The Revolution May Or May Not Be Branded

The Occupy movement, or rallying cry, or whatever you want to call it, is by its nature decentralized. By refusing to come together under one banner other than the word “Occupy,” they’ve both diluted their message and allowed it to spread more quickly. You don’t need an Occupy license to occupy a bank’s lobby in Kansas City, but at the same time there’s a natural question of whether one occupation is related to another.

Political considerations aside, the point is that Occupy might benefit from a recognizable face. On this front, some faction of the movement has decided to do a little branding, but in keeping with the democratic, bottom-up nature of the organization (or rather disorganization), they’ve opted to run a contest and let the “official” logo be selected by popular vote. It’s a great application of web technology to an interesting problem, and will probably prove to be a memorable case study in an increasingly common phenomenon: the necessity of branding an emergent movement or pattern on the internet.

It’s something that has already been faced by, for example, Anonymous. Like Occupy, Anonymous is necessarily decentralized and in a way leaderless — but there are obviously leaders and centers, like @anonops and a few other “official” sources. But then there’s the Guy Fawkes mask and the empty suit, both certainly symbols of Anonymous by common consent, though whether they emerged naturally or were simply in the right place at the right time (and whether there’s any difference between those two) isn’t clear.

Or think about the SOPA/PIPA protests. While everyone seemed to figure out a good way to express the concept of censorship on their site or avatar, the lack of a single unifying phrase, graphic, or general “brand” (loosely speaking) was conspicuous, considering the extraordinary cross-cultural and cross-community agreement on the issue.

Which brings us to Occupy. The logos being submitted are the usual mix of free fonts, corporate-looking nonsense, and the occasional good idea. For the record, I like the one at top left, and these:

But I’m suspicious of the whole concept. The problem to me is not Occupy-specific. It’s simply that emergent phenomena don’t respond well to efforts to define them. The reason no single visual metaphor appeared for SOPA was because there was no naturally propagating icon around which people could gather. There was no burning monk, no Kent State photograph, no graphic or sketch or person that naturally expressed and associated itself with the movement. The closest thing was the censor bar or redacted text, which was sort of good enough but didn’t adequately encompass the ideas behind the opposition.

With Occupy as well, I think that efforts to create an identity for it will fail, because identity only emerges from collective action. It happens naturally or it doesn’t happen at all. I think this will be demonstrated more frequently over the next few years as activism, social change, and more everyday things as well become memetic and emergent. A logo will be picked for @occupy and for use on “official” communiques, whatever that might mean to them. But what Occupy and Anonymous and STOP SOPA and all the rest need isn’t a logo, it’s a symbol. Those aren’t quite as easy to come by.

[hat tip to GigaOm for setting me thinking]