The camera rises above a blockade of police, sweeping through tear gas-filled streets toward a mass of protesters. Riot gear-clad officers move with precision toward the crowd. Flares shoot skyward. This arresting sequence in downtown Warsaw was captured not by media helicopters but by a citizen drone—a remote-controlled low observable flying machine with a high-quality wireless webcam.
This high-end drone was manufactured by the Polish company RoboKopter. But just weeks later, Tim Pool and his New York-based tech team DroneStream launched a version for about a tenth of the cost called the Occucopter—a modified USD 300 toy available for purchase at Toys “R” Us.
Pool used the drone as an additional source of footage for his bootstrapped independent media sources The Other 99 and Timcast.tv. After reports last November suggested that the NYPD and FAA closed the airspace above Zuccotti Park (the FAA denies this, though media outlets did turn tail), the indie drone streamed the only footage from above the scene, flying legally at a low 400 feet.
The Occucopter embodies the rapid media innovation that has emerged from Occupy Wall Street. While pundits in the mainstream media slammed Occupy for lacking a cohesive message, the movement continued to build out its media operations. If television executives aren’t taking notes, they would be wise to get out their stenographers before it’s too late to mimeograph a digital manifesto.
Occupy’s approach takes advantage of trends that the mainstream media are slow to deploy: low-cost production, on-the-fly coverage, blast-off transmission, and crowd-sourced fundraising. “What you are seeing is the culmination of social media, citizen journalism, and what I call ‘small technology’—a cell phone and a hotspot,” says Henry James Ferry, who co-produced The Other 99 with Pool. “I don’t think that mass media know what to do with this, and I am surprised that they haven’t found a way to take [these productions] and at least package them as their own.”
Viewers have donated to support the Occucopter and other Occupy media projects, such as the movement’s advertising. With Loudsauce, a site for crowd-financing TV commercials and other campaigns, movements can underwrite the purchase of expensive airtime. Digital revolutionaries can conceivably get their content on air though an ad-buy, if not an editorial window, supported entirely by audience dollars. When indie programming and advertising overtake big media, the industry risks a double bypass.
Other media ventures are turning to their fans for funding too. Kickstarter, the online funding platform for creative projects, “is the ultimate dog and pony show,” says Christos Sourligas, writer and director of a feature film shot entirely on the iPhone 4. “Fed-up innovators are tired of waiting around for government or venture-capitalist handouts and have taken to the streets in order to get their messages across. Except that the street has now come to the laptop.”
Ferry notes that while Occupy’s media approach is not unique, it’s still far from mainstream. “You’ll know it’s jumped the shark when a big company does it.” As bloodthirsty audiences, we should be so lucky.
Digital media is mission-critical for decentralized movements like Occupy—and should be even more so for media companies. Yet North American broadcasters, incessantly restructuring, are vulnerable to stagnation. Big shakeups recently occurred at NBC—spun off from General Electric—as well as Lionsgate and the BBC. With every shuffle their digital brain trusts go back to ground zero.
A shifting regulatory environment could facilitate a détente between big media and its frenemy, the participatory audience. “Changes to FCC and CRTC guidelines mean no more ‘broadcast standards’,” notes Roger Williams, CEO of Image Media Farm, which specializes in real-time production of massive live events and rents broadcast equipment to news and sports networks. With regulations on production quality eased, broadcasters and broadcast technology manufacturers can now look to consumers for best practices in production, editorial, and transmission, he says.
At the bleeding edge, these “consumers” are actually the digital revolutionaries, the activists on the front lines of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements who produce on the run and transmit on a shoestring, reaching massive audiences, often with nothing more than a phone on hand.
“When we talk of these socalled revolutionary innovators we are referring to your average Internet ‘addict’, which these days means most of us,” says Sandra Larriva Henaine, co-author of the book Revolution 3.0, a series of profiles on the power of the Internet as an agent of change. We are the digital 99 percent.
“We post interesting images or videos on Facebook, we tweet breaking news on Twitter, we e-mail links to our friends, we download podcasts onto our phones, and we prefer getting our news digitally,” she says of the connected population. “These are all factors that media outlets these days have had to take into consideration in order to survive.“
One of the best places we go [for digital inspiration] is to talk to recent college grads,” says Tim Gaughan, CBS director of digital newsgathering. He notes that CBS’s digital advance has accelerated over the past two years, with “Twitter as the best CBS example of digital media, bringing in audiences, listeners, viewers, and adding another screen.” Gaughan says that while CBS does watch Occupy’s use of social media, it is to “monitor the way that protesters are organizing”, not for digital intelligence.
Chances are if you are rich, you are not hungry, a maxim that might also apply to big media and their impetus to innovate. Under the sky, the drones, and the foreclosed homes, Digital Occupy eats their lunch.