Today’s New York Times has a must-read article by Noam Cohen about the role of Pastebin in Occupy Wall Street. Pastebin is a site that is primarily used by programmers; it’s a way to store, share and retrieve snippets of code. You might use Pastebin to share the script you wrote to insert a “Tweet this” button on your WordPress blog, or to find a script that will fetch your torrents from TVTorrents.com.
But the Times reports that the site has been used in a whole other way by participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement, building on other unconventional uses of this wide-open site:
[On Pastebin] you can search for the personal information of the police officials who have used force against the Wall Street protesters; or what purports to be e-mail addresses of bank executives; or guides on how to spot an agent provocateur or undercover officer in your midst; or lists of other Occupy movements around the country and the world.
In an effort to explain Pastebin’s contribution, Cohen juxtaposes comments from Pastebin owner Jeroen Vader with a quote from Harvard’s Jonathan Zittrain:
“We like the fact that people start sharing their political beliefs on Pastebin, this is yet another way of using Pastebin,” [Vader] wrote. “It seems our users keep finding new things to share on our platform.”
This flexibility is celebrated by Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor, as the “procrastination principle” in his book “The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It.” It is the notion, he wrote, “that the network should not be designed to do anything that can be taken care of by its users.”
Twitter is a classic example of an innovation that was willing to delay, with much of its utility — whether organizing around topics through hash tags or forwarding someone else’s posts as retweets — coming from its users.
Pastebin, too, will bend almost completely to its users’ ideas: a protest movement may have found its perfect complement.
And that’s exactly what makes the Pastebin-OWS marriage such a useful story. For those of us who believe that the self-organizing culture of the Internet may hold the seeds of political and social transformation, it can be hard to explain the relationship between online tools and offline change. Even the Arab Spring has been explained away by many who would put social media at the margins of that revolutionary moment.
The Pastebin-OWS story speaks to the underlying relationship between social technology and social change. As Todd Gitlin eloquently explained in yesterday’s New York Times, contemporary progressives have largely repudiated the hierarchical models of organizing that characterized earlier left-wing politics. Gitlin describes the dominant strain of the Occupy Wall Street movement as a certain kind of anarchism that is “not so much a theory of the absence of government, but a theory of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government”.
The malleability of tools like Pastebin — in this case, offering what is literally a blank slate — provide both a mirror and means for a movement that is founded on similar principles of bottom-up leadership and emergence. Even if you believe that political change requires structure as well as self-organizing, direction as well as emergence, the Internet’s ability to support collaboration in the absence of structure and direction should give you hope for the possibilities of new political models. And the inventiveness of political activists adopting tools like Pastebin should give you hope for the human capacity for innovation that ultimately drives any meaningful social change.