[#m1gs meets #roflcon] It was all a meme? How Adbusters launched the #OWS memewar and inspired global in-the-street action

On Tuesday, the Occupy Wall Street movement saw its largest resurgence of energy since most encampments were evicted last fall. In New York and worldwide, Occupy activists fueled an international day of action for May Day.

This weekend, ROFLcon comes back to Boston. ROFLcon is an annual Internet meme conference (yes, a meme conference) that started in Boston in 2008. (This year's ROFLcon is covered comprehensively in this week’s Phoenix. It's the reason Victory Baby and Nyan Cat are on the cover.)

The Occupy Movement and ROFLcon are more related than one might think.

Of course, last fall, Occupy inspired a number of the Web memes: the hipster cop, the pepper-spray cop, #OccupySesameStreet, some #occupied LOLcats. Countless Occupy-related Tumblr memes surfaced, from the We Are the 99 percent tumblr, full of Photobooth shots of 99-percenters holding handwritten notes about unemployment and economic injustice, to the Awwccupy Wall Street Tumblr, full of photos of cute pets and babies at protests. (Awww.) The evolution of Occupy themes into cute micro-blogs and funny cat graphics seemed normal -- like a natural progression of current events into inevitable pop culture format.

But “Occupy Wall Street” was also a meme itself.

Launched on July 13, 2011, “Occupy Wall Street” was the most strategic and successful “meme war” campaign yet for Adbusters -- a 22-year-old anti-capitalist magazine with years of experience in launching such campaigns. (Adbusters founder and editor Kalle Lasn even has a book, Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge -- And Why We Must, published in 1999, with entire chapters on “Meme Wars” and “Meme Warriors.”)

When Adbusters released the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET meme into the world -- as a call to arms for radicals to “Occupy Wall Street” released as an email blast and on a full page in Adbuster’s 95th issue -- it spread like wildfire to activists worldwide.


In early June, the editors of Adbusters sent an email to their 90,000-name email list: “America needs its own Tahrir,” it read.

Days later, according to a November 28 article in the New Yorker, Adbusters’ senior editor Micah White wrote an email to Lasn, saying that he was “very excited about the Occupy Wall Street meme … I think we should make it happen.” After considering two other names (Acampada Wall Street and Take Wall Street), on June 9th, Lasn registered

The next month, on July 13, Adbusters launched the #OCCUPYWALLSTREET meme.

It had all of the essential elements for a meme to go viral on the Web: a website, the Twitter hashtag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, and a Facebook event. Adbusters supplied two cool graphics that could easily be re-blogged: the ballerina standing atop a bull (possibly best recognized now as the @OccupyWallSt Twitter avatar) and an eerie black graphic reading “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.”

It was a simple instruction, easy for activists and Adbusters enthusiasts to jump on, “like,” hit “attend,” reblog. It went viral.

“The Occupy Wall Street meme was launched by a poster in the 97th issue of our international ad-free magazine, Adbusters,” wrote Kalle Lasn and Micah White in an article they penned for the November 18th Washington Post. “The movement’s true origins, however, go back to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.”

They continue:

“By mid-October, there were occupations happening in 1,000 cities around the world. Hundreds of thousands of us, mostly young people, were suddenly vibrantly alive, politically engaged and living without dead time in a way that the world had not seen since 1968. That was the year that an insurrection in Paris’s Latin Quarter suddenly exploded in cities and campuses around the world. The viral speed of that movement was uncannily similar to the way that general assemblies ricocheted around the Earth from Zucotti Park. But whereas in 1968 we lost the thread and the movement fizzled out, this time the horizontal, open-source, peer-to-peer ways of the Internet-savvy generation, living in a much more dangerous era of multiple synergetic crises, just might be able to succeed.”

Many groups have attempted to propogate social causes in similar ways: using social media. But drastic differences separated #OWS from typical online “clicktivism”. (In fact, Adbusters has long criticized “clictivist” organizations like MoveOn; in March 2011 Micah White wrote “To The Barricades! Revolutionary potential is only limited by our imagination”, deconstructing the organization’s ineffective watered down messages and mundane marketing-like approaches, saying they “feel more like advertising than activism”.)

Instead, this was a different type of online activism: a meme with a straightforward real-world direct-action mission, to not just click something, but get into the streets and do something. It has a clear direction -- calling for a specific date to flash mob, rather than an e-petition to sign. It was #meme-induced call for direct action.

In the same March 2011 Adbusters article where Micah White criticized MoveOn’s clictivism, he wrote: “Fun, easy to organize, and resistant to both infiltration and preemption because of their friend-to-friend network topology, flashmobs are positioned to be the next popular tactic with revolutionary potential . . . with flashmobs, activists have the potential to swarm capitalism globally, stinging it incessantly until the bloodied beast falls to its knees.”

When White and Lasn sent out the intitial call to Occupy Wall Street, they were acting on these tactics (memewar and flash mob) that they’d been writing about all along.

“Alright you 90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals out there,” their brand-defining post challenged. “On September 17 we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices … This could be the beginning of a whole new social dynamic in America.”

Adbusters created a brand, and Kalle Lasn and Micah White launched the meme war on corporate America they'd been working towards since the magazine was established in 1989.

What many called the greatest social justice movement to emerge in the US since the civil rights era, began with their comprehensive understanding of how memes work.


Lasn, 70, lives in Canada with his wife on a 5-acre farm. He was born in Estonia and lived in Australia for several years working for their defense department. Appropriately, he also spent years working in Japan’s advertising industry -- possibly where he developed his ability to make powerful meme-based messages go viral. He founded a market research company in Tokyo in the 60s, working in that industry apparently until he had “an epiphany that something was profoundly wrong with consumerism.”

In 1999, Lasn authored Culture Jam, a book in which he argues that “consumerism is the fundamental evil of the modern era.” He calls for “a meme war . . . a battle of ideas to shift Western society away from consumer capitalism.”

“A meme (rhymes with dream) is a unit of information (a catchphrase, a concept, a tune, a notion of fashion, philosophy or politics) that leaps from brain to brain,” he writes on page 123, in the chapter on “The Meme Wars.” “Memes compete with one another for replication, and are passed down through a population . . . Potent memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures. Which is why meme warfare has become the geopolitical battle of our information age.”

Lasn continues to explain that real-life sit-ins and protests “flicker briefly on the evening news and be gone with no demonstrable change in the world.” The real riots “now take place inside your head,” he writes.

For the first time, #OWS inspired an on-the-screen Web meme to combine forces with an IRL flashmob meme.

Lasn goes on to explain how the next great war will be a war of information, taking place in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and TV, and in cyberspace. Personally, reading this and then thinking about the extent to which my Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr feeds were completely brimming with articles about the Occupy Movement and corporate personhood last fall -- makes Lasn’s words feel eerie.

At the time that Lasn published his book in ’99, there were five “potent metamemes currently in the culture jammer’s arsenal,” he writes. They were “true cost,” meaning a campaign to make the “price of every product tell the ecological truth”; “demarketing,” a meme calling for the unselling of products to “turn the power of marketing against itself”; the “Doomsday Meme” saying the “global economy is a doomsday machine that must be stopped and reprogrammed”; the now-self-explanatory “No Corporate ‘I’” meme; and lastly, the “Media Carta” meme, a campaign to explain that every human being has a right to communicate.

Looking at the laundry list of metamemes that Lasn and his crew of culture-jammers previously worked on in the ‘90s, and it’s easy to see #OCCUPYWALLSTREET fitting right at the end.

“If you’re able to come up with a very sexy sounding hash tag like we did for Occupy Wall Street, and you come up with a very magical looking poster that seems to have something very profound about it, these devices push these memes, these meta memes, into the public imagination in a very powerful way,” said Lasn to the New York Times in November. “This is what Adbusters has done for the past 20 years, to come up with memes and to propagate them … That’s what it’s all about: may the best memes win.”


Creating memes is a major component of the practice of “culture jamming,” a tactic used by many anti-consumerist social movements -- and used by Adbusters since its beginnings. Culture jamming practices can range from creating “subvertising” -- subverting/re-figuring mainstream/corporate advertisements to challenge their main ideas. Other modes of cultural jamming also include street parties, public protests, and -- with the help of online networking, the most relevant here -- flashmobs. Culture jamming tactics are largely influenced by the Situationst International group, a revolutionary group founded in France in the 1950s. Culture jamming is discussed by Naomi Klein in “No Logo,” her critique of consumerism.

Adbusters has long championed the meme as a mode for social, political, and cultural revolution.

Nearly one year ago, Adbusters released its January/February 2011 issue, with a covering reading "The Big Ideas of 2011: Capitalism's Terminal Crisis." In the last quarter of the magazine appeared a tree, with roots reading "Cultural Meme Pool" and branches scrawled with words ranging from "ideologies - religions" and "cool trends - fashion - Twitter" to "paradigms - brands - Facebook."

Underneath the tree, the page reads a similar philosophy about memes that Lasn wrote in his book:

"A meme is a unit of information -- a catchphrase, a concept, a tune, a notion of fashion, philosophy, or politics. Memes pass through a population in much the same way genes pass through a species. Memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures. Whoever has the memes has the power."

In a November 14th release to Adbuster’s email list -- a “Tactical Briefing,” as the magazine calls them -- the editors (likely White and Lasn) offered two strategies, to either fight through the winter, or call victory, rejoice, dance in the streets, pack up camp, and strategize through winter. In the tactical briefing, Adbusters wrote: “The last four months have been hard fought, inspiring and delightfully revolutionary. We brought tents, hunkered down, held our assemblies, and lobbed a meme-bomb that continues to explode the world’s imagination. Many of us have never felt so alive.”

A meme bomb.

Adbusters had previously used “meme bombs” and “meme war” to push platforms like “Buy Nothing Day.” Memes are “big ideas.” Each year’s Adbusters “Big Ideas” issue is essentially a list of what the “memes” of the year could be.


In 2002, Lasn was interviewed by students from the University of Washington’s Center for Communication and Civic Engagement.

They discussed the intersections of memewar, culture jamming, and activism.

Specifically, they talked about the protests surrounding the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.

“One of the reasons I think the battle in Seattle was so successful is because there was a clearly defined goal: to shut the meeting down and stop those inside from passing the world trade rules,” Lasn said. “After that it was replay, replay, replay! Everyone was focused on one goal: ‘let’s create trouble and stop this meeting!’ Then, if we had said, ‘the next protest in New York will be about Media Democracy and the protest in Melbourne will be about True Cost and the protest in Genoa will be about killing the corporate ‘I’, then instead of all this endless talk about networking, we would actually be getting somewhere by now.’”

The University of Washington student responded: “That would really have been something -- a meme for every protest!”

Lasn replied, “Yes, a metameme for every protest!”


The Occupy Movement started as that: a meme-assigned protest.

But it eventually grew bigger than Adbusters. The editors of Adbusters who created the Occupy Wall Street meme stayed away. Lasn stayed in Canada, thousands of miles away from the decisions being made by Occupy Wall Street’s working groups. He had no desire to claim ownership over the movement.

And with that, the movement also lost the Adbusters knack for branding a concise message.

The way in which the Adbusters team brilliantly branded the Occupy movement was essential to motivating occupiers the take to the streets of New York. It is hard to imagine that the Occupy movement would have ever evolved without the initial branding and memewar power of Kalle Lasn and Micah White, who had previously spent years studying the inner workings of brand-building and meme-building. After all, brand-building is largely the focus of Adbusters. They are memewar experts.

The most entrenched organizers of #OWS need to continue learning from Adbusters, and from themselves, using the memewar tactics they’ve perfected to continue inspiring in-the-street action.

The question for activists to ponder is, what would be a most inspiring post-#OWS meme? I expected the “#DEFENDOCCUPY” meme to take off more than it did. Will they play up an “End Corporate Personhood” meme? Or a “Revolution Autumn”?

One might say that May Day was the most successful post-encampment isolated meme. It launched an action that was only one day long, but spanned globally. The success of the "May Day" meme proved the enormous revolutionary potentially that Occupy Wall Street's signature Adbusters-inspired tactics -- memewar and flashmob -- still hold.

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