Protest Apps

10.06.11

The Technology Propelling #OccupyWallStreet

If the protesters have anything to say about it, this revolution will be televised. Sam Schlinkert on the tech gurus keeping the Wall Street demonstrations amped.

“Keep it brief, cuz I got a lot of work to do,” a man whom I know only as Justin tells me over a tarped barrier surrounding the media center in Zucotti Park, or as it's been rechristened by the occupiers, Liberty Park. It’s the night of Sunday, Oct. 2—the 16th day of the #OccupyWallStreet protests. The Friday before, I had watched a steel-haired man with a duct-tape name tag that read “security” walk an orange spool of tape around trees and tables, thus sectioning off the “media center” from the rest of the park. Others were tying pieces of the orange plastic around their arms, apparently denoting their “media center” status.

By Sunday night, with reports of a rain storm around 7 p.m. (according to the Twitter account @occupywallstwx), the media center was covered by a large umbrella with a tarp thrown over it to protect its computers, video equipment, and power strips. The area—about 10 by 20 feet—was now surrounded by a low wall of still more gear covered by tarps. I later learned that power comes from a gas-powered generator which runs, among other things, multiple 4G wireless Internet hotspots that provide Internet access to the scrappy collection of laptops.

As a caged light bulb was lit under the umbrella—the only one in the park—I tried to get Justin’s attention, which was fixed on the screen of his Apple laptop. Eventually I flagged down someone else and asked if I could speak to Justin. After a Godfather-esque back-and-forth through this intermediary, Justin pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, came over to the tarp border, and asked me, as politely as one can, to be brief.

“What do you do...here?” I asked.

“I work with the media committee. Specifically I work on social media—Twitter and Facebook—and coordinating online communication with our business partners in the local community, with residents, between working groups, and with the General Assembly.” (The General Assembly, or G.A., according to a pamphlet I picked up, is “a gathering of people committed to making decisions based upon a collective agreement or ‘consensus.’” It sometimes takes hours, mostly due to its use of the “people’s mic,” a beautiful and inspirational if not ineffective system of repeating a speaker’s voice in radiating circles.) Justin runs the @OccupyWallStNYC Twitter account, which, currently at more than 28,000 followers, is one of the main accounts behind the movement.

“The Movement,” as the protesters refer to it, purposely uses a variety of social media channels: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Wordpress, and Tumblr among them. The rag-tag but dedicated crew working in the media center uses whichever channel they’re comfortable with, for what their purposes dictate. For example, Twitter is good for quick, live text updates, especially during marches. One protester named Spike called it “invaluable.” Facebook and Tumblr, however, seem to have taken a back seat (some protesters I spoke to suspect that Facebook recently censored some of the photos of the occupation.) Another protester, who only gave me his Twitter handle as an identifier, called Facebook ineffective for what they’re doing.

But there’s one tool that seemed to be exalted by everyone I talked to: the livestream. Justin, the Twitter and Facebook whiz, called it the “core feature” of the media’s operations, “our best connection to the world.” Another told me the cameras keep them safe from the police. Spike called it “our greatest weapon for letting people see things as they develop.”

The “livestream” refers to a live video feed that organizers set up through Livestream.com under the name Global Revolution on Sept. 16, the day before the occupation began, and have been running almost continuously ever since. Its most notorious role so far was in streaming the arrests live from the Brooklyn Bridge to some 20,000 viewers. Later on Wednesday night, the stream captured video of scuffles between protesters and the police, including a live broadcast from Spike’s phone from inside a police van. To learn more about it, I talked to three key members of the media team: Vlad, Flux, and Lorenzo.

I ask him how long he would stay. “Till I die,” he says, only half jokingly.

Vlad, who did not give his last name, is an extremely charismatic, broad-faced Russian man who speaks precisely. When I asked him if he ran the livestream, he answered, “I don’t run anything. No. I work with the livestream team.” Modesty aside, he was happy to succinctly explain to me how the livestream was produced.

Vlad told me that over the summer, in preparation for what he called “the project,” he purchased about a dozen used Dell Inspiron 1525 laptops (which Dell stopped making in February of 2009) for about $200 each. For another $100, Vlad replaced the computers’ processors and increased the RAM to make sure the machines would be fast enough to broadcast video live. He also split the hard drives of the computers into three partitions, allowing each computer to run three operating systems: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. OS X is needed to run Final Cut Pro, a state-of-the-art video editing software, and Linux is used to hack into wireless networks.

For cameras, the media team uses a combination of cheaper webcams such as the Logitech C910 (new, retail: $84.99) and Microsoft LifeCam Cinema ($79.95), and Canon HV20s (about $650) and HV30s for higher quality video. The team also uses microphones for improved sound quality. While at Liberty Park, the team runs multiple video feeds simultaneously (each requiring its own Wi Fi hotspot) and sends them back to a video editing station, where a team member chooses which camera feed to broadcast when.

Vlad grins. “For $3,000 we have a fully tactical media team.”

On marches, the media team takes the livestream mobile. This requires a two-person team: one to do the filming, and the other to carry a bag containing a laptop and a 4G hotspot to provide a bubble of wireless Internet access. The camera and laptop must be connected by a FireWire cable, so the team has to stay close. This system burns through batteries quickly, thus “runners” have to shuttle fresh batteries back and forth from Liberty Park, where they’re charged. It’s this technology that most protesters are referring to when they say, “The whole world is watching.”

Vlad admits that there are mistakes and cases of lost signals, but he says that’s usually because they’re training people “who are going to be deployed to other cities as other occupations take hold.” As of this writing, protesters in Washington, D.C. have broadcast over the Global Revolution channel, and in Los Angeles they’ve setup a free account with ads from companies including Levi's. Go forth indeed.   

For getting their video feed out to the masses, the group uses Livestream.com because it has a platform that makes it easy for multiple users to edit video, as well as send previously filmed (and edited) content back to the stream during the downtime when users aren’t broadcasting live. In Vlad’s words, “It allows you to program your own 24-hour news channel.”

Flux Rostrum is a genial 35-ish man with dirty-blond dreadlocks. He is the founder and producer for Mobile Broadcast News, an online affinity group of independent journalists. With his experience in both independent media and video editing, he’s had a hand in the livestream broadcasting since he arrived on day one. He explained to me how Livestream works for the team.

Livestream offers two options to users who wish to broadcast: customers can either register a free account with advertising and no widescreen HD capabilities, or a premium account, which costs $350 per month, or $3,500 per year, but allows for widescreen HD with speeds up to 1.7 Mbps and has no ads. The premium channel includes 3,000 viewer hours, with an additional charge of $0.27 per additional viewer hour. For cost reasons, Global Revolution chose to make a free account and began broadcasting shortly before Sept. 17.

The problem came, Flux told me, when Livestream couldn’t find advertisers who wanted to advertise on their channel because of the nature of their content. As a result, Livestream, without the consent of the team, upgraded the Global Revolution account to premium. On the morning of Sept. 17, the Global Revolution Livestream channel, due to organic promotion through the Twitter hashtag #OccupyWallSt, had 700 viewers and only grew from there, quickly using up their 3,000 viewer hours.  “After about a day we’d run a $6,000 bill,” Flux laughs.

Eventually Livestream acknowledged that they had upgraded the account without their consent and decided to give them the premium account without the charges, which they did, Flux added, “because they felt it was important.” Had they not, the team’s broadcast from the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, which at one point hosted 20,000 viewers, would have cost about $5,400 per hour. Flux acknowledges that the channel is currently operating on the goodwill of Livestream. Ideally, he said, they’d like to see progressive companies approach Livestream and ask to advertise on the channel.

What’s next for Flux? He’ll be heading down to D.C. in his van on Thursday to set up the occupation there. “I’m just a cog,” he responds when I compliment his depth of knowledge.

The last member of the livestream team whom I met is known as Lorenzo. I recognized him from watching the livestream, where he hosts nightly Q&A sessions with protesters. Lorenzo is a short, stout man in his late twenties with a full beard and glasses. He works both with the livestream and on Twitter, where he runs @uneditedcamera.

Many have asked who the protesters are occupying Wall Street, and while I don’t pretend to have an answer, Lorenzo seems to be a fine archetype. “It’s a boring story,” he says when I ask how he found himself here. He graduated with a master’s degree in English from the University of North Dakota last spring. Around the same time, his long-term girlfriend broke up with him. “My friends lived in New York and offered me a place to stay,” he says. He’s stepped over the tarped wall of the media center, the bright construction light behind him. Earlier, when I asked him where he had been sleeping, he pointed to a section of the tarped wall. “So I took them up on the offer and I came here, looked for a job for about a month, couldn’t find anything, started organizing for this, and I’ve been here ever since.” At this point we’re both facing the bare bulb lighting the media center. I ask him how long he will stay. “Till I die,” he says, only half jokingly.