Federated General Assembly
= internet-based dialogue and decision infrastructure for the Occupy Movement
"another of the teams building an alternative social network is affiliated with the Occupy movement.
Ed Knutson, a software developer from Milwaukee, became instantly engaged with Occupy Wall Street when the movement first started garnering national headlines early last fall. As the movement spread, Knutson traveled to several East Coast occupations and met with teams to discuss the technology needs of the movement.
"We needed tools for people to communicate more directly, without having to all be in the same physical space," Knutson says. "A lot of what was happening was very ad hoc, different groups trying to talk to each other across Skype and Twitter. It wasn't working very well. We needed a platform where people from different occupations could cross-pollinate their ideas."
In October, a loose team of coders from across the country began collaborating to build that platform.
Knutson was also in touch with members of the Indignados, a Spanish movement that prefigured Occupy Wall Street and served as an early model for the American movement. Together, they began to imagine a network that would leap national boundaries and allow different movements to share information, plans, and expertise. The resulting project, Global Square, overlaps significantly with a more Occupy-specific project called the Federated General Assembly—run largely out of New York by a team coordinated by Sam Boyer.
Boyer's activist roots date back to his student days at the University of Rochester, where he was active with the Student Trade Justice Campaign, part of the anti–World Trade Organization movement. In 2006, Boyer was a delegate to a meeting of the international coalition Our World Is Not for Sale, joining everyone including organizers from fishing communities in the Philippines to policy wonks from Geneva and Washington. During the meeting, Boyer realized that there was something fundamentally broken about how the group was talking to itself.
"Because so much of the communication was going on over e-mail, it tended to privilege one sort of people—the ones who had the time and means to spend a lot of time reading and sending e-mail," Boyer says. "It meant that the Western policy-oriented people had a much stronger voice than the activists actually on the ground. There was no way for people who didn't already have an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues to tap into all the collective knowledge. Basically, the architecture of communication was distorting the conversation."
So Boyer, who had no previous coding experience, decided to build a better system. He threw himself into computer engineering, taught himself the open-source content-management framework Drupal, and experimented with better ways for activists to communicate.
"I realized we needed a lot of different kinds of spaces: small-process spaces, big-process spaces, taking stuff that happens offline and finding ways to make it happen online."
By the time Occupy Wall Street had seized Zuccotti Park, Boyer was a well-known figure among Drupal developers, and he decided to leverage his experience and connections to build the occupiers a platform to help them talk to one another.
The result—the Federated General Assembly—won't receive its first provisional rollout for several months. But as with Diaspora*, early response even to just the idea has been overwhelming." (http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-02-15/news/the-facebook-killers/3/)
"The goal is to roll out a basic working version of the Federated General Assembly soon, to allow occupiers to use it, find flaws, make suggestions, and build plug-ins on top of it. The basic structure is clear, though: The FGA will be built around the same principles and strengths of the movement it serves. That means the system has to be radically democratic, horizontal, and decentralized. It also means that, just like the Occupy movement itself, the fundamental organizing unit is the group. From the smallest affinity group of friends or working group collaborating on a task to an entire city's General Assembly, groups and their relationships are at the heart of the FGA.
"At Occupy Wall Street, the groups you're affiliated with, that's sort of your identity," Boyer says. "You say: 'Hi, I'm Sam. I'm with the Technology Group' or 'Hi, I'm visiting this week from Occupy L.A.'"
These affiliations help create context and trust between users and also a variety of online spaces in which different kinds of conversations can take place.
"I like to compare Facebook to communication in preschool," Boyer says. "The Facebook wall is an incredibly unsophisticated social space. People just spew stuff out. In adult social situations, we read cues, we create norms, we create rules that are there for the purpose of creating conversations that move us forward. That's what we want to build."
Much of what the developers are building is specifically tailored to the unique structures and values of the Occupy movement. But they're also building their networks with an eye on the bigger picture.
"This was born out of the needs of the occupiers, but we by no means wish to restrict what we're building to just the Occupy movement," Knutson says. "I think this can have a big effect on social networking more generally. Ironically, I could actually see this having broad implications in the corporate world as well—anything where you're working with a team made of groups scattered around the world."
The key, Knutson says, is to recognize that oftentimes the most important thing is to get out of the way of the users. "If you look at any social network, the functionality that's provided is a relatively small part of the network," he says. "Most of the value is in the people involved, the network itself, the connections between actual people." (http://www.villagevoice.com/2012-02-15/news/the-facebook-killers/3/)