Earlier this year, Facebook and Twitter played a crucial role in mobilizing protestors in Iran, Cairo and Tunisia. Now Tumblr has been uniquely appropriated for a U.S.-based protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street, which has been coalescing in New York, Boston and Chicago to challenge the influence of corporate money on government and the growth of social and economic inequality.
A hybrid of ordinary blogging platforms, such as Typepad or Wordpress, and of the microblogging site Twitter, Tumblr gives users the ability to post photos, videos and messages and share with people they don’t know.
The site has been a force behind the Occupy Wall Street protests, growing the number of demonstrations from just dozens of people in late September to thousands on Wednesday, as several local unions joined in on a march down Broadway.
"We're still at very early stages with OWS, but technology such as Tumblr is a fantastic tool to inspire and get others on board," said Gilad Lotan, vice president of research and development at SocialFlow, a company that optimizes social networks using real-time data.
On Wednesday, Zuccotti Park in New York, just three blocks north of Wall Street, was rife with protesters, many who set up their own local hot spots and home-built video hookups to get their message out on the Web. They linked to Tumblr, as well as Facebook and Twitter and the collaborative parts of Google.
“We set up shared Google docs so we could communicate,” said Brian Philips, an organizer who hitchhiked across the country from Seattle to take part in the demonstrations in New York. “And we set up Google Voice numbers for everyone.”
One Tumblr page, “ We Are The 99 Percent,” has been re-blogged hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Through poignant photos, it reveals the plight of people, who see themselves as far outside the top 1 percent of Americans who hold most of the country’s wealth. Each photo shows a person holding a poster, card, notebook page or scrap paper that contains the written story of their dilemma. The stories – 50 of them at last count -- are all about hard times.
One man writes, “I am a 48-year-old who worked my life in a factory that no longer exists. I’m trying to hurry through a college degree. I have a 4.0 GPA and $40,000 in debt so far. I don’t have spare time, but took on a job tutoring students. I spent the weekend in the hospital with pneumonia. No insurance. Can’t pay bill.”
A young woman writes, “I suffer chronic depression. I’m also a recovering drug addict. My medication is $200 a month. My education is $10,000 a year. I work two jobs, two volunteer jobs and have sex for money on the weekends. I’m 23.”
Another writes, “I am a 31-year-old US Air Force Veteran. I’ve been unemployed for 16 months. My husband has been unemployed for 6 months. We lost our home and live with my mother-in-law. People thank me for my service, how about they thank me with a job? ”
Duy Linh Tu, director of Digital Media at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said that Tumblr “hits a unique sweet spot.” Whereas Twitter only allows 140 characters and conventional blogging sites only allow the writer to interact, Tumblr combines the two.
Lotan also noted that the momentum behind the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations is building -- and that the conversation is not happening on Twitter. "You can get to many more people using visual content, and that's where Tumblr's aesthetics along with collaborative photo-based story-telling blogs such as We are the 99 Percent does a phenomenal job at getting more and more people involved."
Kalev Leetaru, assistant director for text and digital media analytics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, noted that at the very least, stories of economic woe resonate with many people. That can help change the popular narrative, because those who re-blog the site see people just like themselves.
“The initial narrative was that these were just young college students and dirty hippies,” he said. That narrative from major outlets (such as the ) started to break down as the page was re-blogged.
It’s also about controlling the message, something that corporations do well. “Grass-roots movements have historically been atrocious at it,” Leetaru said. The message has been crucial in building enough support to swell the demonstrators’ numbers.
In addition to Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook have been strong organizing tools, helping build momentum in cities across the United States. That has caused major media outlets to take notice, making the protests a bigger part of the popular consciousness, Leetaru said.
Leetaru’s recent scientific work has been focused on predicting civil unrest by analyzing the tone of media coverage. He said he isn’t sure what the numbers would show in this case. When the protests in Egypt started to take shape earlier this year, there weren’t a gigantic number of tweets just before the government fell. It wasn’t until just afterwards that the number of Wikipedia edits and tweets exploded.
But he adds that the control of the message, aided by social media, did help turn the tide against the government of Hosni Mubarak, who initially stepped up propaganda efforts to portray the protesters in Tahrir Square as agents of foreign powers.
Tu said the use of such media as Twitter or Tumblr brings topics into the public consciousness faster than in the past, but that could also be a demonstration’s downfall. The quicker it rises, the faster it could fade. And because there is no archiving function Tumblr or Twitter, a movement popular this week is in danger of fizzling out next week and being forgotten. But if the Arab Spring is any indication, this U.S.-based movement has only just gotten started.