My visualization is a map of the 360+ Occupy demonstrations in the United States. I created this map using the Google Spreadsheet Mapper 2.0, Microsoft Excel, Google Docs, and Google Earth. When you click on each placemark a pop-up balloon will open; this contains the Digital Footprint for that city’s Occupy demonstration. The goal of this project, which I have dubbed The Occupy Digital Footprint Project, is to begin mapping out the physical and digital presence of the Occupy movement in the United States.
All completed entries (blue placemarks) contain and image and links to news coverage, Facebook, Twitter, Meet Up, and an official website. Due to limited time, less than half of the cities contain completed balloons; all cities with a red placemark use a minimal template that contains only a link to the Facebook page.
I began with Indiana and then tried to fill in as many of the neighboring states as possible. From there, I included a handful of large cities in every state. All but five cities have a Facebook site, while many have Twitter accounts and even fewer have an actual website.
My purpose for collecting the Digital Footprint for each Occupy demonstration was to begin what I hope will be a long-term digital archiving project centered on the Occupy movement. I am fascinated by Occupy because it is firmly rooted in digital social media, yet through extensive use of sites like Twitter and Meet Up, the line between the physical and digital spaces of each Occupy demonstration is becoming blurred. Though Occupy is certainly not the first political or social movement to place an emphasis on communication and organization through public/digital means, the extent to which these methods have caught on across the nation and turned into a new standard model for grassroots political organizing is noteworthy.
This is not a small project. From the very beginning I knew that the data set I was working with would not be simple. I found my initial dataset on OccupyResearch, which is described as a “page is for sharing datasets, as well as for sharing information about how Occupy Researchers might collaborate to gather, share, analyze, and visualize data about the movement.” This was a very simpy spreadsheet containing basic information for almost 500 Occupy sites around the world. For my purposes, I decided to limit the scope of my visualization to cities in the U.S. Eventually, I would like to expand this visualization to create a more comprehensive view of Occupy as a global movement.
Using the spreadsheet from OccupyResearch as a starting point, I proceeded to collect additional information that I thought would be critical for demonstrating my point. After searching for several large Occupy sites, like OWS or Occupy Indy, I determined that the majority of public writing took place on Facebook, Twitter, and official websites. In addition, Twitter and other websites like Meet Up were used primarily for organizing and planning events. Other common communication methods I noticed included YouTube, Live Stream, Flickr, and Google+; again, for the sake of simplicity I chose to ignore these for now.
When you click on a placemark in my visualization, the first thing that happens (hopefully) is a connection is made between the geographical point on the map and the picture, which is the most distinctive visual component of the balloon. The picture was crucial because it is, I believe, the point where the digital and physical presence begins to blur; to someone outside of that community this is just a picture of people on a street, but from within I’m guessing these pictures mean a lot more, particularly for group cohesion and identity.
My initial research question was quite simple: “How can we visualize Occupy?” There is a lot of really great work being done, both inside and outside of the movement, with more traditional methods of visualization. I deliberately chose to avoid this, though a second part of my long-term project will involve collecting and sharing these. Instead, I wanted to create something that presented Occupy visually without defining it. During my research I have been very aware of my self-imposed outsider status, so I wanted to use the methods of visualization and data collection we’ve discussed in this class to observe, but not define.
This led me in a very different direction than I would ultimately take. For a few weeks I collected information on special interest groups within the broader Occupy movement—organizations like Occupy Design, OccuPrint, and Occupy Libraries—which I found to be far more fascinating than my original question. But it also proved to be far more complicated in terms of how I could turn it into a useable data set, let alone a visualization. At first I gave up on this research entirely and returned to my original spreadsheet; but the more I worked on creating this visualization with Google Earth, the more I realized that this brief diversion into what I have dubbed the “deep structures” of the Occupy Movement has given me a lot of direction and purpose for the larger project.
Based on my research, there is a significant informational infrastructure within the Occupy movement, though interestingly the movement has been criticized for a lack of organization and dismissed by many as a passing fad. But when you look at the passion and purpose of the discourse taking place in the deep structures you see something very different. Though I’ve been referring to them as if they are separate entities, I believe these deep structures begin to show at the local/geographical level, but what makes them so fascinating and worthy of study is that they transcend the limitations placed on the Occupy movement when it is viewed only as isolated demonstrations within separate cities.
My visualization only just begins to articulate this broader network of information and communication that each localized Occupy site exists within. By following the placemarks to the Facebook and Twitter sites you see the ways in which these are used as more efficient and effective systems of organization and planning; however, if you spend more time, particularly with Twitter, you begin to notice a pattern of interconnection between the demonstrations. The official websites, too, show a level of connection based on geographic proximity, with demonstrations within the same states coordinating, collaborating, and sharing ideas.
One thing this visualization succeeds at is establishing the very surface of this network. I see this visualization as a means of archiving this data for future use, but also as a way to use visual communication and design to argue that the digital footprint is a limited model. Yes, I realize in a way I’m contradicting myself here, but it’s deliberate. Again, I wanted the map to be messy and overwhelming because that shows just how large this movement really is. Though Occupy Wall Street receives most of the attention from the press, Occupy has really become a vast network of separate political and social “movements” that are connected by an underlying ideology and worldview, but also by a more complex system of interests and values that have been manifested as a diverse and deep online community.
In a lot of ways this Google Earth map is both a success and a failure because of what it doesn’t—and, I would argue, cannot—show: that deeper and more complex system or structure of information and communication. But if it is a failure, it’s a deliberate and calculated one. Visualizing the deeper structure is the long-term goal of this project; for now, I hope simply to illustrate the interwoven nature of the digital and physical spaces of Occupy and to illustrate how the digital footprint tells us a lot more about the movement than simply where it has been already.