FLO Solutions at Occupy Wall Street
When I came to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th, I had an agenda: bring the free/libre/opensource movement’s message to the “demonstrators”. This is something I had experience doing with “liberty” activists surrounding the Ron Paul campaign, and I was eager to see how the message translated to “leftists”. Within the first week of the Occupation, I had created the “Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group” and was making daily mic checks at the General Assembly about the importance of Free/Libre/Opensource movement.
“Mic Check!”“Mic Check.”“I’m from the Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group!”“I’m from the Free/Libre/Opensource Solutions Working Group.”“Free/libre/opensource solutions!”“Free/libre/opensource soltuions.”“give you the right”“give you the right”to useto useto editto editto modifyto modifyto sellto sellsolutions people needsolutions people needto create the world they wantto create the world they want.
I also handed out hundreds of fliers explaining Marcin Jacobowski’s GVCS project. To many people in the those early days, I was known as the open source tractor guy. For a small fraction of those people who were actually FLO activists themselves, I became someone worth connecting with because I was working on the same revolution as they were.
To FLOers, the peer-to-peer, networked, FLO information revolution is the revolution. Not only is the FLO revolution democratizing communications, making it easier than ever for people to organize themselves outside the framework of a corporation or state to state a political revolution, but FLO technologies are also making information accessible to facilitate a productivity revolution. In the productivity revolution, individuals and communities are empowered to produce their own goods and services. While this might sound fanciful, think about the GVCS. What if high quality, production ready plans existed for all the technologies people need to create a “modern” community – from food and shelter technologies to the financial services ones that Wall Street uses to move capital around the world at breakneck speeds? Is there any doubt the world would be a wealthier place, and that this wealth would be available to more people than ever before?
The vision of a world in which material scarcity is vanquished by improved productivity is often called “abundance”. Abundance has been the topic of a number of books in recent decades, but surprisingly few of them point to the FLO movement as the vehicle through which an abundance revolution is made possible. Instead, they look more at abundance from the perspective of the self – in which people go through a transformation where they lose their fear of being without food, shelter, and social affirmation and embrace the reality of an abundant world in which all their needs will be met as long as they follow a certain set of practices that often involve being nice to other people and being open to new opportunities
Abundance is an increasingly popular vision among all types of people, but only the FLO movement has a practical strategy for achieving it: give people the tools and techniques they need to create the things they want. When people are empowered to produce for themselves, they are much less easy to exploit. For this reason, abundance is, in this author’s opinion, the only modality in which a truly non-coercive, anarchist society is possible – and FLO solutions are the only way we’ll be able to achieve such a revolution.
Since so many people at Occupy Wall Street identify themselves as anarchists, one would imagine that this message would be very appealing to occupiers – and it is. In fact, people within Occupy Wall Street are more than happy to declare themselves aligned with the FLO movement. Indeed, the three major statements of Occupy Wall Street all contain endorsements of the FLO movement – and that wasn’t an accident. FLO solutions were vigorously advocated within the movement – not just by me, but by nearly every technologist that showed up to do the work of providing technical solutions to the budding movement.
After starting the FLO Solutions group with a number of friends, it became very clear to many of us that advocating FLO approaches was the easy part. Implementing them would be another story. The Internet Working Group, which maintained NYCGA.net – the General Assembly’s communication platform – was feuding with OccupyWallSt.org, the movement’s most popular website, over control of the online brand. Meanwhile, a number of groups and individuals emerged claiming to be PR. Press, OWSPR, etc. Wealthy liberals came out of the woodwork to offer us free websites that they would build and of which they would have undefined levels of control. In short, distributing a coherent message through strategically aligned online platforms wasn’t something the technologists in Zuccotti had the ability to accomplish. Therefore, our collective focus shifted from outward facing communication platforms to empowering the myriad individuals and groups within the movement with good FLO solutions.
To achieve this goal, the FLO Solutions Group began working with the Internet Working Group to transform the NYCGA.net website from a standard WordPress into a social network activists could use to communicate with each other. Collaboration around this task and others made it clear that the Internet and FLO Solutions Groups were one in the same. The lines between the two faded away: FLO Solutions gave its radical FLO activism philosophy to Internet and Internet gave its responsibility for managing the NYCGA’s technology infrastructure to FLO Solutions. The synthesis of the groups, however, wasn’t made official until the formation of the Spokes Council required working groups to officially register. Since the distinction was being made between “operations” groups that worked on supporting the Zuccotti occupation and “movement” groups that were interested in policy, we decided to name ourselves “Technology Operations Group” – TechOps for short.
By this time, the general consensus within TechOps was that we would focus on developing internal communications tools and supporting activists through technology, letting the various PR and Media groups and OccupyWallSt.org take responsibility for public facing content. Instead of focusing on fans and followers, TechOps spent its time developing enterprise grade FLO systems that would enhance activist work. We deployed a constituent relationship management (CRM) system that can send millions of emails to constituents, a wiki that uses the semantic technology we need to develop a globally accessible shared knowledge resource, a directory of all the occupations around the world, news aggregators, campaign websites and literally dozens of other solutions. We also continued to maintain NYCGA.net, which was becoming an increasingly important tools for the emerging OWS bureaucracy.
Occupy Wall Street was organized through a “working groups” model in which people would join a group of people with similar interests, attend “open meetings” and give report backs to the General Assembly. Benefits of group membership was affiliation with “Occupy Wall Street” and the ability to solicit funds, which had hundreds of thousands of dollars at its disposal. Since each group was given a presence on NYCGA.net, defining a group became the responsibility of TechOps. Guidelines were written up by a team that required groups to conduct regular meetings in the NYC area, take notes at each of those meetings, and have up-to-date contact information on their group page. These rules were followed by many of the larger groups, but were untenable for smaller ones – making the policy difficult to enforce.
Once groups were accepted, they were required to pick administrators who then became the only people with the ability to post official events to the site. Group admins could also promote and delete users, edit comments and create a “group blog” at an NYCGA subdomain. The myriad of permissions and clumsiness with which they were set up created a variety of problems that slowly turned NYCGA.net from a no-nonsense communications and documentation platform into a venue for some of the movement’s most vitriolic conversations. While we outlined a variety of administrative guidelines for positive and responsible community management, we found it very difficult to enforce them with any type of regularity. The need for enforcement was becoming increasingly important as the disruptive behavior that was ruining the productivity of General Assemblies and Spokes Councils was transferring over to the NYCGA.net online community. It wasn’t long before each of the most disruptive people at OWS also had NYCGA.net personas. Some of them had multiple personas to increase their capacity to disrupt. Many people suspected this type of activity was taking place when they would see two personas using similarly structured language to agree with each other or echo criticism, and it was confirmed when site system administrators discovered those personas had the same IP addresses. Whether this was an indication that these people were “provocateurs” hired to disrupt the OWS community from making forward progress or just off-kilter people who enjoyed a conflict was a question TechOps never fully tackled. But these situations were rare. More problematic was that there were “normal” trolls within many group forums on NYCGA.net, that lots of Occupy activists have bad internet manners and that, quite simply, there were many conflicting personalities within Occupy Wall Street – and forums were a popular place for clashes amongst such personalities to take place. The aggregate effect was that NYCGA.net became an “unsafe space” that people didn’t want to use to communicate, and which they instead used only to comply with the demands of the OWS bureaucracy.
As NYCGA.net struggled as both a community site and a platform with severe technical limitations, it became clear to many in TechOps that we should shift our focus away from NYCGA.net and into Occupy.net.
Occupy.net was secured in the early days of the occupation by a member of FLO Solutions. We began to use its subdomains to host various software services that we thought OWS activists would need to conduct a successful social movement. Our decisions to deploy certain tools were very much informed by our experiences working with other FLO projects – especially the experiences of the GVCS project. We deployed MediaWiki, the software used by Wikipedia, as a knowledge management solution at wiki.occupy.net; CiviCRM, the world’s most popular FLO constituent relationship management tool up at crm.occupy.net; a directory of all the movement’s occupy websites at directory.occupy.net; a news aggregator at newswire.occupy.net; a mapping solution at map.occupy.net; and much more. At this moment, we have 8 “launched” software services and about 30 more in evaluation phases.
Unlike NYCGA.net, which was a utility for Occupy Wall Street in New York managed by a NYC based group of techies, Occupy.net is a set of tools, each of which is maintained by a different team, many of whom aren’t located in the New York area. In some ways it’s the software equivalent to the GVCS: all of the FLO software tools our community needs to build a robust social movement. The intention behind the toolkit is to do more than simply provide the Occupy movement with useful tools; it’s to provide an FLO alternative to the world’s largest web application provider – Google. That isn’t as crazy as it might sound: there is an FLO alternative for nearly every Google application, but no one has tied all these FLO alternatives together with a unified design language, single user sign-on, comprehensive documentation and community support network to create something that feels competitive. Our ability to frame Occupy.net as an alternative to corporate software is what attracts activist technologists to maintain services under the Occupy.net name. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to attract the attention of the mainstream media, who are looking for stories about social media flash mobs organized on corporate social networks like Facebook and Twitter, not how a bunch of technologists are designing, deploying and maintaining enterprise grade FLO software solutions that will be able to enhance the movement’s growth over the long term and chart how to create software infrastructure for the new, emergent, FLO economy.