixth Avenue, the police were staging a massive show of force - all riot gear, billy clubs, and vehicles. It was if al Qaeda had announced it was marching to Times Square instead of a couple of thousand protesters. Yet NYPD's gross over-reaction showed clearly that Occupy's success extends well beyond its core physical membership, its boots on the ground. It was reacting like Google to the challenge of Facebook - all inelegance, ham-handed action and almost no strategic thought. Meanwhile, the tourists were a little afraid of getting penned in by the cops. And it was really hard to tell the protesters from the - you know - "regular people." Which is to say, the 99 percent - which is the market potential for the Occupy movement.
Fueled by outrage (and empowered in part by the innovative use of technology and communications) Occupy Wall Street has burst out of the founders' garages. It embodies a real entrepreneurial spirit, even as it attacks the worst excesses of big-box, the fix-is-in capitalism. And its brand is going wide. I was standing along Sixth Avenue waiting for the cops to let us through their armored phalanx, when I overheard a midwest-tinged conversation to my right.
"What's going on?" said the older women to her spouse. They were clearly dressed for the theater. The husband answered quickly, and no malice or cultural judgment in his voice.
"Oh you know who it is, hon. That's Occupy Wall Street."