Weaving a Web-like world


The other day I decided to visit the site of “Occupy Vancouver.” I found a network of service tents scattered among open spaces, filled with people engaging in what seemed like unending conversations about politics, democracy and the future. An ethos of sharing and collaborating pervaded the space and people seemed to revel in each other’s company.

Like an estimated 1,500 other cities around the world, Vancouver residents came together on October 15 to express their frustration over the greed and corruption of the one percent wealthiest people and the institutions that act in their interest.

I’ve only visited Occupy Vancouver three times, but each time it has changed and evolved. I noticed what appears to be a community that operates on co-management, collaboration, sharing, trust and overall goodwill. There’s a fair bit of complexity as well; a network of 22 committees leads the work in key areas, with major decisions being made in their General Assembly. The committees are open to anyone who shows up. In short, the space seems to function based on a gift economy where people contribute based on their abilities, desires and needs.

At first I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I soon realized that Occupy Vancouver reminds me of the “unconferences” I’ve attended. Unconferences are a kind of event common in the software industry. At unconferences, a topic is agreed to in advance and participants organize themselves into sessions on the day of the event. Unconferences were inspired by the non-hierarchical, collaborative nature of open-source software development and the Web in general.

In a similar way, Occupy Vancouver feels like an ongoing space infused with Web values and practices. Its structure of participation mirrors that of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which is one hundred percent produced by volunteers. While Wikipedia entries are open to be edited by any Internet user, most people participate just by viewing and maybe sharing entries; a smaller group of about 90,000 people actively edit pages and a still smaller group makes the vast majority of edits and upholds the rules.

At Occupy Vancouver, a large group of thousands of people shares material online, attends key gatherings, and engages with services. A smaller group attends the General Assembly and helps govern the space and an even smaller group puts in the daily effort needed to keep the committees and services operating. Both Wikipedia and Occupy Vancouver survive in part because they make participation easy – they let participants engage at the level they’re comfortable with and in a manner meaningful to them.

In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising. Occupiers make heavy use of online tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google maps to organize, collaborate and to get their message out. Many of those involved grew up with the Internet. To many of the occupiers, the structure of participation at Occupy Vancouver probably feels more normal than what you find in a typical workplace or educational institution.

Will it last? I have no idea, but I think these social practices are addictive and contagious. “Occupying Together” could prefigure a new kind of society where people are appreciated for their unique talents and skills, where roles are more flexible and engaging and where the world as a whole feels more like the Web.

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times andAdbusters.

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