the one where fabio gets into a twitter argument with david graeber

On Saturday, Liberationtech tweeted the post I wrote about Occupy Wall Street and its organizational tactics. This led to a direct exchange between David “The Debt” Graeber and myself. The thread touched on an number of topics, but we seemed to get stuck on the issue of impression management.

One commenter, Brett Fujioka, pointed out that open structures, like OWS, allow kooks to associate themselves with the movement. He used the extreme (but real) example of when David Duke openly praised Occupy Wall Street. This could damage OWS’ reputation. Even though the example is skewed, one could point less extreme examples of where openness can lead to damaging the brand. For example, there was a series of Occupy events in Oakland that resulted in vandalism at city  hall. Due to its open structure, it is not easy to dissociate oneself from such actions.

When I raised the issues of branding, David said that just by using the word he knew all he needed to know about me. I was impressed by his ability to treat a 140 character tweet like a zip file. Then he said he couldn’t believe he was even having this conversation. I said, “yet, here we are.” He then told me that this conversation was over… and then he tweeted me again. The Graebs lives up to his reputation.

Anyway, my overall point is that social movements vary a great deal in their internal organization. Despite what Dave-G said, some “real democratic” movements actually spent a great deal of time making sure they had the right image or brand. The civil rights movement was notoriously obsessed with image. Perhaps OWS is really a movement that eschews any connection at all with the mainstream. But lots of other successful and important movements rely on external help, which is one of the core lessons of modern movement research. And to do that, you have to be careful about how the outside world sees you.

UPDATE: W. Winecoff notes on twitter that “Occupy Wall Street” is a brand and “99%” is a slogan. Man, what we think of after the argument is over!

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Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2013 at 2:50 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

24 Responses

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  1. Fabio Rojas is a famous example: he was founded by (mostly Libertarian) ad men who broke from Crispin Porter + Bogusky in New York in the 1960s, forming little authoritarian circles of twenty to forty RAs with their fanny packs at antiwar protests.


    December 3, 2013 at 3:31 am

  2. People, check out the twitter feed (@fabiorojas) for real time Graeberology.


    December 3, 2013 at 3:57 am

  3. Two thoughts here: (1) Clearly difficult to manage image with open structures, but is the real question here “How was OWS able to maintain a strong and coherent image–witness the expansion of the “franchise”–despite the organizational openness? (2) Wouldn’t the openness have something to do with changes in Tillyean ‘repertoires of contention’?

    Chirag Kasbekar

    December 3, 2013 at 4:06 am

  4. Chiraq – good question. My hypothesis is that the image was tied to unanimity in decision making. Sure, anyone could show up, but only people willing to pay the high cost in time could effectively control the organization in any way. And yes, as noted in yesterday’s comment thread, the openness is one way to shift the contention.


    December 3, 2013 at 4:09 am

  5. A ‘wikipedia’ model of contention? Allow different voices but have an active and dedicated editing process. Though more difficult to control than wiki pages are, since the “page” is fragmented.

    Chirag Kasbekar

    December 3, 2013 at 4:36 am

  6. Wonder if the model has an embedded but subterranean ‘homophily filter’ built into it to reduce the range of voices that may want to be associated with the movement, increasing the coherence of its image.

    Chirag Kasbekar

    December 3, 2013 at 4:50 am

  7. If you can find data to back that idea up, email me. That’s a home run article.


    December 3, 2013 at 4:51 am

  8. Fabio, indeed I will.

    Chirag Kasbekar

    December 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm

  9. On the issue of OWS branding and image management, I love this post by Chris (Adbusters’s Chris Hedges?) from the month before the start of the occupation:

    One thing we were thinking of going as part of the buildup to Sept. 17 is the 99 Percent Project. It’s a promotion that we’re hoping will pick up some more steam as we get closer to the occupation date that will highlight the various ways that a society which prioritizes the upper 1 percent is having a deleterious impact on, well, everyone else. It’s a way to focus the message and really bring the human side to the fore by calling attention to the real human costs of our current economic setup.

    “Promotion”? “Pick up some more steam”? “Focus the message”?
    Chris goes on to describe an ideal post. This becomes one of the movements most popular memes.

    Neal Caren (@HaphazardSoc)

    December 3, 2013 at 4:04 pm

  10. Graeber can speak for himself, but, while it may not tell us “all we need to know,” your use of “branding” is at least telling, is it not? It reveals a particular academic mindset, one that is far removed from OWS as practice. That is fine (it is a mindset that I share with you), but we shouldn’t really be surprised that activists might be annoyed by what we do as social movement scholars. The OWS people are not the (now) comfortably tenured black studies radicals of your book – happy to tell war stories about fighting the power back in the day – they are people who see themselves engaged… now, today… in an ongoing struggle. For them, there will be plenty of time in the future to think about OWS in terms of the success or failure of the roll-out of a new toothpaste (or blog post or twitter flame war), but that time is definitely not now. So, sure, armchair theorize away, but don’t be so naive as to suppose that activists would automatically see academics as being on the “same team.” They don’t. And while it may comfort academics to imagine that they are, they aren’t.


    December 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm

  11. OK, I went back and read the exchange and let’s be charitable. Before Fabio actively joined in the conversation about his essay, there were a few people basically trolling Graeber. By the time Fabio came in and tried to discuss the trade-offs of coherent identity vs openness, it must have seemed to Graeber like he was getting trolled. That is, I can easily see how Brett Fujioka’s bad faith trolling would have made Graeber feel like he was being attacked and then be insufficiently patient with Fabio’s good faith analysis. Ironically on the substance it sounds like Fabio and Graeber aren’t that far apart in terms of recognizing that there are trade-offs to the horizontalist SMO form.

    Of course there is a pattern of this, but my point is that it was exacerbated by the situation.


    December 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm

  12. @sara: You make a valid point about activists and movements, but are you aware that David was a professor at Yale and now professor at the London School of Economics? Dude should be comfortable with academic lingo, especially, as Neal said, OWS actively branded itself.


    December 3, 2013 at 6:09 pm

  13. Fabio,

    I’m well aware of who Graeber is, but he’s not a social movement scholar and approaches OWS as an activist (though a reflexive one). Regardless, as I said, he can speak for himself. What I’m attempting to highlight is the fact that there is real (and growing) theory-practice disconnect that has left social movement scholars playing catch-up, and casting about for hoary hooks on which to hang the new(?)-new-new-SMs. You can therefore imagine the reaction of disgust: “Branding? Really!?! THAT is what you have to contribute?”


    December 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm

  14. @Sara: He actually is a movement scholar in that he published an entire book on the topic, though you are right he isn’t engaged in mainstream movement research. But I still find it a bit distracting for him to claim that branding isn’t an issue, when Neal pointed out (correctly) that branding was one of the primary tools for OWS from the planning stages. Image and braning were hugely important.


    December 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm

  15. (this is mostly about the original post) @Chirag, I agree with the move back to Tilly. However, not repertoires of contention so much as his different kinds of claims (identity, standing, program). Fabio or someone else who is more of a social movements scholar can correct me if I’m wrong, but most of what we think of as civil rights activism tend to revolve around standing claims (standing claims of course need organizations like the NAACP or CORE which claim to stand for a mobilized identity) or explicit program claims (desegregation, voting rights, etc). [If this sounds smart, this was Mona El-Ghobashy's insight. If this sounds wrong, I have explained it poorly]. People, myself included, kept wanting OWS to articulate a program–something all the main people firmly refused to do. As such, many people have argued that the movement was a failure as there are few if any policy changes we can trace directly to the social movement. Alternatively, people have considered OWS a failure because the OWS “organizations” disbanded, meaning that the OWS couldn’t stand for anything/one because it never became a permanent organization claiming that standing. However, if we look at OWS as a social movement with a specific *identity* claim (“We are the 99%”), it surely was a success of some kind. If no one has done it already, there’s a great paper out there waiting to be written that does a media analysis of inequality before and after OWS looking at whether/how OWS brought inequality, particularly top inequality, into the media discourse. I personally don’t mind the term “branding”, but I think we can get more out of Tilly’s language of “identity claims”. Even after the financial crisis (2008-2011), I don’t think there was a particular focus on the issue of inequality, especially not framed in these specific identity terms that OWS pushed forward–not in the conventional “lower or middle class versus upper class”, but “almost everyone versus the very, very rich”. In that sense, to make these kind of very broad identity claims, you don’t need an organized movement in the same way you do to make program or especially standing claims. So, going back to the original discussion, it’s not that OWS “rejected” the CRM so much as had entirely different goals from the onset. We can call that as a “rejection” or “historical amnesia”, sure, but I’m no sure that’s the most useful way to analyze it. If we understand that, for a variety of reasons, the founders of these groups had different goals from the outset, we can better understand why they had very different organizational structures (or we have to assess seriously why they had different goals, which is another question, but in either case I don’t think we can chalk the answer up simply to “historical amnesia”).


    December 3, 2013 at 7:56 pm

  16. I would lean most toward sara and gabrielrossman’s interpretations. The reasoning from fabio seems a touch blinkered imho

    Dylan Kerrigan (@rumagin)

    December 3, 2013 at 8:28 pm

  17. ““Pick up some more steam”? “Focus the message”?” Any football coach focuses on picking up steam and focusing his message. Would this person be engaged in branding?


    December 3, 2013 at 8:32 pm

  18. @anonymous: Once you remember that the movement was guided by magazine people, ya, it’s branding.

    And that’s not bad – OWS made an impact.


    December 3, 2013 at 8:38 pm

  19. I am just a bit confused about it all. It seems like the message is that some people in these kinds of organizations worry about how the public perceives them and actively try to mould this perception. Well of course. It’s a political movement. Not really something to which Davis would reply “that’s interesting!”, is it?


    December 3, 2013 at 8:55 pm

  20. The term “branding” is mainly used, as far as those in the activist circle are concerned, in areas such as marketing. It implies (fairly or not) a neo-liberal orientation to the writer who simply doesn’t “get it”. It conjures up images of marketing firms and ad agencies that I cannot image is something that these activists would focus on. Messaging, external framing, reputation, for sure. But to use the term “branding” (for someone in this movement) maybe peculiar at best, an exercise in discrediting this movement at worst.


    December 3, 2013 at 9:06 pm

  21. I think I agree with what B’s getting at. I don’t think there is much disagreement over what the movement is actually trying to do (control it’s public image and message). I think given OWS’s anti-corporate focus, there is just a negative visceral reaction in those circles to a term that they associate with commercial marketing and advertising.


    December 3, 2013 at 11:30 pm

  22. Interesting discussion, to the degree it can be had over twitter. :-)

    I wrote a piece with Daniel Kreiss comparing Occupy and Civil Rights Movement in some of the dimensions mentioned here:

    I’m also actively wondering if some of social media affordances end up with a boom-bust cycle of social movement trajectory exactly because certain cultural preferences (i.e. leaderlessness) are easier to accommodate which lead to lack of capacity for the next stage when negotiation, representation and policy impact become salient:

    Zeynep Tufekci

    December 4, 2013 at 1:26 am

  23. Just call the process “collective action framing” rather than branding and the negative corporate connotations goes away. ZT your use of the radical flank is interesting, I hope that liberal unions and other advocacy groups can use the fear on Occupy in getting concessions.


    December 4, 2013 at 5:28 am

  24. […] Anarchism week: #1 Social theory; #2 OWS and public image. […]

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