Understanding ‘We Are the 99 Percent’

Phoebe Connelly
The Lookout

Occupy Wall Street may lack a firmly articulated policy agenda or set of demands, but the movement may have something stronger--a individually created portrait of its numbers. "We Are the 99 Percent" is a blog created by the organizers of Occupy Wall Street; it consists of user-submitted testimonies of how ordinary Americans are coping with economic insecurity. Each post is a photo of the submitter, holding their story as written on a single sheet of paper.

Rebecca Rosen at The Atlantic called it "self-service history" and Nona Willis Aronowitz of Good said it was "the best populist message" produced on the left end of the political spectrum in years. Among other things, We Are the 99 Percent has helped to put a human face on an otherwise ill-defined political movement. It's even spawned a competitor blog, spearheaded by high-profile conservatives such as RedState's Erick Erickson and Josh Trevino of the Texas Public Policy Foundation--We Are the 53 Percent--that chides the 99 percenters for not taking enough personal responsibility for their circumstances.

We Are the 99 Percent is a Tumblr blog--the same platform The Lookout used for our Down But Not Out project chronicling long-term unemployment earlier this year. We Are the 99 Percent takes advantage of two core parts of the Tumblr framework. First, it bakes in the social media functions that users have come to associate with Facebook and Twitter: the ability to re-blog posts (similar to the retweet function on Twitter), and the ability to "like" a post. Going through the site's archive, you can view some of the posts that have gotten significant traction with other Tumblr users--such as this post from a 17-year-old who worries about how to pay for college (which has so far received 113 notes) or this post from an unemployed college graduate struggling with bipolar disorder with $50,000 in student loan debt (which has so far yielded 422 notes).

Also, by asking users to photo-submit their testimony, rather than just send in text, the organizers had participants to self-edit. That's because of the limitations the project has imposed via the oldest sort of legacy print media: paper. There is, after all, only so much of a story that a user can fit on one piece of paper while having it photograph legibly. And by asking users to include some portion of their faces, the founders of this Tumblr forced a degree of honesty--you can lie about your circumstances, but so long as your face is online, you are identifiable. These built-in limitations also help to keep the messages digestible--it's easy to read through a dozen or so in one sitting.

And there are also clear, inherent limits in the resulting message. As Mike Konczal observed in his extensive data-analysis of the site, the ages of submitters tend to cluster around the early and late 20s--not entirely surprising, he says, "given that we assume tumblr and webcams are technologies of the young." Still, Konczal notes that there's a notable amount of older submitters--suggesting that these newest microblogging tools are catching on among more senior users as well.

At the Economist, Gideon Lichfield argues that the growth of the site over time will be the most useful metric of Occupy Wall Street's success. He's analyzed the frequency of posts over time--as of yesterday, the site had more than 1,000 posts--and has also produced a nice chart showing when the sites have experienced spikes in posting. Remember, however, that the number of posts per day corresponds with how many the Tumblr's owners have approved to be posted, rather than how many users actually submitted over the course of a day. Still, the basic point remains clear--that the We Are the 99 Percent organizers have deliberately structured the submissions process to ensure that it puts a face to a heretofore amorphous proest movement. The Tumblr format also allows for heightened personal involvement in the protest in a way that's more difficult for users simply employing a Twitter hashtag or pushing a "Like" or "Share" button on Facebook.

Is We Are the 99 Percent a new type of online activism? Not exactly. But it does marry some of the instant networking functions of social media with more content-driven forms of online expression.

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